Old myths impair views on addiction

I’ve attended a thousand 12-Step meetings and heard ten thousand unbelievable stories.

Except I believed them.

It is the nature of addiction to act in ways beyond belief. In its grip, reasonable people do unthinkable things.

That soft spoken, tiny, middle aged woman talked of drunken fights with men in bars — and winning her share. That young woman, who teaches future leaders, kept losing her license for drunk driving.

That proud father was secretly thrilled, in the throes of past addiction, when his family left him. He could finally drink uninterrupted. He told this story as a lesson to the rest of us, as if to say: This is how bad addiction can get.

In all those 12-Step meetings I attended over my nearly 20 years of sobriety — 13-year streak this time! — I rarely heard people link their addiction to a specific cause or reason.

I suppose it’s because most people in recovery find answers in the Big Book, the bible of 12-Step, which describes addiction or alcoholism as a kind of allergy of the mind and body.

The Big Book is not scientific. It is a philosophical and spiritual guide to recovery, rooted in Christian traditions and the medical understanding of addiction, such as it was, in the middle of the 20th Century.

Still, the Big Book’s description of addiction as an allergy seems more scientifically accurate than society’s underlying myths about drugs and the people who use them.

Our old myths, first of all, reflect a certain hypocrisy about alcohol as well as arbitrariness around whether a drug is bad or good. Alcohol is a drug, by the way, and a toxic one at that. It has no known health benefits, despite what you’ve read about red wine.

There are old myths about people with addictions: they lack willpower; they’re immoral in character; lazy, in general; dishonest, likely to defraud or scam others; derelict, vagrant, reprobate, disgusting, unclean, I could go on. They aren’t very nice myths.

Science has been working away on the mystery of why some people become addicted to drugs, while others don’t. American neuroscientist Dr. Carl Hart is perhaps the most outspoken person in the field.

I met Dr. Hart a few years back at a harm reduction conference, at which I first learned of the old myth about drugs themselves being addictive. The truth is, some people can use a drug and never return to it.

Of course, that is not the story we’ve been told. We were told that one experience with a drug like cocaine would send us on a downward pathway, as we chased the dragon.

What’s more true to say is that a minority of people — 15-20 percent — are susceptible to addiction. Most people drink in our culture. Yet most of those do not end up drinking alcoholically.

Research shows the same can be said of other drugs. I once knew a chap who did cocaine once a year, on New Years Eve. He wasn’t tempted to make it a daily routine.

Or maybe you have been given a prescription for opioids at some point in your life. You used them as directed and that was that.

At any rate, the science of today describes addiction as a complex social/psychological/physiological illness. What I heard at all those 12-Step meetings was a tale of how people, when they first tried alcohol, finally found relief.

To these people, alcohol was medication. It made them finally feel calm, or confident enough to be comfortable around others; it made them feel smarter, happier, more beautiful or handsome.

The American cautionary tale of opioid addiction breaking out in the rust belt, home to so many former factory towns and now home to record unemployment, is a part of the addiction story.

Young men working in camps for 14 days straight, long hours of tough manual labour, isolated from their family and friends, are also a part of the addiction story.

Sadness, loneliness, hopelessness, despair, depression, relentless frustration, anger and anxiety — these are the underlying conditions that drugs and alcohol offer to medicate. Yet it is a devil’s bargain. The things that take away pain, if relied upon, can carry us further into pain.

That descent towards the mean streets is a large part of the story of homelessness. Many of our wounded citizens suffer from haunting and traumatic childhood experiences. Many of them self medicate with drugs, alcohol … or even hand sanitizer in a pinch.

People experiencing homelessness lead horrific lives. Childhood traumatic experiences are repeated in their daily, dysfunctional routines. 

Their lives are too short and perilous. The side effects of their lives — variously called social disorder or “crime and grime” — mar neighbourhoods and commercial areas around town.

What do I believe, as someone with an obvious bias? I believe addiction is an illness, experienced by individuals and perpetuated by our social structures. I believe treating it is complex and requires a range of options and answers from communities, social services, medical personnel and yes, governments.

If we are to solve addiction, we need to set aside our old myths, morality and hypocrisy. And if we are to solve homelessness coupled with addiction, we need to bring our most damaged, wounded citizens in from the cold.

We need to offer them compassionate, pragmatic answers to their bone-deep psychological wounds.

Ultimately, I believe we can do much, much better. For all our sake.

By Scott McKeen, City Councillor Ward 6