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“Some addicts are also bird watchers”

September 8, 2010

Its been a funny couple of weeks.  After  months of subtle intuitive signals , I was able to confirm to myself that my sister Hannah was  using again. As soon as I clocked her at our rendez-vous – the first time I had seen her since her intervention and subsequent stint in rehab eight months earlier – I was sure.  I was  disappointed, sad and upset but I wasn’t consumed by it in the way I have been before.

I wrote about the experience and  I found an incredible amount of solace from my fellow bloggers. Their wise words anchored my drifting thoughts as no sooner had I clicked the Publish button, doubt hopped onto my shoulder, digging it its claws each time I tried to shake it off. I should be used to it by now but even after three years and a track record of a solid gut instinct, I find it hard to speak with 100% conviction on the subject of Hannah and her addiction.

I have learned so much about the disease since I found out Hannah was a heroin addict. I thought I knew alot about it before that because I supported one of my best friends through rehab and NA when we were just 17 but with Hannah it was always going to be different.  I grew up with her, we are cast from the same stone but Hannah is no longer Hannah per se. Hannah is an addict and I have been reluctantly try to accept that this defines her more than anything else right now.

In the past, I told her that  she could carve out her own life and that at some point soon, addiction would no longer dictate the course of her life. I told her she didn’t need to conform to the stereotype – I was so naive. I didn’t understand back then the powerlessness she had over the drug and the lifestyle that ensued.

When I saw her a couple of weeks ago we spoke for a long time about the addict. I told her that I wanted to do something to help. She listened to my  hair-brained idea for a respite centre in the Swiss moutains and she explained, lucidly, that it would never work.  She said ‘you can never get through to an addict when they are using‘. I told her that I wasn’t sure that I could work with the addict. It is, at the moment, too raw and painful for me to have physical contact with those in the same predicament as my sister but what I wanted to do was more communication based. I wanted to use my skills to make some noise about addiction. Could I help dispell the myths and break down the barriers?  Hannah welled up. She said ‘you know what, that is so amazing to hear. We are treated like shit everywhere we go and it gets in the way of getting better’.

Four days after I aw Hannah, the UK Drug Policy Commission published a report entitled Sinning and Sinned Against: The Stigmatisation of Problem Drug Users. Its findings conclude that extreme social stigma holds back drug recovery. Stigmatisation occurs ‘when a person possesses a status that makes them less acceptable in other people’s eyes. This becomes serious when the stigma takes centre stage, to the obscuration of the rest of a person’s identity. People who are seen to be responsible for their own stigma tend to be more greatly stigmatised.’

While at some level we have all been stigmatised or stigmatisers, those of us with addiction have tackled it head on. I know that I have struggled with it from both sides of the fence – wondering why Hannah couldn’t ‘just stop’ and I have also been the subject of judgement and blame.

The report goes on to state that ‘the general public perceive problem drug users to be dangerous, deceitful, unreliable, unpredictable, hard to talk with and to blame for their predicament. The families of users are seen as partly responsible for their relative’s addiction’.

It also finds that  ‘some users feel that the very act of seeking treatment serves to cement an ‘addict’ or ‘junkie’ identity which can lead to further rejection and prevent users seeking treatment. A lifetime stigma appears to be attached the use of heroin and crack cocaine. ‘

The report goes on to highlight the key issues around the problem drug user raising the question of medicalisation vs criminalisation. It talks about the media, their influence and the use of pejorative of language such as the term ‘Junkie‘. Blame is also tackled – ‘users are blamed for taking drugs in the first place and are perceived to have a choice whether or not to take drugs in the future.’

So what can be done about this? The report states that we need to adapt our language, educate those around us,  increase contact between drug users and the general pbulic, use high profile campaigns to raise awareness such as Recovery Month in the US supported by Arnold Schwarzenegger and actively manage stigma, by removing track marks for example,  in order to help ex-drug users reintegrate into society. More research needs to be conducted but those of us ‘seeking to reduce the stigmatisation of problem drug users need to challenge the entrenched and widespread assumption that users are solely culpable for their condition by educating people, indluding health professionals and the media, about causes and nature of addiction.’

Those of us writing about our experiences of addiction such as Guinevere Gets Sober and One Pill Away have started the process of de-stigmatising but it is a huge battle in a raging war. I hope that I can develop Works Aside into something that will have an effect – if I can change even one person’s attitude then it will have been worth it. Huge work was done to destigmatise HIV over the last 20 years and today sufferers are no longer shunned by the media and healthcare professionals and as consequence, society has changed its attitude.

The report states that  “some addicts are also bird watchers” – that made me smile. Hannah is a heroin addict but she is also a wonderful painter, a wacky jewelery designer and a budding seamstress.  With our help, maybe one day, she will show the world what she can do.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2010 2:37 pm

    I had read some of the Drug Policy Commission report but had missed the fabulous bit about “some addicts are bird-watchers.” Beautiful.

    Some addicts are knitters:

    Some addicts are artists (like Hannah):

    Some addicts are moms, dads, soccer coaches, school-teachers, landscape architects, construction workers, musicians, talk-show hosts (Rush Limbaugh, anyone?), university professors, surgeons at big medical centers, nurses, and writers trying to counter the stigma.

    I wish the “pain commissions” that are being formed would have recovering addicts on their boards… since they also have big pharma on their boards.

    Your idea about the respite-center wasn’t entirely hare-brained. It shows you love your sister… which is beautiful.

    Thanks for all you do. much respect, –G

    • September 11, 2010 7:57 pm

      G – thanks so much for this. I read your posts and loved them both. I’ve actually felt stigma first hand and am still wary about who I tell about Hannah as I’m worried about how it might affect Hannah should she one day she want to start afresh. Until public perception has really shifted, she has the right to keep her past (I hope that one day it will become that) to herself. If she wants to shout about it from the rooftops and show the world heroin addicts are people too and they can change the course of their lives then I’ll be right there, sitting on the ledge with her.

  2. beyondtheendoftheroad permalink
    September 11, 2010 1:11 pm

    In the NA Basic Text it tells me the one of the last things to fall will be the stigma of being a recovering addict. The word itself conjures up images of dirty needles, street crime, prostitution, and the sort. We forget that the sweet, little-old lady hitting up 2 and 3 doctors at a time for pills and the addict who prostitutes for a fix ultimately both pay the same price in the end…Their Lives.
    I think, in part, I look at what level of importance does it really hold for everyone to know I am in recovery. I have a close circle of people I divulge this to. First and foremost, it’s not eveyone’s business, secondly I don’t need a pat on the back from others for doing what I should have done to start with. Telling everyone I am in recovery could set off an ego trip because I will be telling myself how great I am for doing this.

    Take Care.

    • September 11, 2010 8:11 pm

      Bob – you hit the nail on the head when you speak of the little old lady. Thats socially acceptable (!) and the street addict is not. My sister is the latter and sometimes when I look at her I worry about how others perceive her. Three years ago, when she looked particularly bad, she came with me to a jeweller in London to help me choose my 30th birthday present from my family. I was really self conscious walking into the shop with her because she ‘looked like an addict’ and I thought they would suspect us of being some sort of double act about to rob them. We browsed around the shop, I tried on a few rings and then we thanked the shop assistants and left. We hopped in a taxi and started discussing what we’d just seen – I lifted up my hand and realised I’d walked out of the shop with the rings on my fingers. I had actually robbed them- arrggh!! I rang them straight away (they hadn’t noticed!) and we drove back to the shop and handed them over. Hannah, who was using at the time, was the model citizen. I guess my point is that no one would ever suspect me but people may always pre-judge Hannah and thats not fair on her…not if she has worked so damn hard to turn a corner and try.
      You may not need a pat on the back Bob but I still think you deserve one. A huge one for what you do every day for yourself and what you do for the likes of me when you share your story. Thank you.

  3. September 11, 2010 8:32 pm

    I like your Banksy avatar. It’s my son’s favorite Banksy piece… we have a small print of it that we took from the house in Leeds where my in-laws used to live, that’s now being sold to finance their nursing-home care. My brother-in-law lives in Bristol, Banksy’s back yard… My son considers Banksy a “superhero” because, he says, “He uses his forces for good.”

    Well done on giving the rings back. When I was using, I was a terrible thief. I was arrested in Boots for stealing a piece of makeup worth 9 quid, for godsake. … If I’d actually gotten away with a handful of rings, I’m not sure I would have been as upstanding as you and Hannah. Today I’m grateful I don’t have to live that way. My addiction told me I could not provide for myself. I still struggle sometimes with that.

    Someday we’ll meet, somewhere. x g

  4. September 20, 2010 3:10 am

    AWESOME post!!!!! I’m sorry I have been “away” for a few weeks and finally catching up on some posts. I plan to link to this post tonight in hopes to help spread the work. You are right on the money about the need to rid this stigma of drug users. And, yes, it does hinder a user’s ability to get help and get clean. This is why I kept my use a secret for so long even when I knew I needed help, I could not bear the thoughts of what people would say about me. God bless you in this powerful and enlightening journey! 🙂

    • September 20, 2010 7:24 pm

      Ahh thank you OPAC (sounds better than OPAFC!!). You have made such a difference to my life and my feelings about addiction including such hope for my sister. Here’s to seeing what we can do. Thanks for your support! Nx

  5. easytiger2007 permalink
    September 20, 2010 7:01 am

    …and some are even sewers…

    peace, love and happiness…

  6. September 20, 2010 9:12 am

    Great article. I’ve been in the position of being surrounded by drug users, most of whom were NOT addicts (including myself at times). But those same stigmas seep into the culture and are applied to ANYONE who uses drugs. IMO it is the drugs that are stigmatized, and thus those who use them will be stigmatized by association. It’s a shame. I’m glad there are people who are working to change this.

    • September 20, 2010 10:54 am

      Thanks so much for stopping by. You are right. And even within the drug using community there is huge stigmatisation. A pot smoker or a raver who likes to take ecstacy is not seen with the same eyes an injecting drug user. My sister Hannah seemed to ‘like’ heroin and crack being her drugs of choice as it kind of made her top of the tree in terms of toughness. To the outside world she was seen very differently than how he was perceived within her community.

  7. September 21, 2010 11:32 am

    I personally have known 2 bright awesome people with open futures, the sky was the limit, until they became addicts and started stealing to support it. I think that may be a big part of where the stigma comes from. Addicts have expensive habits and a good part of the time the drugs make them do things they wouldn’t normally do.
    I sympathize with your situation & send hope your way.

    • September 21, 2010 11:57 am

      Yo are so right. It becomes a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy. I have heard of heroin addicts who were law abiding, held down top jobs, relationships and all sorts because they could afford to fund their habit. For most I would say it gets out of control very quickly.
      Thanks for stopping by – I look forward to getting to know your blog.

  8. September 21, 2010 6:08 pm

    Hey One–

    I am so sorry to hear that your sister is using again. It’s always a helpless feeling when we see someone we love doing something that we know will destroy them. It’s like seeing them with one foot off the mountain–and you know that death is not far behind if that other foot loses grip on land.

    My very wise mother-in-law (who passed away a few years ago–R.I.P), had a wonderful saying, “There’s a readiness for everything.”

    I know that was certainly true for me. We have to each reach our bottom–and hopefully, we make it alive that long to recover from that bottom. You did the right thing to let her know you were there–but as you already know–true change must always come from within.

    Take care,


    • September 21, 2010 7:37 pm

      Hey Melinda – thank you for sharing. Your analogy is spot on – Hannah is walking on the cliff’s edge and I’m just hoping she will turn around and never look back before too long. Your MIL’s saying is wonderful. It can apply to us all, in everything!
      I have visited your blog and your story is inspiring. I hope that Hannah finds the strength to turn her life around in the way that you did. You are proof that it can and does happen. Thank you.


  1. “Some addicts are also bird watchers” (via Works Aside) « One Pill Away
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