Russell Brand, the notorious actor and comedian, recently published an article that gives the most penetrating insight into the struggles of a heroin addict that I have ever read.
"The last time I thought about taking heroin was yesterday" writes the star of Get Him to the Greek. The actor had just received some bad news and his first reaction was to use heroin to dull the pain. Instead he went for a drive along the Californian coast, listened to Morrissey and called his "sponsor" in the Narcotics Anonymous fellowship.
I have never tried heroin and have always wondered what it's like. But it's not the sort of question you can put to a recovering addict, and most people just don't know. In schools they tell us about the terrible risks of taking drugs -- never about the benefits (but if drugs didn't make you feel good then people wouldn't take them). How do you find out both sides of the story? You can't really raise your hand in class and say "Please Sir, what does it feel like to take heroin?" All this can make kids curious, willing to experiment and mistrustful of official warnings.
I am grateful to Russell Brand for satisfying my curiosity:
"I cannot accurately convey to you the efficiency of heroin in neutralizing pain. It transforms a tight white fist into a gentle brown wave, and from my first inhalation 15 years ago it fumigated my private hell. A bathroom in Hackney embraced me like a womb, and now whenever I am dislodged from comfort my focus falls there."
I also appreciate his honesty. Brand has been clean for 10 years now and says "my life is immeasurably improved". But when he looked at an old video of himself taking heroin in a Hackney flat, he wrote something that I found both honest and surprising: "I felt envious of this earlier version of myself, unencumbered by the burden of abstinence." He goes on to describe some of the methodology involved in 12 step recovery: admitting powerlessness, dealing with irrationality, the structured help, "one day at a time" and admitting that drugs would "fill up a hole in me." He also says that "without these fellowships I would take drugs."
The media picked up on the fact that Brand still fantasises about heroin. But, in my opinion, he was just being honest. How many teetotalers don't sometimes crave a drink? I know I sometimes look at people drinking and smoking at a party and and think "I used to do that...maybe if I got drunk all the nonsense people are talking would seem more interesting."
"Brand has been calling for empathy for addicts" writes Beth Burgess in the Huffington Post, "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."
But not everyone appreciates Russell Brand and his approach to addiction. This is how Peter Hitchens, who writes for the Daily Mail, describes him: "Here's how to influence Government policy: Make a career out of being coarse and crude; take illegal drugs, moan that it wasn't your fault and demand sympathy for your selfish crime; get some tattoos...Then saunter into a Parliamentary Committee and casually mock its members, while saying nothing of interest or importance."
A lot of people agree with Peter Hitchens that addiction is not a disease: "The problem with drug users" he writes, "is not that they have some physical or even mental problem that they can do nothing about. They can do something about it. It's called having self-control."
I work for a Scottish rehab clinic and I find it incredible that so few people know what the steps are and so many journalists fail to understand that addiction is a mental disease based on unresolved psychological problems; people drink and take drugs to dull the terrible pain they are feeling inside. And then they get hooked and they can't stop.
AA and the fellowships don't do PR. They don't talk to the press. They don't promote themselves. But millions of people go to their meetings every day, all over the world and it really helps them maintain abstinence. The 12 steps fellowships need more celebrities to present their philosophy in the media.