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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser