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Saturday, February 2, 2008

~ hark! a fusty old cupboard moth!

In the latest episode of Counterpoint on ABC radio there is an extraordinary interview with a sententious old arch-conservative named Theodore Dalrymple, [a nom de plume. His real name is Anthony Daniels]. He is interviewed by global-warming sceptic and ‘right-wing Phillip Adams’ Michael Duffy on a programme that sprang from the Howard government’s push to dilute the perceived leftist culture of the ABC. Dalrymple himself is aligned with the Manhattan Institute, a US conservative think tank, and his ideas are frighteningly atavistic.

For fourteen years, he has been treating addicts in British prison hospitals and feels the need to speak out regarding certain myths which he believes are misleading public policy on drug treatment.

In his book, Romancing Opiates, he argues that opiate withdrawal is neither severe nor dangerous and ‘not much worse than the flu in a healthy person’. He claims to have seen long term addicts stop using with ‘no adverse effects whatsoever’.

I must admit, from personal experience, that the fear of physical withdrawal has sometimes been worse than the experience itself. Nevertheless, the night sweats, the horrific dreams, the bone aches and muscle cramps, the misery, the whole body discomfort, the crawling skin and mind-fucking restiveness add up to something a considerably worse than your average flu. And from what I have heard of others’ experiences, I can count myself lucky.

I get the feeling that Dr Dalrymple has been taking blood pressure, checking body temperature and a few other gross physical indicators, then using these to understate and oversimplify the condition. However, I do agree with his contention that the physiological aspect of withdrawal tends to be overstated in popular literature.

When asked where these exaggerated ideas about addiction and withdrawal came from, he moves into a scathing attack on heroin-related literature. ‘Self-serving liars’ DeQuincey and Coleridge began a trend that has continued without pause ever since. William Burroughs [a ‘psychopath’ and ‘obviously a bad man from the beginning’] is singled out. We hear of films like The Man With The Golden Arm and more recently Trainspotting.

I have no difficulties with the claim that certain works of art attract people to drug use. How can I disagree? I am one of those people myself. I have seen many people acting out their romantic fantasies in heroin addiction [again, myself included]. I have even heard many people claiming to be addicts who weren’t. I suppose it is one way of getting a life, of defining yourself - as something dark, forbidden and dangerous.

But to generalise the function of art and creativity, as he does, is weasel work. Drugs have historically played a part in artistic creation, contributing to some of the greatest works of the human imagination. In much the same way as they are used in Shamanic religions, drugs have inspired and guided certain artists and thinkers. Creative types are far more likely to experience manic depression and other ‘personality disorders’, art can be their expression and their release and our benefit. The use of drugs and the description of drug use by arts contributes to a very complex social equation which cannot be effortlessly explained away in a slow reasoned tone by the fusty old Mr Dalrymple.

As regards the question of how heroin withdrawal, [and addiction generally], became so exaggerated and feared – I would answer it rather differently. Throughout the twentieth century, manipulation of the drug issue was systematically used by politicians and other leaders in the USA to stimulate fear in the community. Again and again it was evoked to distract voters from embarrassing scandals, to paint candidates as uncompromising, and to prepare the public for more draconian control. It has even been selected as an issue by politicians who had nothing else with which to characterise their campaigns. Because drugs were railed against repeatedly down the decades, the effect became cumulative. Heroin entered the mass subconscious as a ravening demon. Parents became terrified for their children. The meme became self-sustaining throughout the world – and an element of it was the nightmare of withdrawal. Certainly, the popular arts play their part – but the buck really stops in the corridors of power.

After evoking Quincy and Coleridge, Dalrymple speaks of how the overwhelming majority of addicts are from the undereducated lower class. There are problems with this contention because it’s really an assumption. Nobody knows the figures. Poorer addicts are the most visible addicts; richer addicts can hide their usage. But how many of this underclass [or the general population for that matter] have read or even heard of Coleridge or Burroughs? There is not much awareness of the classics out there. How else could a bed sold for little girls at Woolworth’s in the US have been branded a ‘Lolita’? If they are influenced, it is by very different media in which the idea of drug-related illumination of the mind and spirit is absent.

Though not everything he says is rubbish, it is all painted with a tone of condescension. He makes the point that people from desperate circumstances often turn to addiction as a way of filling their lives, and indeed ‘the life of an addict is full of incident…. In a sense it imposes regime and routine; they like it, dismal as it is.’ Well, as they say, children crave structure. I think Mr Dalrymple should think further on this point; youths in desperate circumstances are not just being drama queens in taking heroin, sometimes it offers some sweet respite from an unendurable reality.

Heroin does of course impose a routine. With an iron fist. ‘The Algebra of Need', as Burroughs would put it. [‘Burroughs was a criminal long before he became a Junkie’.]

Not that I’m advocating this, but Mao Tse Tung was the greatest therapist in the history of drug treatment because he threatened to shoot people if they didn’t give up – and lo and behold twenty million people did give up.

Dalrymple goes on to say that this wouldn’t work with, say, bowel cancer; seeming to think this proves that addiction is a choice, not a disease.

Because addiction to a large degree is rooted in the workings of the mind, it is not disqualified as a disease. You cannot divorce the body from the head. A lot of very complex changes occur in the brain of an addict, physical changes which researchers are only beginning to understand. Dalrymple, the old cupboard moth, is attempting to turn back the tide on our evolving comprehension of a very complicated condition. He views are deeply right-wing, immediately appealing to the conservative thinker. It is the addict’s fault. He can stop if he wants. He chooses to commit crimes. And elite arty-farty types are responsible for all our misconceptions ….

I’m not wholly against rehabilitation, as long as it’s understood it’s not a medical procedure. As long as you don’t treat it as an illness.’ He suggests some form of ‘asylum’ in which the recovering addict can build up their lives again after the wasted years. Again, he shuns the idea of addiction as a disease – a concept that our best informed practitioners have spent decades working to illuminate in the public eye, and to include in social policy.

He coughs up a number of other hot potatoes. He claims ‘the inclination to criminality causes addiction, not the other way round.’ He has learnt from prisoners in jails that the vast majority of addicts were criminals long before they turned to heroin. [He did not say anything about whether it was in jail that they began taking it.]

He tells us it is a myth that drugs are filling our prisons. I’m no expert on this, but I feel strongly about legalisation, and I’ve known plenty of otherwise law-abiding people who have broken the law to feed their habits. I couldn’t begin to count the number of girls [and boys] I’ve seen use prostitution for the same reason.

My instinct here is that his contention is wrong, but again laced with fragments of truth. I also resist, even resent, his using the words addict and criminal in the same breath. There are bad thieving junkies in this world, and it’s sensible to beware of them. But there are those who would never in a million years commit a crime against person or property just for a fix.

Dalrymple is petrified in a previous age where mind and body were disassociated. He cannot abide the fact that addiction is holistic. It is true that the mind is a very prominent component, but that does not disqualify it from medical attention - it merely makes it harder to understand and treat. It is also a social disease, channelled and fuelled by inappropriate laws and attitudes, which the opinions of Dr Dalrymple can only serve to exacerbate.

God forbid this is the leading edge of current conservative thinking!

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4 comments:

Dysthymiac said...

Dr Dalrymple
"has been treating addicts" ...
but he hasn't been one.
stuff him.

and "fourteen years"

fer chrissakes.

Sam Sejavka said...

Once I looked into his history it was no surprise that he was one of those tamed intellectuals from the right wing think tanks. His book is on order from my local library, so I might hack into him again once I've read that.

Terry Wright said...

Howdy Sam

Comparing the flu to withdrawals from heroin is like those who say it is harder to quit smoking.

It's always easy to make these silly comparisons but until it happens to you, it's mere opinion.

I have read some recovered addicts say that quitting smoking is harder but that may just be their experience. I still don't believe them. I bet if they were given an ultimatum, we know which choice they would make.

Great writing as usual.

Anonymous said...

I would just like to take some time too thank the active members for doing what you do and make this community great im a long time reader and first time poster so i just wanted to say thanks.