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Solving addiction lies in empowerment, not shame

Brighton's Recovery Walk is an important sign that stigma about addiction isn't acceptable.

What springs to mind when you envisage thousands of excited alcoholics and drug addicts gathered on the streets of Brighton? The casting queue for The Jeremy Kyle Show? Early opening at the dole office? A new Wetherspoons opening up on the seafront?

Last month, thousands of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts walked the streets of Brighton and Hove, in a collective effort to shatter stigma and promote addiction recovery. The annual event, now in its fourth year, aims to inspire, educate and celebrate while providing some good, clean fun.

When people think about drug addicts, the tendency is to imagine crazed criminals mugging old ladies or Trainspotting style scenes of debauchery, half-titillating, half-tragic. 

Alcoholics are pictured as hooligans on park benches, hollering into their Special Brew cans and peeing in the skips behind the supermarket. Or balloon-bellied, red-faced old codgers perched on grimy bar stools, tenured until closing time.

I'm 32 years old, female and I'm an alcoholic. I am one of the individuals who registered to tramp from Hove seafront to Preston Park to celebrate the journey from the flyblown depths of addiction to the sweet sanctuary of recovery.

Although I'm an honorary Londoner these days, Brighton is where I misspent a large proportion of my youth. In those days I didn't know I had a problem, even though I out-drank my friends on a 2:1 ratio and would undergo a Jekyll-and-Hyde style transformation after sinking several shots.

At college I used to minimise the amount I drank rather than brag about it. By university I was scornful of the silly students, getting giddy on cider down the union, as I attended lectures with a Sprite bottle secretly filled with gin, already addicted and dying inside.

Revisiting my Brighton haunts in quite a different state of mind, I felt a mixture of elation and sadness, as I considered how far I have come in my recovery and how much work there still is to do to make people understand addiction.

One of the purposes of the Recovery Walk is to show people that addiction is an illness, not a lifestyle choice. It's not about being weak-willed or immoral. It's a mental, emotional and physiological disorder that requires a Herculean effort to beat it.

People often confuse excessive drinking and recreational drug use with addiction, when, in reality, they are very different animals. Sadly, even those who play a pivotal role in addiction recovery rates, such as doctors, politicians and alcohol workers, do not always know the difference.

Misuse of substances can be linked to distinct demographic groups and identifiable causes, from bored binge-drinking teens to the curious coke-snorting middle-classes. High incidence of substance misuse can be linked to issues such as unemployment and poverty.

But actual addiction, where you progressively drink or take drugs in increasing amounts, whether your life at the time is doleful or dreamy, hits people somewhat indiscriminately, because it is an illness. When, on the verge of losing everything, you genuinely promise that 'this time' you will stop, and yet find yourself in the same excruciating trap, that is something way beyond a mere issue of self-control. When you pursue state-changing substances to the point of insanity or death that's an incomprehensible course of action to anyone but an addict.

But it's not just the public and policymakers that need an education. People still stuck on the terror-go-round of addiction need to know that there is a way out and that recovery is possible.

One of the problems with tutting at addicts and citing a lack of self-control is that people are too mortified to admit that they have a problem. And the shame associated with addiction is an issue that is carried over into recovery, too. Before initiatives such as the Recovery Walk, the sober brigade was largely invisible.

If you refused a drink in the pub because you knew it would take you to dark places, you would have to come up with some lame excuse as to why you weren't drinking. You were more likely to pretend you were taking antibiotics or driving than to tell the truth.

Historically, recovering addicts have been tucked away in dimly-lit church halls and not encouraged to share their recovery openly. This both perpetuated the stigma and meant that others who were suffering from substance problems had no public role models to turn to and no examples of recovery to aspire to.

As an addictions author and a Recovery Coach, I have made it my business to be very open about my own addiction and my subsequent recovery - because I know there are people out there who need to hear stories of recovery, so that they have hope that they, too, can beat this disorder.

I am ashamed of some of the things I did during my active addiction, but I am not ashamed of my illness. And I'm sure not ashamed of my recovery.

I always encourage others to be more vocal about recovery, but many are still reluctant. Thank goodness that some brave souls started the Recovery Walk, bringing together those who want to promote understanding and healing.

My fellow-walkers range from the well-dressed to the bohemian Brighton-ites, from young to old, hailing from diverse classes, cultures and communities. But the one thing this patchwork army of recovering addicts shares is their message of hope.

The walk itself is symbolic of the journey that an addict undertakes in order to recover. The people who have committed to walking together to promote recovery have turned from isolation to community, from fear to courage, from self-concern to serving others, from denial to honesty and from shame to self-esteem.

Solving addiction lies in empowerment, not shame, in openness, not in hiding away. We need to focus on the positive stories of recovery rather than beating addicts down with recrimination and blame.

After all, we were all hopeless cases once. And now we can give hope.

Beth Burgess is a Life and Recovery Coach, an author and an NLP Practitioner, as well as an alcoholic in recovery.