Personal responsibility lost in Hitchens v Perry debate

Watching the enthrenched Newsnight argument between Matthew Perry and Peter Hitchens, I found myself agreeing with some of what Hitchens had to say. Not on the ‘war on drugs’ - but that there is no real medical evidence for this thing we call addiction.

Jacob Coe
16 January 2014

I am someone who has spent many years in addiction and recovery. My subjective experience has led me through being named and shamed as an addict in a local paper at 18 years old, being pronounced a chronic addict by a doctor at age 19, several residential rehabs over 10 years and many other ‘badges of honour’ to the addict.

I have followed and failed harm reduction programmes, and abstinence programmes, and was an active member of both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for several years until I decided they weren’t for me. I left those fellowships to begin training as a psychotherapist, but, I must add, only felt confident to make that decision due to the significant ‘clean’ time I’d gained as a member of those fellowships.

AA and NA are for hopeless cases; people who have lost any belief in themselves. At their best they provide a practical and spiritual solution to a problem that often defies medical and penal intervention. It makes complete sense that, to someone who has for years handed their sense of will-power over to the pursuit of intoxication, the solution is to hand it over to something else; something that they can believe will save them from their vice. Handing over to another human is dangerous as humans are fallible, so the addict is encouraged to hand their will over to ‘the fellowship’ of their meeting or to a higher power. I’m not knocking that. As I had nothing to lose I threw myself into it and it worked for me for some time, until I built up enough confidence to begin questioning the scientific truth of it. And for me it lost its truth.

The ‘addict’ has a build up of guilt and shame and resentments that their vice helped them to ignore. Patterns of behaviour and belief become well worn neural pathways in the brain and drug abuse causes problems with plasticity, making it harder to form new pathways, but not impossible.


Addict, Demotix/ James Njuguna Mwaura. All rights reserved

Although throughout history there have been people obsessed by intoxication, the word addict, which would originally have been reserved for severe cases of physical drug dependence, has become a label for many types of behaviour. The archetype of the addict has become dominant in our culture of excess and greedy profit. It’s connected to dissociation and desensitisation which have become a normal part of our society. Think people with headphones on staring at mobile phones, or even just spending chunks of time on video games or television. Think also of politicians obsessed with creating personal wealth to the detriment of the people they promised to serve, so blinded by money and power that they will do whatever the corporations ask of them. Where once we had religion, or spiritual practices, we, as a society, have lost meaning and direction.

The ‘drug addict’ is someone who has taken those values and applied them to substances that don't have the same appeal to others. Often there is an unconscious desire for personal transformation which gets placed on the vice of choice. The addict wants to change themselves and the only option that seems available is the drug, which may have once given them the desired results. Of course there is much more to it than that. Each addict has their own personal set of circumstances and nuanced reasons behind getting involved with drugs, and their descent into anti-society. I might add that automatically being labelled a criminal perpetuates the anti-social aspect to the addiction.

In sociological terms when a collection of people who are generally unwilling to look at their darker sides find it easier to project those aspects onto a subset of that society the Jungian concept of the shadow is played out. The non-addicts get to ignore some of their own issues as they are more noticeably acted out by the addicts who have, for various psychological reasons, identified with and taken on that role. This is perpetuated by the mainstream media who have a fascination with sensationalised stories of addiction. This is similar to when the shadow gets cast onto other races, creeds, or sexualities, although I assume that Hitchens would argue addicts choose their predicament. I wouldn’t dispute that. It comes down to choice, but the people that make those choices and end up taking on the role of addict take it on due to psychological problems that would lead, if they didn’t use drugs, to other anti-social behaviours. Drug taking is not the cause of addiction, it is one symptom of personality traits or disorders.

Perry made the claim that addiction is an allergy. There is no scientific evidence for this. However, in early recovery the allergy metaphor can be useful for explaining to an addict why, after days or years of abstinence, tasting even a tiny dose of something psychoactive will cause them to feel compelled to take more. In my experience it’s about boundaries, and when I know I’ve crossed a line I find it hard to reset that boundary. A physical reaction does occur, but that’s not surprising after years of finely tuning the body and mind to trigger reward circuitry from psychoactives. I would go as far as to say that a more powerful reaction can be set off when anticipating a relapse. The mix of fear and excitement, guilt, shame and expected momentary release are a heady dose in themselves. Think Pavlov’s dog after being locked in a box, expecting both an amazing treat and a severe beating when it’s eventually released.

This is why the word compulsion is often used. The addict’s brain circuitry connects all strong feelings with getting intoxicated, so the more they think about relapse the more they are triggering themselves to go in that direction. This is why a recovering addict needs friends and phone numbers, so they can break out of cycles of dangerous thinking by talking to someone who understands their needs.

One of the most useful things I learnt was that obsessing about relapse is such a selfish thing. Relapse is such a self obsessed act, that before I reach that point I need to find a way out of myself. It was suggested that I find ways to serve my community, which helped me stop feeling the shame that pervaded my early recovery. I did voluntary work for the elderly, and eventually got a job caring for others. I found that even just walking along the street and picking up litter (there’s always plenty of that) for half an hour would usually be enough to release me from a wave of drug obsession. I’m not suggesting that this method is a cure all for addiction, but it’s an example of the options available for someone desperate to create some new neural pathways, and stay clean another day.

There are so many different views and arguments within the drug treatment community mainly between abstinence based advocates and those who see total abstinence as key to recovery. My recovery got easier when I stopped thinking of myself as an addict, and just someone who is better off finding more meaningful ways to approach life. I can’t say that I stayed clean since I left the fellowships. I had a lot to learn and now feel more able to notice and deal with the problems that led me to relapse.

What I noticed about the Hitchens debate is that every time he appears on a show like Newsnight, which had no intention of reaching a useful dialogue, he manages to polarise opinion. Regarding prohibition he has a stance that causes his opponents to so fiercely defend their position that the debate loses any meaning, and alternative positions are left unconsidered. Some addicts get what they want from NA, some from other abstinence based models, and others from harm-reduction. Some even find their own way out. Unfortunately the rest either die young or spend the rest of their lives trapped in the miserable addict paradigm.

On Hitchens' blog he relishes the moment that both Meacher and Perry fall into his 'elephant trap'.

Peter Hitchens:  ‘If this is what you believe, that this is a terrible frightening disease after which they cannot stop taking drugs. If you really believe that…’

Matthew Perry: ‘Yeah’

Hitchens: Then you would presumably think that the best thing would be that they never ever came into contact with those drugs?'

Baroness Meacher and Perry (almost in chorus) : ‘Of course!’

Hitchens: ‘…Wouldn’t it therefore be wise to deter them from doing so…'

Meacher : ‘Yes’

Hitchens: ‘…by a stern and effective

Meacher: ‘No’

Hitchens: ‘…criminal justice system, which actually persuaded them it was unwise to take the drugs in the first place.’

Yes Peter, a nice bit of pantomime for Christmas.

I began taking drugs when I was thirteen years old. I knew I might get into trouble and that was part of the buzz. At that age I started sniffing glue and aerosols, as well as drinking and smoking weed. I now wonder if a jail sentence would have deterred me from those activities and, as the reason for doing those things was an increasing sense of alienation from the world, I'm sure prison would have only exacerbated that problem. You might say we should be trying harder to make sure all psychoactive substances are kept out of society, but you can't stop people sniffing household products, and you're less likely to stop people drinking alcohol which is no different.

What we can do is open up the debate. Not on whether getting intoxicated is good or bad, but on what we can do to help people behave more responsibly. Hitchens could make better use of his time telling people of the wonders of abstinence. I'd be with him on that one. The debate about responsibility should range from personal responsibility over our individual thoughts and actions, through to what every person can do for their community, and into what responsibility we hand over to others. When it comes to national and global responsibilty we seriously need to look at our collective dissociation and ways to overcome this.

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