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Addictions: LEAD STORY: The bondage of addiction

LEAD STORY: The bondage of addiction

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When I was working in the casualty department of a large general hospital, a man was brought in suffering from severe abdominal pain. I asked him what happened. He replied that he had been hugged by a bear. This seemed highly unlikely in the middle of Birmingham. But he told me that he was a zoo-keeper. He was taking the bear by truck from London to Manchester zoo and he had stopped to feed it in Birmingham. When he opened the cage some children screamed, frightening the bear which turned on him and hugged him.

He then told me that he was fortunate to know that there is a nerve under the chin of a bear, very similar to the "funny-bone" in humans, which if squeezed will cause the bear to let go. This is what happened, but not before he had sustained serious injury.

As I examined him I noticed an old scar on his abdomen. He told me that it was the result of a kick from a giraffe. We admitted him, gave him Pethidine to relieve the pain, and monitored his condition. After some hours we became suspicious. When he needed more Pethidine we gave him saline in its place. Within an hour he had disappeared.

That weekend a nurse came from a hospital thirty miles away to a staff party. "We have just had the most interesting patient," she began, "he was hugged by a bear..."

He was a Pethidine addict who managed with this story to gain not only his daily fix of Pethidine but free board and lodging as well. It was all, of course, a pack of lies, but a good experience for me for it was the first time I had come into contact with a drug addict. Since then I have listened to a number of stories, plausible and implausible but none so florid as this on

Addiction is yet one more way in which self-gratification can lead to imprisonment of the body and the soul. There are many who go through life without coming into contact with serious addiction, but for many families, one or more of whose members are touched by it, it is a harrowing cause of deep suffering.

Addiction - in the form of alcoholism, smoking and drugs - is a problem which is common to both West and East alike. There are many who enjoy alcohol without becoming alcoholics. But the degradation of those who are so addicted is part of the terrible waste of potentially useful lives.

I had in the surgery a man who needed to talk. He had been an alcoholic but had succeeded in kicking the habit. Now his wife was afflicted in the same way but was denying it as so many alcoholics do. He was desperate. He recognised the signs "I have been to hell and just managed to come back and I can't bear the thought of my wife going the same way."

I talked, when at medical school, with someone who was senior to me and who always looked very tough and self-assured. He suddenly opened up and said, "I am a lapsed Catholic and I drink too much." A year or two later I had a card from him - he was serving in a mission hospital. It taught me never to judge from appearances and to recognise that people do not always stay the same.

Another fellow student was very fond of cigarettes. He became a professor of pathology. He told me recently that as a pathologist he had to teach students about the dangers of smoking, but he had reached the point where he could not complete his tutorials without lighting up. This convinced him that he had to stop which, with great difficulty, he did. But after some months he thought he could manage the occasional cigarette. After the first one an intense craving for nicotine retur ned and he had to go through the whole process of giving up again. Since then he has never touched another. "I am like an alcoholic as far as cigarettes are concerned. I have to follow the same regime - 'not one drop'".

His tutorials will have carried the statistics of smoking, the sad wastage of lives, the additional medical care required, the cost each year to the nation's coffers. There are some who still regard nicotine as a minor addiction. Yet many are severely hooked by it.

I had a patient who had developed severe arterial disease through smoking. He was in imminent danger of requiring his right arm to be amputated if he did not stop. But he seemed content to use his already damaged arm to lift cigaret tes to his mouth rather than stop smoking, which he had decided he could not do. It is one of the less acceptable facets of capitalism that smoking in the western world has peaked because of the recognition of the medical dangers - but not, sadly, among wo men in most European countries - the tobacco companies have begun to push for increased sales in the less developed countries of Africa and Asia.

In the surgery I have tried to help people with different habits, indulgences and addictions. I have noticed that similar points emerge from many people. There is denial as with the alcoholic, "Doctor, you've got it wrong, this is not my problem." There is self-deception, "Oh yes, I could give it up any time I wanted to." Then there is self-justification: "I am afraid I have a very weak will." This usually means a very strong will and the intention not to stop.

Then there is the "try and" brigade: "Doctor, I am going to try and stop." This means, "I know I should stop and I would like to but I am not prepared for the pain involved."

Finally, there are those, like my pathologist friend, who say, "I have decided." Whatever methods they use, these people will succeed.

There are different levels of addiction, some psychological and some physical. They are experienced at their worst by those caught in the web of serious drug abuse.

This is a problem which has grown enormously in Western countries in the last 30 years. Before then it was uncommon here. That so many are already dependent on nicotine or alcohol weakens societies' case against drugs. The more permissive society has become, the further it has come from the Christian concept of the body "as the temple of the Holy Spirit"; if people rule nothing out as being "forbidden", they become ready to experiment in a fruitless and harmful search for meaning and excitement. Our vulnerability is a sign of our moral bankruptcy. Thirty years ago the Colombian drug barons would not have amassed such fortunes, because there was a general revulsion against drugs.

Fiona Rafferty wrote in The Sunday Times about the amphetamine derivative "Ecstasy", one of the nineties party drugs, which many have thought was relatively safe. It is to the nineties what cocaine was to the eighties. She quoted a 28-year old accountant. "When I first took it in 1987 the feeling was amazing. It left you floating around in what appeared to be a wonderful world of love and peace. That's why it's so morally wrong, because one tiny pill can give you a feeling 1,000 times better than anything else in life.

"Ecstasy in effect devalues everything from your achievements to your relationships, because all experience pales into insignificance after you've experienced the ultimate in bliss. I wasted an entire year of my life floating around in this wonderful world. I didn't notice at first that I was losing all my motivation and becoming paranoid. While you're on it, everything seems so real and positive, yet it lets you down very slowly. You sort of blend back into reality and don't like reality anymore, because you think you've experienced a better reality."

"It's advisable not to take it - not even once - because it doesn't stop at once. I know from experience that it can and does change your entire perspective, but not for the better."

The drug problem will not go away. The amount of money to be made makes it a difficult problem to solve. The use of the law, the vigilance of the police and customs officials, and international cooperation are essential to safeguard the vulnerable. But they are not enough. Without a return to objective values, to the sacred which holds the abuse of the body to be an offence against God, those who are tempted will not have the strength to resist. We can feel compassion for them because we know that we can all be tempted towards addiction of one form or another.

Drug-taking offers the smallest proof that the pursuit of liberty separated from morality leads not to greater liberty but to imprisonment.

But even with those who fall furthest it is essential to hold out the hope that cure is possible. I know someone whose life was almost destroyed by drugs. He was searching for meaning, had experimented with drugs, and become trapped. He did not find real meaning in drugs, only the end of his health and sanity. In his despair he prayed for deliverance to the God whom he had never known. In spite of the fact that he was at the very bottom, he felt the presence of God and was enabled to stop taking drugs from that moment. His life has taken several years to put together again, to mend and to heal. But now he is well and free from his previous habits. He has found real meaning in the faith that has been revealed to him, and so the need for drugs has gone.

In the debate on inner freedom the important point is not to prove that some are free and some are imprisoned; it is to recognise that those who are imprisoned can become free.

John Lester, UK

Extract from the book 'Rediscovering Freedom'
published by Grosvenor Books,
12 Palace St., London, SW1E 5JF.

Last update: 2000-02-06 10:50:10 (EEST).
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