“Once a junkie, always a junkie”. “What’s the point in spending money on addicts, they never get better anyway”. These are just some of the conflicting and judgemental comments that you will hear if you introduce the subject of addiction into most normal conversations. People with very, or no, knowledge of addiction, or the medical background to dependency, still seem to have very entrenched views about the matter. There is very little middle ground.
Unfortunately this conflict of attitude is also shared by the people tasked with actually dealing with people with dependency problems. There are very few areas of health that divide even the workers and skilled clinicians so much as addiction. When you have the legalising, harm reductionists in one camp and the total abstainers in another you are going to get conflict.
So even within the treatment of addiction there is dissent. In the public’s mind there are strongly held, usually negative, views of addiction. What chance does a small independent charity have in trying to battle against this sea of prejudice and discord?
Admittedly there has been the slightest of shifts in public attitude. Due mainly to the fact that there are so many drugs in the country and so many people, in comparison to 15 years ago, are dabbling, it is understandable that there is a greater awareness of drugs and their consequences. Instead of the hysterical responses of Reefer Madness, a 50’s classic of misinformation, we now have hysterical responses to Ecstasy and designer drugs in general.
Our problem is that the majority of the population still get their information about drugs from the media. There is no education in schools to talk of and unless people have personal experience the public are reliant completely on the press and television. This presents us as an abstinent treatment charity with a big problem. The media is obsessed with maintaining the image of addiction as a low-class criminal activity. The people that they usually trot out to “portray” addiction are more often than not stoned, opinionated and negative. We want to try to get across that addiction is something that can be beaten and that recovery is fun, productive and positive – not good television.
Even when we have been able to place stories in the media, via true-life events, they are more interested in the horror side of the story than they are about the recovery stories. That is the core of the problem. A using addict living in squalor is photogenically dramatic. Someone sitting normally in a tidy living room is not.
Over the years we have learnt a few lessons. Firstly don’t try and persuade people with science. They don’t care and aren’t interested. Hitting them with facts and figures will leave you open to counterclaim and argument. The part of the population that has a negative view of addiction is going to continue to have that view come what may. People only seem to change when they know someone personally who has either had, or got, a problem. When doing public lectures or talks asking the audience to put their hand up if they know anyone who has a problem, will nowadays result in about three quarters of the group putting their hands in the air. Then ask if they think that person deliberately got themselves into a mess. If you are lucky several will at least pause for thought. Then you can go on to ask how they would feel if a member of their family developed a problem. Would they hold with their normal judgemental approach? You have to personalise it.
The problem with recovery is that once people get better they don’t look like addicts. This is confusing for people. They can’t compute the two bits of information - addict – normal. They will normally try and minimise your achievement by saying – “ah yes but you didn’t go as low as most addicts”. So entrenched is their attitude that even when confronted with the evidence they will struggle to grasp it.
Stories, public talks, and lectures all help. More often than not several people will emerge from the audience and start owning up to having someone with a problem in their family. That in itself is the root the next big hurdle. Shame. It is still considered shameful to be the parent or sibling of an addict. This is not information volunteered in public. Having demonised drug use so much for the last 15 years many people would rather have their children drinking than taking drugs. This, as we know, has helped to fuel the belief that drinking, and getting drunk, is Ok. It’s fun. It’s just “binge” drinking.
We have over the years had to accept our limitations. Public figures declaring an addiction in their past make a huge difference. That really challenges people’s beliefs. We have learnt that you should never put current clients on the screen or media. That we believe is mistreatment. Tempting as it is not productive to that client’s journey to recovery.
We do try to encourage people who have a strong recovery to come out of the closet – something they do much more readily in the States. But caution is still required. Employers are not keen to take on addicts whether in recovery or not. Ironically they will continue to employ people who they know have a drink problem.
We have accepted that addiction is near the bottom of the list as far as public sympathy is concerned. Just above migrants and paedophiles. Accept that fact and you will be alright. Expect to be anything other than a dramatic story and you will be disappointed.
It is hard work making addiction and recovery sexy enough to get people to show an interest. Make it personal. Challenge the thinking, but gently.