Andrew Sullivan’s readers continue an excellent discussion on the merits of 12-step based addiction recovery programs. The personal testimonies and archived debates, all accessible here, are also very much worth reading.
Reacting to somecriticism of 12-step programs, a reader writes movingly in support of AA and NA:
For both of my brothers and myself, 12-step recovery programs have literally been the difference between life and death. My younger brother had recently switched from heroin to crack cocaine by the time he entered the Fellowships of NA and AA; my entire family was quite sure that if a drug overdose didn’t kill him, some of the people to whom he owed money would see to it themselves. Eight years later, he has a wife, a lovely daughter, and a college degree, all thanks to working a 12-step program.
As for me, my drug of choice was alcohol.
I had chronic liver pains by age 26, and my hands shook so badly my mother thought I had Parkinson’s Disease. I needed at least 12 beers a day to feel normal, and a minimum…
While the world reels from the news of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death by probable heroin overdose, Damian Thompson, writing in The Telegraph, pulls back the curtain on addiction and endeavours to explain how someone with multiple years of clean or sober time such as Hoffman can appear fine (particularly to those on the periphery or observing through the media) in the run-up to a serious or fatal relapse.
“But he/she was doing so well … clean and sober for X months/years … really looking forward to their next project.”
This baffled reaction to a drugs tragedy is familiar to anyone who works with addicts. We’re hearing it from friends and fans of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was clean for 23 years before apparently checking himself into rehab last year. To stay away from drink and drugs for nearly a quarter of a century – and then relapse? Some people will be puzzled by that.
They shouldn’t be.
Indeed they should not be puzzled. Many of the people expressing such surprise may have been friends or acquaintances of Hoffman, but very few would likely have seem him up close and observed his behaviour day-in and day-out to a sufficient degree that alarm bells would necessarily have been raised. Clearly all was not well with the actor, as he had undergone 10 days in a rehabilitation facility last year following a relapse.
Indeed, this raises another point – sometimes it is those who see an addict regularly but not continuously, at intervals well spaced apart, who are best placed to spot signs of impending trouble or emotional relapse (that stage where addictive thoughts and behaviours are creeping back in, but before the person has drunk or picked up). It will be interesting in the coming days to see whether friends and acquaintances of this type had seen a worsening or intensification of mood or using in Hoffman in these final weeks.
Even experts can sometimes be wrongfooted, as Thompson rightly observes:
In Narcotics Anonymous, however [as opposed to someone in Alcoholics Anonymous under the influence of alcohol], someone can address the room loaded up on heroin, or (if they’re careful) cocaine, or with 50mg of unprescribed Valium inside them, and they can get away with it. One or two people in the audience may guess, but they don’t want to point the finger. There are nearly always active users at meetings. Indeed, if you’re an addict looking to score in a strange city, the local NA chapter is often a good place to start.
Damian Thompson does not subscribe to the disease theory of addiction, but fully endorses the description of mind-altering substances and addiction as “cunning, baffling and powerful” – a reading from 12-step literature with which any fellowship member will quickly become familiar. And in closing, he points out the degree to which this was surely true of Hoffman:
Not only is addiction cunning, in that it hangs around for years whistling nonchalantly and leaps out just when you think you’ve turned into a “normal” person, but hiding a drug habit makes you cunning. Far too cunning for your own good.
Our prayers and sympathies must go to the family and friends of Philip Seymour Hoffman who survive him.
The following is a scene from the film 25th Hour, a favourite film of mine and one in which Hoffman plays a wonderful role in the ensemble cast:
The subject of addiction gets a markedly varied treatment throughout the yearly cycle. For the first few weeks of Christmas, it is written about quite seriously. Lots of people, newspaper columnists included, are at that time emerging from the festive alcohol-induced haze wondering whether the various embarrassing or compromising predicaments in which they found themselves might be symptomatic of a larger underlying problem. The topic then gets quite a fair and sensible hearing for a few weeks, vying for equal coverage with other stories like new years resolutions, dieting, and finding love in 2014.
And then, after a few weeks have passed you get the nonsense articles, the pieces ostensibly about addiction but really an exercise in self-aggrandisement, treading rhetorical water, hitting word count targets and powering through a slow news day. Lucy Mangan, writing in The Guardian, gives us one of this variety. She gave up sugar for the new year, and you’re going to hear all about it:
If you’d asked me 24 days ago if I was addicted to anything, I would have laughed in your slightly-overfamiliarly-inquiring face. I don’t smoke, I barely drink. I have one coffee a day. My entire drug consumption comprises five puffs of whatever the kids are calling marijuana these days – the last three were consecutive, after which I went cross-eyed, puked up everything I’d eaten since 1984 and fell asleep for two days. So, no, I would have said, I am a slave to nothing and to nobody, bar my toddler and my mortgage provider. Bring on the dancing girls – I have this life thing licked. That, of course, was before I decided, on 1 January, to give up sugar.
Cue revelations of a first world problem of the highest, most profound order. Waxing lyrical about her love for chocolate, Mangan writes:
When my tongue is coated in that ambrosial mixture of sugar, milk powder and vegetable fat, when the glucose hits my bloodstream, when my stomach is filling with caramel, peanut pieces, shortbread, wafer or any of the multitudinous other vehicles the ceaseless ingenuity of man has created to deliver yet more deliciously the very emptiest of calories to my Stakhanovite digestive system – that’s when I relax.
Multitudinous? Stakhanovite? Really? Lady, you just like to have yourself large quantities of chocolate every day. Dress it up with all the pretentious phraseology you like, but it basically boils down to just that. It’s quite hard to spin the simple fact of liking chocolate into a full-length column about anything at all, let alone a serious topic like addiction, not to mention rather insulting to those who suffer from more serious and potentially devastating ‘real’ addictions.
Mangan casually mentions these “other” addictions, which she knows all about through the educational vessel of anecdotes:
It’s been both ridiculous and terrifying to see how closely my (not even complete, remember) sugar deprivation has mimicked what we will, for reasons of limited time and space, just have to agree to call here “real” addiction – to booze, fags, drugs et al. I’m craving the stuff all the time. I can literally feel – or feel I feel – a hollow inside me that only Cadbury can fill. I can’t concentrate. I’m foul-tempered. Oh, and I totally lied before about how much I usually eat. I can’t bring myself to tell you now, but it’s much, much more than one measly bar an evening.
Yes, of course when deprived of something that the body is used to – be it sugar and caffeine or alcohol and narcotics – some of these symptoms will be experienced. The only real difference between her need for chocolate and the need of an addict for their mind-altering substance are those small details hardly worth mentioning (and indeed not mentioned) such as broken homes, physical and mental abuse, poverty and debt, criminal records, social stigmatisation, and the inexorable toll of wasted year upon wasted year of human life.
For Mangan to say that the pangs of irritability and withdrawal she has been experiencing in any way “mirror” addictions of a more serious nature is akin to her claiming empathy with the homeless because she was once caught out in a rain shower without an umbrella.
But the main thing as far as The Guardian is concerned, I am sure, is that the required column inches were filled and the word count met. Lucy Mangan’s editor was pleased with a forgettable, cookie-cutter puff piece about someone finding it hard to cut down on the old baked goods after the excesses of Christmas, and gave blessing for its publication. And so now we can all have a little giggle about how Mangan’s sweet tooth makes her just like your funny neighbourhood junkie.
In future, however, it might be better if idle newspaper columnists facing the January blues, a slow news day and writers block tried to steer clear of their love of chocolate, or biscuits, or chocolatey biscuits, when grasping for ideas thirty minutes before the filing deadline.