Challenging perceptions of addiction

Do we need to alter our understanding of addiction to tackle it effectively as a society?

This article from the Irish Examiner explores alternative perceptions of addiction and interviews people who have conquered their addiction. The original article can be also read here.

Heroin users and the effect drugs had on them

By Liz Dunphy

 As addiction insidiously strangles our streets and often targets vulnerable youth, new perceptions of addiction, and policies designed to target it are gaining international traction.

Portugal has de-criminalised all drug possession to seemingly positive effect, and even some US states are de-criminalising and legalising drug use amid a growing realisation that the ‘war on drugs’ is failing.

Recently even a fashion trend that was criticised for glamourising everything from drug-use to dirty hair, extreme skinniness to extreme kohl eyeliner has influenced an effecting video project which adds to these new narratives on addiction.

 

Downtown Divas contrasts the high fashion photographed in the ‘Heroin Chic’ look that dominated the 90s with real-life contemporary heroin addiction and the physical, mental and emotional toll that the drug takes on users.

Gigi Ben Artzi and Loral Amir’s project shows women in designer clothes talking about their hopes and dreams, their loves and memories. (https://vimeo.com/108770583 )

These women are addicted to drugs, living dangerous and chaotic lives but the project focuses on their humanity rather than reducing them to their addiction or to the prostitution which helps fund it.

This intimacy and honesty helps viewers to break through the wall that addiction can erect around an individual, which often bars us from recognising our similarities and shared vulnerabilities. Fashion is used as a vehicle to re-contextualise these women’s stories and to subvert prejudices, and the concept of fashion, which is so often concerned with escapism ironically resonates with the escapism inherent in drug use while temporarily allowing these women to escape from their dangerous lives.

Heroin Chic as a sartorial trend originally arose in the 90s as a stark reaction to the glamour-on-amphetamines, hyper-consumerism of the 1980s.

Created largely by fashion photographer Corrine Day and the then adolescent Kate Moss, the photographs that started the ‘Heroin Chic’ aesthetic were often shot in dingy apartments and began Moss’ speedy rise to become arguably the iconic face of that generation and the next.

That it is still spawning influences now, from the resurgence in 90s fashion in 2014 to this intimate portrayal of women suffering from heroin addiction is a reminder of the potency that images can have when they tap into the zeitgeist, especially in today’s hyper-mediated societies where images have become so dominant that we’re arguably moving towards a hybrid form of hieroglyphic communications.

And perhaps this honest and intimate glimpse inside the minds of some of the most marginalised in our society can remind us of our shared humanity and help mount pressure to improve services and perhaps to better understand and relate to addiction.

Tony Duffin, Director of the Ana Liffey Drug Project which is currently calling to legalise medically supervised centres where addicts can inject and have their habits better monitored (and hopefully reduced) while also taking needles and drug use off the streets, believes that such portrayals may be useful.

“We work with thousands of people who are affected by addiction in Ireland and they all have hopes, fears and dreams like anyone else. People who use drugs need to be portrayed as human beings and not merely as drug users.

It is important that the lived experience of people affected by addiction is portrayed and the stigma they encounter is challenged. It is also important that this is done in such a way that promotes the dignity and respect of those people who are telling their story,” says Duffin.

James from Cork, now 18 months free from heroin, also believes that it is important to amplify marginalised voices in our community.

“Hearing people’s stories allows to you to empathise with those people on the streets who are often easy to ignore. When you hear their stories you recognise that it could have been you, had your circumstances been different.”

Bruce Alexander, a psychologist and professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University, Canada has found that it may be those societal circumstances that predict addictive behaviours in the first place.

He conducted experiments which contradicted contemporary orthodoxies about addiction as far back as the 1980’s. Up until that point, studies on addiction had found that when rats isolated in cages were given access to morphine they would quickly develop addictions and consume the drug until it killed them.

This finding formed the still largely dominant theory that physically addictive substances such as opiates (like heroin) will turn most users into addicts.

Alexander interrogated this study by creating ‘Rat Park’, a veritable rat heaven where rats could play, mate, rest and feed in a pleasant, stimulating, clean environment. Rats were given access to two water sources, one contained morphine and one contained plain water.

None of these rats developed heroin habits despite having ready access to the drug. Even when Alexander and his team added sugar to the morphine laden water source, rats still chose the clean water.

And after he force-fed the rats morphine for two months they reverted to the clean water supply when given the choice, despite exhibiting withdrawal symptoms.

Alexander simultaneously monitored rats kept isolated in cages and these less fortunate subjects consistently chose morphine over clean water, leading Alexander to the conclusion that happy rats (and as a likely extension happy humans) choose to avoid opiates even when introduced to them, but isolated, unhappy rats self-medicate and presumably escape their miserable reality through addiction.

These findings led Alexander to theorise that addiction is caused by social fragmentation. As the historically close ties to family, culture and spirituality are loosened by a modern global society focused on individualism and unrelenting competition, his thesis contests that people adapt to this dislocation by finding substitutes which often manifests as addiction in all its chameleon guises.

So although differences in vulnerability are partially dictated by genetics, individual experiences and character, addiction in his view is more of a social problem than an individual disorder, caused by wider societal, cultural and political pressures.

And perhaps this is a more useful paradigm to help us understand (and hopefully tackle) addiction.

Brain plasticity – the brain’s ability to grow and change – was only fully accepted and understood in the past decade, so it seems conceivable that with the right support and will people can re-wire their brains to break addiction’s insidious grip.

James sees merit in Alexander’s theory.

“I remember looking in the mirror with tears rolling down my face, not wanting to use heroin but still feeling this compulsion to use. When I moved to a treatment centre in Carlow we were taught Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), we had councillors who helped us challenge our thought processes in a calm, peaceful environment on a farm close to nature. I didn’t feel that compulsion to use there.”

On leaving the treatment centre he was homeless.

“Cork Simon had just opened a rehabilitation house for recovering addicts. They took me in and they gave me work to do in the organisation. I would have been lost without them.” James is hugely grateful to Cork Simon.

He is now studying Social Studies and Applied Psychology (in the Cork College of Commerce) and plans to continue his studies in Social Science at UCC specialising in Youth and Community, so that he can use his experiences to help other young people.

James feels that the very nature of addiction depends on isolation.

“Addiction wants you alone and dead. And it’s the same mentality regardless of what you’re addicted to, whether it’s drugs, alcohol, food, whatever. That’s how my addiction was, I’d use alone and have suicidal thoughts but through Narcotics Anonymous (NA) I learned to control my thoughts which empowered me. Now I’m in college and the world is my oyster.”

Áine Duffy speaking for Alone, a charity that addresses homelessness and also recognises the link between social isolation and addiction.

“Studies show that isolation and loneliness makes it harder to regulate behaviour,” says Duffy.

Philip McCarthy, a successful film maker who beat a heroin addiction agrees.

“Even when I was young I had the makings of an addict but I didn’t recognise it. I had the best parents in the world but I always felt like I was an outsider looking in at my happy family, I didn’t really feel part of it.”

McCarthy says that suffering sustained sexual abuse and not telling anyone due to threats from the abuser from the age of nine made him turn to drugs to deaden the pain and confusion that the abuse caused. Both McCarthy and James are emphatic that heroin is unfortunately here to stay, and that the only way to prevent new users is through education and support.

“We need more workshops to make kids aware. Many now think that smoking heroin is ok, that you have to use needles to be an addict which is not true. If you have awareness you have choice,” says James.

McCarthy believes that it is vital to get people who have battled addiction and managed to turn their lives around into schools to talk to youths.

“I spoke to kids in Deerpark CBS in Cork and you could hear a pin drop. They listen to you because they know that you’ve been there. All kids will experiment so we need to give them the tools to deal with it,” says McCarthy.

He pours his energy into his films now, he is currently in pre-production on a film about gangland Ireland and he has already cast some Hollywood names and a few members of the RTÉ series Love/Hate in the production which is due to start filming in Cork this summer, and he is also writing his first book.

“The sense of achievement of seeing my films and all that hard work come alive on a screen gives me a rush that no drug ever could,” says McCarthy.

“That sense of achievement is unbeatable and utterly priceless.”

© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved

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