UKESAD: A Festival About Addiction

04/06/2016 15:46 | Updated 04 June 2016

I spent my teenage years in Edinburgh, location of the world's biggest theatre festival. Every August, people come from all over the world to wallow in drama while the citizens of this fair city head for the hills and rent out their homes at four times the usual rate.

A few weeks ago in London I experienced something rather similar - a festival about addiction called UKESAD. But it wasn't promoted as a "festival about addiction", it was a conference about a serious issue but there was a gaiety about it (the joy and spark of old friends meeting up) that reminded me of Edinburgh.

Another similarity with Edinburgh was that lots of events were going on simultaneously and there was no chance of seeing everything. UKESAD took place over three days, and four events were occurring at the same time.

UKESAD is a vast get-together of those who work in addiction treatment: therapists, counsellors, managers of rehab clinics, medics and camp-followers like me. They do an important job - saving people from addiction and maybe even an early death - but are unknown to the media and the public. Over the three days of the event I didn't come across one single journalist.

My role in all this? Part of me wishes I could say that I'm a respected addiction treatment therapist...The truth is that I was asked by Sam Quinlan, the UKESAD organiser, to film some of the talks. This gave me access to 45 fascinating seminars - most of which I only got snippets of.

The most crowded event was a workshop by the actor David Charkham (life story in 25 words: he played an ape in "2001: A Space Odyssey"; became an addict-then-therapist; recently got back into acting with a small role in The Imitation Game). Addiction is a serious subject but Charkham's event was full of banter and fun -- as well as heart-rending stories.

Reporting from a Festival

How do you describe a festival where you only saw a quarter of the events that took place? I suppose that's why all the reporting from festivals like Edinburgh consist of reviews, but who's heard of reviews from a gathering of therapists?

The one thing I would say about UKESAD as an event is that it seems to be the place to be if you're in the business of treating people with an addiction. All the big rehab clinics were there, such as The Priory and Castle Craig, as well as scores of newcomers like Ibiza Calm and Lana in Thailand. The main sponsors were The Cabin (Thailand), The Manor (UK), Crossroads Antigua (set up by Eric Clapton) and Action on Addiction - one of the biggest UK rehab networks.

What quickly became clear is that many of the rehab clinics that promote themselves in Britain are based abroad. They hire professionals from UK and clinics like Ibiza Calm offer weekly after-care sessions in Harley Street. I was too busy to ask anyone why this was the case and presume it's because successive British governments have failed to support private rehab clinics and as a result many have closed down. Low cost - and apparently very good - alternatives have popped up in Thailand, South Africa and Ibiza.

The Depth of My Ignorance

This event reminded me how little I know about addiction and how vast the topic is.

Some snippets from the event:

The talk that really shocked me was about a subject I had never even heard about: intersex. Sarah Graham described a process that sounded like female genital mutilation from Africa, but it's happening here. When a baby is born with genitals that are "the wrong size" (penis too small, clitoris too big) the surgeons pressurise the parents to agree to an immediate sex change - resulting in a lifetime of trauma. You can read Sarah's extraordinary story here.

Another gripping talk I heard was about "surviving the violent death of someone you love" by Kathleen O'Hara, an American therapist based in London. O'Hara's son was murdered and she described the "seven stages of grief" that she went through (this is also the title of her book).

You might be wondering what trauma has to do with addiction: the answer is "everything". A majority of people who become addicts have had a traumatic experience - such as an intersex surgical intervention. The tragedy is that the vast majority of these trauma cases are not even diagnosed.

I have a slight sense of sadness that I missed so many fascinating talks (this is the "Edinburgh Festival Syndrome"). I would have loved to hear Alastair Mordey talking about "addiction as a nihilistic disorder and a pandemic of modernity", and wish I'd heard Professor David Nutt and Dr Richard Sherry's on "ancient tribes to modern neuroscience: Exploring ground-breaking approaches to addiction treatment."

The fact is that UKESAD is a concentration of global knowledge and experience in the obscure subject of addiction treatment. The fact that addiction treatment is an "obscure subject" is a scandal as addiction has a massive financial impact on the NHS and countless families are devastated by it.

As a subject, addiction treatment should be studied by medical students, social scientists and in schools. Unfortunately it is ignored by the media, deleted from the NHS budget, belittled by politicians and missing from the curricula at medical schools. Hopefully UKESAD can change this.