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Addiction: Britain’s Invisible Disease

In light of Amy Winehouse’s tragic passing, we delve into the plague that silently – and unapologetically – affects so many

Written by . Published on August 2nd 2011.

Addiction: Britain’s Invisible Disease

 NOW that the media circus surrounding Amy Winehouse’s tragic death has passed away somewhat, it appears that enough time has elapsed for the general public to pass judgment on her life, her addiction to hard drugs and her ensuing demise. Some Facebook comments are declaring their everlasting love for the music that she left behind for the world to enjoy, whilst others are posting their adulation for her joining the ‘27 club’, a group consisting of rock stars who all died at this eponymous age.  But what is really fascinating are comments such as, ‘the world is rid of another bad one’, ‘she was just a junkie, she got what she deserved’, etc. Such blatant ignorance highlights the fact that no matter how far we progress as a society in terms of medical breakthroughs and cultural development, there is still a huge majority of people who see hard drug addiction as a self-inflicted way of life, with only one, predictable and deserved end.

I remember when he had opiate blockers sewed into his stomach, which stop you being able to ingest heroin; he eventually cut them out of his own body using a hot spoon.

Amycrack012208 Do you think that the barbed comments circling around social networking sites would have been quite so vicious and plentiful if Amy had died of cancer? Or heart disease? Or any other potentially fateful illness that could affect a person  during their lifetime? The reason that so many people take such vitriolic delight in mocking a victim of addiction is because it helps distance them from what they see as a lifestyle very much detached from their own lives. They can safely revel in schadenfreude because they are sure that it will never happen to them, because they do not consider addiction a disease, but more of a way of life that the addicts have decided to choose. What these people do not understand, (or do not want to understand), is that the clutch of addiction can manifest itself in so many differing ways that unless you are aware of its existence and consequences, you may become embroiled in its reality before you can help it.

Addiction is a disease that permeates every level of society. From the mother who has five gin and tonics throughout her day before picking her kids up from school, to the stockbroker who goes on week long cocaine binges, which are financed by the fact that he is strung out enough to never leave the office and the middle class family man who kisses his children goodnight before nodding off in an opium-induced haze. However, these are not the images that are presented to us in mainstream media; when you say the word ‘addiction’, the stereotypical image of junkies shooting up outside an abandoned building springs to mind, or the crackheads scrounging around the streets, looking for an old lady to mug in order to get their next fix.

Pete-Doherty-Heroin-400X300Pete DohertyThe problem lies in the general lack of compassion and humanity to those who are most in need of help. If you hear of a friend or relative who has been taken ill with a serious disease, most people’s first instinct would be to see how they could help.  However, should an acquaintance fall into addiction, (and for argument’s sake, lets assume that this is an addiction to hard drugs), then the initial response would usually be to distance yourself from them, as addiction is deemed as a dirty, vulgar lifestyle that one would not want to be associated with.  What is really fascinating is that every lung cancer patient who has smoked cigarettes throughout their lifetime, every victim of liver damage who has corroded it with alcohol abuse – these people are given medical help, support from families and most importantly, our sympathy. 

Those drugs are legal and help to support our economy through taxation, yet the fact that the government has decreed crack and heroin to be illegal seems to result in the shrugging off of responsibility for anyone who becomes addicted to them. Is this because they have chosen to live outside of the country’s laws, thus rendering themselves ineligible to society’s support and empathy? However, if you play by the rules and fuck yourself up legally, you can get all the treatment that you need. Surely every victim of disease, be it a socially acceptable one or otherwise, are members of our society and there is a social duty to help them?  They are living in a society that emblazons ‘heroin chic’ across the pages of fashion magazines that show skinny, beautiful people in glamourous poses, a society whose media proffers the dubious honours of ‘Celebrity Caner of the Week’ to coked-up models and singers, a society that glorifies and celebrates drug culture in pop and rock music, teen drams and Hollywood movies, a society that promotes instant gratification in its post-MTV media saturation that infers that you should be partying like a rock star week in and week out, yet should you fall headfirst into the pool of excess as opposed to merely dipping your toes in to it, you are treated as a pariah.

Now, it’s obtusely naïve to believe that society should treat every addict as if they were a sufferer of any other disease and sure, the concept of collective responsibility has some gaping flaws in it, however, there are steps that we can take to understand the social disease of addiction and in doing so promote awareness and a sense of acceptance to those affected by it.


Professional photographer, Kate Wooldridge, kindly offered to talk candidly to London Confidential about her brother’s addiction to heroin that lasted 20 years and resulted in his death two years ago.

Thanks for talking to us, Katie. So tell us about your brother and how his addiction began.
Alex was always a wild child, but also fiercely intelligent. He got expelled from a public school and went to a local comprehensive, where he actually fit in a lot more because he could relate to the kids in there. As many teenagers do, he experimented with recreational drugs and then moved on to harder drugs in his early twenties.

Was there anything that you think led him into addiction?
Well, looking back you can sort of see patterns in the way that he used drugs. Any really bad news would inevitably lead to him starting to use heavily again, like when we lost our father; he would spiral out of control and go on binges that could last anything from months to years. But we weren’t a poor family, you know, we had money to help him, but his addiction was so strong that it didn’t matter how much we invested in him, he would always return to it.

How did it affect his relationships with family and friends?
Well, his friends soon became those that were also addicted to heroin, so that obviously led to a further feeding of his addiction. As his family, it was very hard to watch him, yet as I was younger than him, it took a while to understand the signs and indications that he was using again. For example, when we went on a family holiday to France, we would be lying on the sun bed and he would have his socks on; ridiculous in any normal circumstances, but you slowly realize that it’s to hide the swelling of the feet that heroin users get due to bad circulation. 

So, you went on holidays with him while he was addicted to hard drugs?
Oh yeah. People have this idea that every heroin or crack addict is simply a gibbering wreck that scrounges the street looking for spare change. Alex had a well paid job selling cars, he had a flat, he had relationships – there was a sense that he was leading a normal life at times, but then he would fall off the wagon or deeper into his using and everything would go off the rails.

And what measures did he take to get off the drugs?
Alex tried everything available to him. He genuinely tried to get off the drugs so many times, but it was always by either decamping to our parents’ house or taking himself away from anywhere where he could get access to drugs, like going camping in France. The torment that he went through every time that he went cold turkey was horrific. I remember when he had opiate blockers sewed into his stomach, which stop you being able to ingest heroin; he eventually cut them out of his own body using a hot spoon. What he must have been feeling to do that to himself is unimaginable. Imagine the worst hangover that you’ve ever had, times it by a hundred and then think that there is a pint of orange juice and a packet of aspirin just a phone call away; because that’s what it’s like when you come off hard drugs, you just want the relief, the dulling of the pain of coming round to reality.

How do you think that society could change to either prevent people becoming addicts or support them if they do?
The thing that always amazes me is the culture of boozing that we have in Britain. ‘Normal’ people go to work every day of the week, then come Friday it’s straight down the pub to drink ten pints, wake up on Saturday and do the same then on Sunday have five Bloody Marys with their roast dinner and complain about how it’s going to be a whole week before they can do it again. And we all do it to some extent. You walk into a pub and there are taps and bottles to choose from and you can literally drink until you cannot walk or speak. Then the bouncers throw you out and tell you to come back when you’re more sober, so that you can work yourself into the same state again. That is an addiction and just because it is legal and the government says that it is OK to drink alcohol, then people have no problem with it. Walk into any cheap, grotty pub in the country and you are guaranteed to see a bunch of winos, because they are allowed to be there, they are even encouraged to feed their addiction because alcohol is so readily available and cheap. But addicts are forced underground, into sordid dens that only make them feel more ostracized and separate from society.

So you think that people should be more accepting of addicts in social situations?
I remember when I used to take Alex to the chemist to get his methadone. Bear in mind that he was doing what society says is ‘the right thing’, going to a chemist and getting the legal drug that was to help him get off the illegal drug of heroin. As everybody else queued up at the pharmacy to get whatever medicine they needed for their illnesses, the chemist would look at him in disgust and then lead him behind a curtain where he would give him his allotted dose of methadone. How are you supposed to be a regular member of society if you are treated like a leper just for following the rules. Do we have to pull a curtain over our treatment of addicts because it’s too ugly for ‘normal’ people to see? If he was treated like any other patient queuing for his medicine, then it’s a start. It’s a start for an addict to understand that he is not a freak, not someone who needs to live on the fringes of society, but someone who has a problem and simply needs help.

Finally, what do you think that we as a society can do to help the problem of addiction?
When I was a kid in the eighties, we didn’t really know much about drugs, they weren’t thrown in our faces; now they’re everywhere. They’re in films, TV, music videos and if you believe the media then everyone is on them. The media have a responsibility to run hard-hitting campaigns that show the truthful side of addiction, as opposed to the generic ‘junkie dying in a gutter’ images. There are so many people that are seen to be normal and functioning by society, but are totally addicted to hard drugs; these people are never shown in drugs awareness campaigns, so it further enforces the idea that if you have a regular job and a normal lifestyle, it can’t happen to you. Trust me, it can.

What can we do in the fight against this social disease?  The first step has to be acceptance; acceptance of the fact that addiction is a disease and just like any disease there has to be measures for prevention and treatment to cure it.  An addict is always going to be an addict, no matter what there particular addiction may be. To watch an addict descend back into their disease again and again, to witness the Sisyphean rigmarole of them tumbling off the wagon and climbing back on only to fall straight back down must lead anyone to despair. However, if we accept that addiction is an element of society that requires our attention, consideration and support then we can begin to take measures in the fight against it. Nobody is safe from addiction, but there is hope that anybody can be saved.

For more information on the social disease of addiction, visit the charity Action On Addiction.


Main image courtesy of Action on Addition
Amy Winehouse image via Jezabel
Pete Doherty image via The Stellar Boutique

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