Love him or hate him, Russell Brand's article on addiction in the Guardian last week is a powerful insight into the addict's world, and could be a big step forward to getting addicts the help they need.
The media has picked up on the fact that Brand still fantasises about heroin. But for me, what stood out was the portrayal of other addicts that the comedian knows; his friend's brother, trapped in the revolving door of relapse because he keeps 'forgetting' how unsafe drinking is for him. His female friend, who has everything going for her, but can not escape the delusional addict mentality.
Sharing these stories will hopefully make people open their eyes to what addiction is really all about, and how it should be treated. Those who think it's a matter of willpower or waywardness would be well served by reading these experiences.
The irrational nature of it, the 'forgetting' you have a problem, the self-delusion, the strong draw to use that obliterates everything else, including reason - and the fact that you have a house, a family, a job and an amazing life when you're abstinent. These are the elements people do not understand. These are the hallmarks of an addict's illness.
And it's no good telling people who suffer from 'addict brain' that they shouldn't have picked up drugs. "Drugs are addictive, so don't take them." The Just Say No approach seems so obvious to outsiders.
But some people are 'pre-made' addicts, predisposed to that grimy path. People who have this kind of addictive mechanism would be blind-sided by something else, whether it was alcohol, food or porn. They will always get addicted to something and use it dangerously, and to the detriment of their lives and their loved ones, to fill that desperate need for a fix. Yes, the gutter is very much within.
People with addictive mechanisms are ill and we should help them, not just by detoxing them from drugs or tutting at them packing them off to rehab for a month. We need to understand them. We need to help them find a way to live that keeps them safe and grounded on a daily basis. We need to stop adding onto the shame that only piques their likelihood of relapse.
We need a whole rethink of how we treat addicts in this country - and that must start with actually understanding the nature of addicts. Not addiction, not binge drinking, not drug use, but addicts themselves. Addicts operate on a different spectrum from everyone else who uses substances recreationally - and this is what a lot of people don't get.
I don't blame people for not understanding. Even when I finally got sober for good, I had friends asking me "So, are you just going to have a pint or two from now on?" These were some of my best friends; people who had seen me in full alcohol withdrawal; people who had seen how low addiction had taken me. Yet they still thought it was some issue of willpower. They thought it was simply a matter of choosing to drink less. It's not.
So if people with all the love in the world for me could still not understand what I was going through, why should the doctors who treated me, the politicians who administrate for me, or anyone else? In fact, I didn't understand it for a long time, and finally understanding what I was, and how my brain works, in its own crazy way, was what got me long-term sober. And I got a lot of that insight by listening to other addicts who had experienced the same thing as me.
As Brand says, there are some people who can drink and take drugs safely. Although I don't recommend it, there are even people who can use harder drugs recreationally, and still stay safe. But there are some of us for whom even a watered-down Babycham spells the end. Yes, that is what addicts are like. We can't do any substances safely. Once we pick up the first drink or drug, we're done for. The dragon has been awoken, and we need to feed it.
Brand has been calling for empathy for addicts, and he is right. Whether you adore or despise Brand's Marmite-like character doesn't really matter; you should still listen to him. He understands addiction. He understands addicts. And even if you have no sympathy for addicts, you should still try to understand; because we can only find effective solutions by truly understanding the problem. If you choose to ignore the truth of the matter, then you are blind as the addict himself.
Stigma, shame and disgust will not solve the problem of addiction. It will not stop the crime, the heartbreak and the damage that addicts leave in their wake. Rage, self-righteousness and condemnation never find solutions to problems. Understanding just might.
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