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.

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.