The Nuances of Addiction
My grandson is totally addicted. He’s a two-and-a-half-year-old excavator addict. He sits on my shoulders at construction sites. He can sit there for hours. He doesn’t get hungry. He doesn’t get cold. He just sits there and watches the excavators. After a while, the guy driving the excavator just feels these two little eyes burning into him.
He’s addicted to excavators.
This is just normal and perfectly healthy. Kids do this just by way of growing up. Kids go through phases of childish addiction to dinosaurs or excavators, or dollies.
There’s such a thing as addiction. It’s a totally normal process, but the reason we’re talking about it right now in this psychological context is that sometimes it goes off the rails to the point where it may even become fatal. The way I understand it is that addiction is part of our adaptive toolkit. It’s like anger, for example. It’s part of our adaptive toolkit, and it’s no big deal. If you and I get angry at each other, we’ll be OK tomorrow. Sometimes, though, people go off the rails and become terrifyingly, dangerously angry. Addiction’s like that.
Is there such a thing as addiction in the sense that there’s a fatal, irreversible disease which strikes people and is caused by demon drugs? Of course not. That doesn’t exist. I love the Oxford English Dictionary. If you look up addiction, they tell you how Shakespeare used the word, and how the philosopher David Hume used it. Addiction is the fact that human beings get really centred on something to the point where other things are excluded, and their lives become very, very focused. For example, people fall in love. Is that addiction? Yeah, by the dictionary definition it is, but it doesn’t mean they have a disease or they’re going to go mad and kill each other out of jealousy. There is such a thing as seriously dangerous love addiction. But everyday addictions are just part of life.
Think about falling in love. That’s an important transitional moment in human life. Think about Max and his excavator addiction. What happens when you gut-check and you think, ‘Well, what do I know how to do? I’m too old for excavators, and nobody loves me. What can I get addicted to? I can get addicted to the social media, or I can get addicted to pornography, or I can get addicted to gambling machines.’ But it’s not going to work. That’s when it goes wrong. It’s when all you’ve got, it’s not enough. What can you do? You just keep trying. You haven’t got an alternative.
That’s the people I work with as a psychologist. I’ve been working with gambling addicts, slot-machine addicts. These guys, they’ve got so little going for them. They have these love affairs with the slot machine. They zone out, and they become part of a man-machine system, and they’re working away. They’ve got nothing. They’ve got no alternative. That’s when I think addiction becomes dangerous, and I think it is dangerous now at this stage of history for us, because you’ve got so many people who don’t really have adequate lives, and they’re grabbing onto the best addiction they can find, and they’re working it for all it’s worth, but it’s not working.
On the other hand, we’ve got people who are still falling in love with each other, children falling in love with excavators, or whatever it is, and people like you writing books. In that sense, addiction is still essential. We can’t do without it.
- Bruce K Alexander is a psychologist and professor emeritus from Vancouver.
I guess I was optimistic. I hoped for the best and I could’ve done a lot more. While I don’t punish myself for that - and I know he wouldn’t want me to punish myself - that’s kind of why the work I do now is so important for families.
At the time he was dying, I was having a conversation with Sandra about kids and the love we have for them - whether we express that, whether we do it enough, and whether you knew whether your kids loved you or not. That was an ironic conversation. Then, on the day I found out about his death... I’d gone walking with a mate of mine and we were reflecting on the happiest times of our lives. I was telling him that the happiest times in my life were when I was driving Damien around to all his sport. Then I got the phone call. It was a young constable from Surry Hills Police Station. She said, ‘Are you related to Damien Trimingham?’
‘ Yes, I am his father.’
‘ I wonder if you could come to…’ She didn’t actually say the morgue, ‘Could you come to the coroner’s in Glebe?’
‘Oh, we just want to eliminate your son from our inquiries into a death.’
As soon as I heard that I knew it was the worst, even though she was beating around the bush and really trying not to tell me. I said, ‘What’s happened?’
She said, ‘There was an overdose death in Darlinghurst the other night and we have a deceased person.’
‘There was some identification.’
Of course then I knew. I got some of the way. I just couldn’t drive. I was incapable of driving, so I rang the mate that I’d gone walking with and he came and he drove me the rest of the way. When I got in there, there’s this young police constable and she’s got a file under her arm and it’s headed “Trimingham, Deceased.” All these kind of bizarre, surreal images that stick in my memory. Then they took me to the viewing room. Of course it was Damien.
‘Yeah, that’s him.’
I discovered that the death was preventable, because I read the coroner’s report.
‘How can somebody go from being perfectly normal and functioning, no bodily stuff, and then suddenly be dead?’
Somebody introduced me to this idea of the trifecta of risk, which obviously Damien had: because he hadn’t been using on a regular basis he’d lost his tolerance. Secondly, the alcohol would’ve already slowed his system down and made it much easier to overdose with heroin. Then, because he’d gone to an isolated place because of the illegality, he was very vulnerable.
I thought, ‘Well, this is f****** stupid that people should die from something that really is quite safe if it’s done in a safe environment.’ With a drug that’s probably hard to say, but the best in terms of purity and impact. The only real negative impacts that heroin has are deaths, disease and crime. If they decriminalise and get rid of those three major risks, there’s still the dependency to deal with, but that’s manageable. My anger got diverted then to the ridiculousness of the system that we had. In the late nineties, heroin was like ice is now. It was on the front pages every day. There were some dreadful stories in the Sydney Telegraph. There were all sorts of things on television about it. It was just taking the headlines. I’m sitting there thinking, ‘F***, why do they keep doing the same old stuff?’
- Tony Trimingham is the founder and CEO of Family Drug Support
I have smoked cannabis for 32 years and this makes me a law breaker in Australia. I have smoked cannabis with off duty police, business owners, a doctor, nurses and people from all walks of life. Most of these people are otherwise law-abiding and productive members of society.
Regulation and legalisation of cannabis could bring enormous financial rewards for the community.
- Name has been changed.
As I look at the current scene, obviously cannabis legalisation is fascinating here in Canada. All the speculation will hopefully be overcome by factual evidence year by year as that happens. I'm suspecting that it's going to be no big whoop in a certain sense that we already have our population of users and that might increase a bit, but it's probably got a certain scope to it.
But the opioid crisis, I think, is different, and the public health response has been more interesting. Safe injection sites are now called Overdose Prevention Sites. The current conservative government [of Ontario] shut them down, but because of pressure they've actually had to say, “We're going to let them open but we're going to change their focus to treatment.” So, “we're going to try to catch these folks and corral them into treatment” is back to that Australian model which looks more at social determinants, rather than a harm reduction view. So they don't have the imagination for that, I think - political imagination. They just see that this is bad behaviour and ask, “Why are people being allowed to get away with using drugs? We should be coming down hard on them or getting them into treatment.”
For me, the issue we never talk about is the endemic nature of addiction, and that leads us to alcohol particularly. If we're looking at a societal level for where the harms are coming from, that's where it's coming from. It just swamps the boat, compared to the other stuff.
- W.J. Wayne Skinner is an Assistant Professor and Adjunct Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto.
Mick Palmer's story
For over half a century our governments have relied heavily on law enforcement to curb the drug trade and reduce drug use. The results, I suggest, speak for themselves. Despite huge funding, ever increasing levels of police effectiveness and genuine effort, and the imposition of very lengthy prison terms for serious drug offences, the drug trade has just kept getting bigger, more dangerous and more prosperous.
The simple over-riding fact is, with the best intentions in the world, as former Chief Commissioner Ken Lay said when head of then PM Abbott’s Ice Task Force, we cannot arrest and imprison our way out of our present dilemma. We must be prepared to try new ideas and approaches. I am not suggesting “going soft” on drugs but rather “getting smarter” about drugs. Adopting a safer, saner approach which provides some control over the currently totally uncontrolled illicit drug marketplace. It is about achieving better, safer, more humane outcomes.
If we are going to have a zero tolerance approach it should be a zero tolerance to the needless loss of any young Australian’s life. It is not about giving the green light to drug use either, but rather shining a light on protecting people’s lives and supporting people in need.
- Mick Palmer is a former Australian federal police commissioner.
Our adored son and brother, Sam, died in 2000 from a heroin overdose. He was in his early twenties. Sam was a delight: tall, blond, handsome; a kind, generous, loving person with a highly-developed sense of humour. But he, like others, became trapped in an awful cycle and couldn't break free despite making continued efforts — sometimes succeeding.
He was so proud when he purchased his car, something he'd never have been able to do if he'd been using. Sam was a difficult baby — fussing and fractious — but once he could get about (he crawled at six months!) he was happy. His early childhood — kindy and preschool — was one of happiness and high energy. Everything went along smoothly until he went to school; then the shit began. He had an 'experienced' Grade 1 teacher who belittled him; she tore up his work in front of the class one day. We started a long, horrible, ultimately fruitless journey (with some small diversions) trying to find help for him.
These days I think things would have been better. I hope so. He worked in a number of jobs, none of them — except his carpentry apprenticeship — worth mentioning. He was nearly through his apprenticeship when something happened; we don't know what. Perhaps a breakup with a girl? He loved the ladies and was the ultimate chick magnet — in fact we sometimes wonder if an unknown grandchild is going to turn up on the doorstep. Wouldn't that be wonderful!
I do not wear rose-tinted glasses. When he was using, things were indescribably awful. He stole, he pawned stuff, he disappeared for days on end, he smelt bad, and he hung out with some seriously undesirable people. No doubt others viewed him as an undesirable. His efforts at cold turkey (I didn't recognise them as such then) were monumental and commendable. He must have hated himself when he lapsed...
Sam had plans to leave here to work with his brother in another city when we found him, dead, at home. He had no drug paraphernalia in his room. Someone must have been with him when he last used and must've cleared it all away. We haven't ever discovered who it was and, although we have mostly let it go, I'd still like to know who was there and why they left him. Did he plan to die? We'll never know. Things had got out of control; I am unsure he'd have seen a way out. He'd crashed his car, written off someone else's, would have had no insurance cover since he'd given a blood test… Jail might even have been an option although he didn't have a record; however, I'm sure the police knew of him.
Along this awful path we met many barriers, and some empathetic supporters. The state health department, in their wisdom, denied us access to his history. We understand why, but it would have been so much better had we been in an informed position to help him; his efforts to get clean show that he wanted to. Since his death I've been interviewed twice by the same department — they want to get it right now — with respect to families.
Change the law. Stop making criminals of our children. Have compassion and understanding. Pursue the real villains, not the victims. Thanks to Family Drug Support (FDS) and their programs, enlightened people in health departments are taking steps to support (unsure about 'assist') families. Had I know about FDS when Sam was alive I acknowledge I would have been better prepared.
- Names have been changed.
I had a mate at school - David, brilliant at Maths and Art, and a genuinely nice guy. Too popular with the girls for my comfort, but I still thought he was cool and admired him. By our last year at school he was into heavy dugs and later died of a heroin overdose. Such a brilliant mind and good person wasted by something we could easily have prevented with pill/drug testing.
He obviously had his demons - we all do. But his life was taken by something we could have prevented with a simple test, to give him literally life-saving information. Instead, we ban and dictate and legislate, which does nothing out in the real world.
Get real and save lives. Otherwise, get out of the way and let us save good people like David.
I will never forget him, and the tragic and preventable loss of a good life so young.
- Names have been changed.
As one who started in pharmacy in 1947 I have seen the operation of drug laws under both regulated supply and today's out of control market for now illegal drugs such as heroin, amphetamines and cocaine. Harm reduction strategies, although reliant upon doctor-patient cooperation, worked better then - even though there were no legal guidelines.
Today we have the technologies and medical science to do far more. 60 years of zero tolerance led to more tragic deaths, ruined lives, worry and burglary. They have created a world-wide multi-million dollar industry that does not pay taxes. As a federal parliamentarian in the 1980s and 1990s I moved for drug law reform, with Ric Charlesworth seconding the motion. The motion was never voted on and the tragedies continue.
- Jim Snow is a former Australian politician.
A number of years ago I broke my back and tore some muscles. I received excellent medical care and was prescribed a paracetamol and codeine mix, and valium. They worked very well for the pain and muscle spasms. I also have bad osteoarthritis. Since I have also had friends with addiction problems, including being addicted to doctor-prescribed meds, I was very concerned about dependency and what I would do if I built up a tolerance to those meds.
I found that by smoking just a pinch of cannabis before bed, when my pain is bad and interferes greatly with my sleep, I have relief from pain and muscle spasms and am able to sleep. If it was not for cannabis I feel that I would likely be addicted to opiates and/ or valium.
Should I risk addiction to legally prescribed pain meds? Or risk continuing to buy on the black market? Or risk being stopped and drug tested and incarcerated for smoking cannabis the previous night when I am no longer under the influence the following day? I do not think that I should need to have any of these risks. I am an older woman who deals with daily pain. The government wants the pharmaceutical companies to be overly involved. This can be good for some, for example, children with seizures or other medical needs. They need a controlled, exact dose.
- Name has been changed.
I have a view and it's my abiding wish to see people with addictions provide us with a portal into human nature, because I think that addictions are an aspect of normality that has gone awry. And at certain times in our history as a species it goes especially awry and causes great damage, and was never more dangerous in history than it is now. So, those people who self-identify as having serious addictions can provide us with a portal into this nature; a lens not into how bad and what suffering their use of drugs has caused them, but to how they recover.
I'm writing about my experience beyond recovery. I call it “UNCOVERY” and I call my book “Uncovering Addictions and Responding With Compassion” because I think what's interesting is not the suffering of drug use but the potential for transformation beyond recovery. I think that people very frequently do completely recover, flourish, and actually look back on their experience of addiction and recovery with some kind of gratitude for how it has empowered them, and [therefore] the example that they can provide in terms of flourishing and freedom.
While I don't regard addiction as a disease, I do describe my situation as cured. And that's, to me, a fascinating opportunity to see the potential for all humans to change our relationship, not only to drugs, but to craving itself and to forms of behaviour that are best understood in the light of addictions.
In my family, in my home, where politics is a frequent subject, there's great consternation and fear around the President of the United States and his behaviour. And so, it's endlessly discussed: "What's his strategy?" Because there's a cunning intelligence that seems to be in effect here, and yet an egregious bad judgment. Addiction is where we see that confluence of cunning intelligence and egregiously bad judgment playing out every day.
So when I look back at my experience in crack houses dealing with people on a run - like I went on runs of two and three weeks' duration - the kind of ways that a crack cocaine addict deals with the cohorts, the girls, the dealers is very similar to what I see in the White House where Donald Trump is dealing with his advisors and his minions and the politicians from other countries who visit him. He behaves like a crack addict on a run. And to understand it that way is a useful way, and to understand how that can be cured even for people who have it very bad is a source of hope, not of despair.
- John Becker is a writer and mediator from Toronto.