I didn’t recognize him, his face was a grubby soot colour, and his cheeks were sunken. He was wearing a baggy camouflaged jacket and black non-descript tracksuit bottoms. His eyes were seeing a different world to you or me. Due to his unsteady wobble, which put several nearby coffin dodgers at risk, I placed my hand on his lean left bicep, near enough felt the bone, and guided him carefully out of harm’s way. He was skeletal, weak and incoherent. Yet two months ago, when we had last spoken, this man had a sagging belly. Sure he was a bloated junkie back then but it appeared the methadone had at least given him the chance to put on some weight and look halfway towards healthy. Now, he was a poster boy for self-neglect. I asked him if he was using again, but what I said didn’t register. He murmured something, and looked back helplessly when I threw him out of the door and into the cold. I didn’t choose to understand what he was trying to say.
A week before this happened I had listened to the writer Karen Armstrong lecture about compassion, how in order to make a better world we should care more for our fellow man. Armstrong’s talk had shook me up, inspired me, but didn’t immediately translate through to my worker bee mentality. Therefore I felt conflicted in the aftermath of the incident. It was part of my job to deal efficiently with any ne’er-do-well that enters the Department Store I work in, and remove them if they make a disturbance. In this case the junkie was harassing and indeed scaring the shop assistants. Yet, where was the compassion? At the time I cared not for the wellbeing of the man. I was being chillingly professional.
Prior to working in the Security Industry I was unaware that Norwich had a heroin problem. I was ignorant of the existence of an underbelly beset by poverty and desperation. Even since, though I’ve been aware of the problem, I’ve often chosen not to think about it. It has been known for junkie shoplifters to pull out needles on guards, and when you regularly find sharps in a user’s foil lined bag, tucked amongst a glut of stolen goods, you shudder; the worrying thought of getting pricked, leading to six months off work as you endure numerous tests for HIV. You’re best not to think about that. It took an article about Russell Brand to remind me of the troubles that face many drug addicts.
I like Brand, and yes, his outputs has been hit and miss, particularly his forays into Hollywood, but he is able to express himself in a charismatic eloquent manner which makes you pay attention when he is talking, and when he talks about something dear to his heart you could listen to him all day. In recent weeks Brand has been using his profile to raise awareness, and indeed some dosh for abstinence-based addiction treatment for drug addicts.
Watching Brand’s spirited television debate with Peter Hitchens about the treatment which got me thinking about the junkie I had encountered. Evidently the man I forced out into the cold was back on heroin, he had been on methadone, and it was a stop gap, but now he was back on smack. It was the addiction, that little voice of temptation in the back of his head had brought him back to a hell that this man couldn’t himself see when he looked at his reflection in a shop window. But for me, and the judgemental eyes of other strangers, this man was a shambolic mess.
There are several reasons why it is difficult to treat drug addiction with compassion as Russell Brand is advocating, in the form of therapy, and other time consuming rehabilitation programmes. For one thing there is lack of funds, and even for the treatment centres actively helping addicts, those organizations have a very limited national reach. However if abstinence is an effective alternative to methadone based treatment, can you really put a price on rehabilitating a person and allowing them to once again function as an active participant in society? The argument against supporting such a project is that there are numerous other neglected and disadvantaged people in society, for example the homeless (though many are drug dependent), the elderly or the disabled, and a limited amount of money to go around in terms of government backed funding. Drug users are probably quite low on the food chain when it comes to getting help.
Too many people are left to wallow in their addictions, living as doped up semi-conscious drones that walk on a frozen lake of despair, as the ice slowly cracks underneath their feet. Methadone, (unlike a drug like Antabuse, which produces an acute sensibility to alcohol, and eventually an aversion for those addicted) is a stabilising drug and for the majority of users merely a replacement of one drug for another. Methadone doesn’t cure the disease, “getting clean” requires stability in terms of making the decision to lead a new life and most importantly the removal of temptation. A heroin addict needs to say “I want to be clean” and they need to mean that. What I’m trying to say is that an addict cannot be forced to enter such a course of treatment; they must be willing to get better, to help themselves, vowing to live the rest of their lives drug free. Perhaps they need to replace a negative addiction with a positive beneficial one. They also need to keep away from the deadbeat addicts they used to get high with, the bad eggs, and change their environment and lifestyle. Adult education programmes and short-let accommodation can ease the drug user back into society during their recovery however this also requires additional support, be it group therapy sessions or some kind of mentor figure who the recovering addict can visit during the journey. Everyone needs a reason to live, and if someone is at rock bottom, there needs to be a next step after any type of treatment, it is no good just to kick the habit, a recovering addict needs to actively rebuild their lives.
David Cameron, our nation’s glorious leader, has previously stated in a 2010 debate that “The way you get drug addicts clean is by getting them off drugs altogether, challenging their addiction rather than just replacing one opiate with another.” This may have been a reaction to the current expenditure which costs billions in welfare and methadone prescriptions, but it seems like in recent times there at least is some consideration being given to the plight of recovering drug users in the UK.
A doubter of drug users would respond by saying “Plight? It’s all self-inflicted, isn’t it? How can you have any sympathy for a junkie? These people have committed a criminal act, they’ve taken illegal substances, and they should be punished, serving time in prison. Let them sweat it out in a cell.”
Personally I don’t see prison as being much of a solution, dehumanizing a person, already psychologically weak by sticking them into an environment that might leave further scars. A user may go cold turkey behind bars, get a brief respite from temptation, but after they’ve been released their reputation is further black marked with a criminal record; finding a way back into a society that has little time for drug addicts, and even less time for those who’ve been inside means that criminalizing drug use seems unwise.
Thinking back to last week, with a cup of tea on my desk, and the warmth of my temperamental central heating system keeping me cozy, I ponder the fate of the drug addict. I’m concerned for him and wonder who he is – he might be the type of person who responds to abstinence-based addiction treatment, alternatively he may be beyond help, and that possibility concerns me most of all.