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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Jeremy Corbyn only made one mistake - he should have taken tighter control of the Labour party

There is no doubt who could, and should, win the Labour leadership contest.

Brexit changes everything. In the weeks and months that come, mountains will move, parties split and seemingly indisputable laws of politics will be torn up. Monday night’s thousands-strong rally in Parliament Square in support of Jeremy Corbyn perhaps marked the end of the immediate period of mourning that has engulfed much of the left – other than in the shadow cabinet, where the result has merely has prompted an out-of-the-box coup attempt. 

We are right to mourn – and not for the price of sterling.  Things which were once said quietly over pints are now displayed on billboards. The bigotry and unpleasantness that characterised the campaign – and the tragic violence that surrounded it – were not random occurrences but a vision of the future.

There has been a mass politicisation of some sections of society, and on the worst terms imaginable. As we prepare for battle against an emboldened and rightwardly mobile Tory Party, we are also coming to terms with the fact that the cleverest and most dynamic elements of the British ruling class have seemingly gained a popular mandate for the idea that immigration is responsible for the worsening of living standards. 

Why Brexit happened

Many of us woke up on Friday in a country we did not recognise, which had rejected so much of what seemed like the future. Yes, the European project was tainted by its lack of democracy and service to corporate interests, but it represented real human and historical progress. It meant integration and the breakdown of national borders. So much of the tragedy of this vote is in the plethora of unknown losses – the connections and shared lives that will, quietly, never happen. 

There is, rightly, a yearning to understand why this has happened. The answer ought to be obvious. In an era defined by the strength and resonance of anti-establishment politics, and a vote in which economically left-leaning voters were crucial, Britain Stronger In Europe – a campaign with strong backing from portions of the Labour right – lined up experts and churned out leaflets featuring corporate bigwigs. Reading leaflets in the final week of the campaign, I half-wondered in exasperation if, next to Tony Blair and Karen Brady, Darth Maul (not even the A-list sith lord) would make an appearance.

Labour’s own campaign was undoubtedly better. But, hamstrung by the doctrine of reaching out to an imaginary centre ground voter, it merely mixed Stronger In’s obsession with economic growth statistics and Britain’s place in the world with rolling coverage of the fact that Alan Johnson used to be a postman. 

The chapter ends

Brexit marks the final end of one narrative of Britain’s future. Both the liberal left and the centrist projects that dominated Labour in the first decade of the 21st century assumed a progression towards an ever opener, ever more socially liberal society. Yet, just as history didn’t end when the Berlin Wall fell, xenophobia and prejudice are not things that belong to the past. From now on, the battle for social attitudes will be an insurgent task, bound up with the ability of the left to propose radical solutions to economic crisis and social disintegration. The only argument that could have stopped Brexit was that austerity and neo-liberalism caused the housing crisis, falling wages and stretched public services – not Romanians and Bulgarians. 

Watching the very same figures, whose preconceptions and lack of imagination lost the referendum, resign and blame Jeremy Corbyn should inspire a mixture of laughter and exasperation. Corbyn’s main mistake was not to take tighter control of Labour’s campaign from the outset – although, of course, had he done so he would have been roundly denounced. Like so many quandaries of the Corbyn leadership, the referendum campaign was characterised by a need for footwork and firefigting within the Parliamentary Labour Party rather than a strategic focus on winning the vote. The Labour right created an impossible situation and are now attempting to exploit the aftermath. If it wasn’t so desperate and irresponsible, it could be described as shrewd.  

What Labour needs

There should be no doubt as to who will win the leadership contest itself. Not only does Corbyn have an overwhelming base of support in Labour’s grassroots – he will, again, have the backing of major trade unions.  Since September, Momentum – a machine built with the explicit aim of defending the new Labour leadership – has formed over a hundred functioning local groups, and mobilised more than 100,000 supporters. The real danger of the leadership challenge is not that the left will lose, but that its instigators might be able to affect a shift in the politics of the party, especially on the issue of migration. 

In lieu of analysis, a number of placeholder phrases have proliferated on the left in recent days. For example, that it’s not racist to talk about immigration, and that we cannot brand working class Leave voters as racist because they are concerned about immigration. On one level, these phrases are obviously true. The problem with them – other than repeating verbatim the Conservative Party general election slogan of 2005 – is that they could lay the ground for turn against freedom of movement in the Labour Party. And while we must listen to voters without judgement, to give ground to the myth that misery and social incohesion are caused by immigrants – however much it may feel true in some places – is to give ground and credence to an idea that will divide and rot the labour movement from the inside out.

Rather than a miserable compromise on immigration, what Labour needs now is a strategy and a set of policies – not just visions and sentiments – to win back the ground lost in the English heartlands devastated by Thatcherism. This should include increased public funding for areas with high levels of immigration and a new deal for democratising the state at a local level. A Labour government must pledge a massive increase in the minimum wage, rent controls, a new programme of social housing, public and workers’ ownership, and a radical redistributive tax system.

The only argument against Brexit that made sense was that social crisis was the result of austerity. In the same way, the only long-term solutions must come from the left.