I recently had the privilege and pleasure of being a visiting guest lecturer at the Dramatherapy programme in Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. I presented and delivered two different sessions, related to my clinical specialisms: addiction, and sexuality in the LGBTQI+ community.
During the Q&A section of the lecture on addiction, one of the first-year students asked me whether I believed addiction is something people can truly overcome, or not. This is a great, and yet complex, question.
Prior to my work in addiction, I had no experience in this field. I had a very strong personal motivation and curiosity, and general knowledge of reading different research sources on drugs, and treatment approaches. I also had personal experience of addiction, as a family member and friend, and of substance misuse in my personal life.
I don’t share this very often, but I spent a big part of my early 20s drinking irresponsibly and dangerously, and dealing with the consequences of such behaviour. I felt very confused at times, because at one point, I recognised that I had stopped being able to do certain things without alcohol. Things like dealing with overwhelming emotions. Or going for a meal. Or a party. Having sex. Sometimes, even, going to sleep. At the time, I didn’t have anyone that I could confide in with these doubts, and so I kept avoiding the question of whether I had a problem.
And then, on the night of 22nd July 2011 someone spiked my drink in a club and I lost consciousness for most of that night. I woke up feeling completely ashamed and confused at a dear friend’s house, and made my way to my small flat in Camden. As I lay in bed that morning, wondering what had happened to me and feeling completely lost, I received a text which said: “Have you heard what happened to Amy Winehouse?” This was a big life-changing moment, for as I lay in my bed wondering whether I needed to stop drinking, I received news that Amy Winehouse – who lived literally around the corner from me – had died from alcohol poisoning.
I took it this a sign, and decided there and then to stop drinking completely. And I did – for two whole years. And what happened in those two years was that something shifted, and I was able to understand my escapism for what it was, including the understanding that it wasn’t about alcohol at all. And so, I have been able to go back to drinking, without abusing it, or without escaping into it. How? I’m not sure. If I knew, I would package it and help make millions of people feel better.
Why am I sharing this with you? Because, ultimately, this is what drives me. The experience of this shift, from feeling helpless to feeling in control. The experience of managing my self-destructive part. Because I don’t exactly know how this happened to me, I remain completely open to everything when it comes to addiction treatment and approaches. I am open to the medical/disease model, the 12 steps model, the harm reduction model, the relapse prevention model, to name just a few. I am open to everything because I have also learned that different clients will need and connect to different things, or a mix of things. Some clients actually find it helpful to think that they have a disease, and others don’t. I go with what is helpful for each client. Who am I to say anything, anyway?
I am driven to finding the answers that will enable people to stop the suffering in their lives. I never assume that I know something. Sometimes, I think that I do, and a client proves me wrong. And I never feel defeated about it. Not even when a client dies. It makes me more determined. One thing I always mention when referring to addiction, and which people tend to forget or dismiss, is that addiction truly is a matter of life or death. When a client tells me that if they pick up a bottle again, they will die, I believe them unconditionally, because it is the truth. To me, this work is not textbook. It is real life, about real lives. When a client goes to sessions for weeks and then they stop going, there is always a feeling of dread. And this feeling is very real.
Another thing that I notice in my addiction work is the weight of the consequences. I would argue that shame, guilt, and regret, kill more people than the drugs themselves. Of all the things that I believe that I know and learned through the years is this: we need to be more mindful of the language that we use in treatment. The idea of lapsing or relapsing may carry with it such overwhelming weight for clients, that when they lapse or relapse, they end up feeling worthless, like failures, and a waste of space.
I don’t claim to possess answers to anything at the moment. I feel that I spend most of my time listening and following what is needed. The weight of a lapse or relapse is absolutely unnecessary. It carries with it the illusion that someone needs to start again from the beginning. I would always argue that we never fully go back to the beginning, because making a mistake does not imply that we have lost our skills or knowledge. We will always be slightly more ahead than we think. This goes for me, and my clients.
I work from the position that yes; addiction can be overcome. Always. This is my hope and my guiding light through the darkness of active addiction and its aftermath. How is this achieved? I am still figuring that out, but I know that it starts with the following:
- Looking into, listening to, and treating each person, as a person.
- Caring deeply, and unconditionally, because they are living beings and for no other reason, and many people don’t even know what this feels like.
- Being open to dark and light, death and life, and everything else in between.
- Practising, and encouraging, meaningful and authentic connections.
I am a firm believer that the opposite of addiction is authentic human connection.