Drug addicts are born, not made
He brushed off the litter of ash from his clothes, pursed the filter between his nicotine stained lips, and inhaled another deep drag of chemically-infused smoke. He allowed the sensation of the hit to take over his entire body, feeling his head spin and his body go numb. It was like the doors of a dam opening, as a whirlwind of thoughts rushed through his head in chaos.
His thoughts rested at their favourite home track where his train of thought often took him – why did he continue to do the same things over and over again, expecting different results each time? How had he managed to become the walking definition of insanity? He had left behind his reputation, his friends, his family, and his own self, all for a life of continuous destruction, one drowned in a wave of chemicals. How had he managed to go from being successful in life to a junkie? What had his life become?
Drug addiction has always been attached to a deep-rooted stigma; one that revolves around the notion that drug addicts are people who suffer from a character flaw or a moral failing; that they are ‘bad people’ who ‘need to get their act together’ and ‘just stop using’. When we hear the term ‘drug addict’, our minds paint a picture of homeless men crouched under bridges, getting their fix, making drug deals on street corners, robbing stores, or sticking needles in their arms. We picture them as self-centred and hopeless cases that have blazed the tracks of their past and have no future. But is that really all it means to be a drug addict?
Asad* was one such person who had been branded with the scalding label of an ‘addict’, without ever realising what he was getting himself into. One hot summer June night, as he made his way back home with a bottle of vodka concealed in a brown bag clutched tightly in his hand, breath reeking of alcohol, vision blurred, pupils dilated from shooting up heroin, and clothes infused with the stench of cigarettes, hash, and spilled liquor, his thoughts again trailed to why his life seemed destined for such treachery and anguish.
He had used drugs the same way others had, gone to all the same parties, done the same shots, sniffed the same lines, popped the same pills, danced the same dances, listened to the same music; he had done everything exactly the same as everyone else. So, why couldn’t he bounce back from it like they had? Why couldn’t he say ‘no’ when he was offered a substance like the others did? Why couldn’t he wake up and resume his normal routine the next morning? Why did he want to keep chasing the high? Why did the thought of drugs hover over his head like a dark fantasy? What made him different from others who continued to live their lives normally, while the centre of his attention had suddenly become drugs and everything else had taken a back seat?
As he lay on his bed, head swimming, his senses numbed by the cocktail of unnatural chemicals in his system, he replayed the past seven years of his life in his head. He thought of all the people he had hurt and lost; all the times he had stolen from his loved ones, and the times he had lied and manipulated those around him just to maintain his habit. Images flashed in his mind of the moments when he was aggressive with his own mother, the only one who had loved him regardless of all his faults and accepted him unconditionally; the memories made his heart spasm with pain.
He thought of his fiancé who had ended their two-year engagement after he had shoved her against the wall – because her voice seemed unbearable while she told him he was emotionally unavailable when it came to their relationship. Her voice grew into silence as he suffered from cravings and withdrawal on that Tuesday night when his dealer hadn’t provided him with his fix. The image of her tear-filled eyes staring up at him from the ground made him cringe. He felt the urge to drown it out with more alcohol, but this time he didn’t lift the bottle to his mouth to consume its content. He wanted to feel the pain because maybe that would make him stop. He thought to himself, ‘Why? Why did I do all those things?’ He felt so disgusted with himself when he thought about how he had passed out in a drunken stupor at the edge of a dump and woke up the next morning covered in toxic waste and had wet himself.
He had finally hit rock bottom, and realised he needed help. Despite all his efforts, he realised that no amount of willpower or determination could help him stop doing drugs. He had tried to go cold-turkey, tried slowly tapering-off the drugs, even tried to overdose in an attempt to get sick of it to the point of not wanting it anymore, but nothing worked. The anxiety, fear, anger, depression, loneliness, and self-hatred just caused him to use more in a vain attempt to run away from himself. But no matter how much he used, he couldn’t shed his own skin. He couldn’t run away from himself.
He tried to envision possibilities of what his future would entail if he continued to live within this spiral of insanity; the only thing he saw happening was him ending up in jail or dead on the roadside. This wasn’t an epiphany of course – he remembered his friends who had started out with him seven years ago, when it was all ‘just supposed to good fun every now and then’ and how he had lost them one by one along the way. He remembered staring at the dead bodies of two of his friends who had died from a heroin overdose on what was supposed to be a normal Friday night.
Three of his friends had lost their homes and had been exiled by their families and he wondered where they were now. One of them was diagnosed with psychosis and was a permanent resident in a psychiatric facility just outside of town, and his family no longer visits him. The youngest of the lot was doing time in prison after he experienced a run-in with the police while he was fully loaded and in possession. None of these outcomes looked appealing to him; yet, somehow he knew that this spiralling road was eventually going to fork out in those directions. He was going to end up isolated, forgotten, hated, and unspoken of just like his friends. He needed to find a new road, and it needed to be an active decision.
He needed professional help. He looked up rehab centres in his city, deciding to admit himself the first opportunity he got and, so, he dialled the number. The conversation was quick and to the point; yet, perhaps the most meaningful he had had in a while:
“Hi. I need help.”
“How can we help you, sir?”
“I don’t want to do this anymore.”
“This isn’t where I wanted to be. It was just supposed to be for fun, but it’s not fun anymore. I’m losing everything. I don’t want to die.”
He sounded helpless and beaten.
“Congratulations on making the best decision of your life, sir. You have just taken the first step in admitting your powerlessness over drugs and realising your life has become unmanageable. How do you feel about coming in tomorrow morning for admission?”
“I’ll see you then.”
For the next eight weeks, he resided at the rehab facility, facing painful withdrawals, mood swings, anger outbursts, and the desire to run away. As those feelings passed, he learned about his illness, the disease of addiction, and finally found answers to all the questions he had spent so long pondering over. Learning that most of this was biological and he wasn’t inherently a ‘bad person’ gave him strength and helped him slowly regain his self-esteem. He recalled, in all his available senses, the pain he had caused, the mistakes he had made, the person he had become. He spent most of his nights crying in his room, praying to God for forgiveness, praying he finds his way back to the right track and welcoming the desire to never want to use again.
It took him several weeks to be able to meet his own gaze in the mirror. As he faced his reflection, he took a long hard look at himself and realised that he had no muscle mass; he was just a frame that was slowly starting to lose its strength. The fact that he was an addict was so strikingly apparent in his physical structure that he was shocked at never having realised it before.
It struck him that it was, indeed, a miracle he was still alive. He suddenly felt overwhelmed as he thought about how much God must love him to still keep him breathing after everything he had put his own body through. He let the warm sensation he could only understand to be God’s love consume him as he collapsed on the floor, hugging himself tight, and letting the tears stream out of his eyes. For the first time in his life, he was able to see a future for himself and he couldn’t remember the last time he had even felt real emotion. For the rest of his life, he would introduce himself in his narcotics anonymous community as Asad, the recovering addict.
Recent research has indicated that drug addiction is not just a character flaw but traces back to a genetic abnormality in the brain. It has been indicated through research that one in six people have an addictive nature and that when an addict marries and has children, the genetic pool ticks over and the disease continues to live on in further generations.
Furthermore, children of pregnant mothers who remain in a constant state of stress are born with naturally high-levels of cortisol which is the primary reason why addicts are able to ‘go the extra mile’. These babies are also born to be in a constant state of ‘minus one’ of dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating a positive mood, resulting in the chronic feeling of never being good enough and always feeling out of place.
Consequently, these individuals discover that drugs provide that ‘plus one’ feeling that everyone else seems to have naturally. This all concludes to the fact that addicts are born, not made. That, unfortunately, means that no amount of determination, as we learnt from Asad’s story, can change their inherent nature. Once the genetic component is present, all it takes is a trigger in the form of trauma or perhaps childhood abuse to set it off. It is important to understand that addiction is a life-long prevalent and neurotransmission disease that cannot be cured, but only managed, on a daily basis through working a rigorous spiritual programme, known as the ’12-step rehab and group’ therapy.
However, it is because of the social stigma that continues to shame addiction that marginalises addicts. Due to this, they are not given the due attention that is required for treatment. As a result, a population of more than seven million in Pakistan continue to spiral downwards. Research also indicates that one addict affects at least five people around them. We are allowing addiction to grow by refusing to understand that the disease is a genetic illness like cancer, diabetes, and heart diseases. We ignore the problem and then attempt to fight it off through avenues like Drug Demand Reduction. We wage war on drugs and hope that this demon lurking on the streets can be killed, which is not only an impossible feat to achieve but also a ridiculous one. Realistically speaking, there is absolutely nothing in the world that can put an end to the production and distribution of drugs.
It is true that all of us have a fair share of resentment when it comes to addicts, as a result of their destructive behaviour. We tend to deem their behaviour as one that we cannot forgive or come to terms with; thus, we exile them from our lives. But have we ever stopped to understand why an addict continues to repeat the same patterns over and over again, even after they have seen the destruction it causes? It’s insanity!
At the core of addiction lies denial; addicts are blind to their disparaging behaviour and unable to admit that something is wrong. The crux of the disease lies in being unable to see oneself; addicts do not realise how far they have fallen and it is this unconscious denial that keeps an addict from recovering.
The truth is, addicts can and do recover. Through recovery, these people attempt to work against the very genetic nature they are programmed to live with.
Even when they begin their path to recovery, they still live under the constant fear of being exposed. They are exiled by society and made into a poster child of everything one should not be. Recovering addicts – who pride themselves on their success of winning a constant inner battle and carry the initials of their anonymous programmes in their pockets – are still afraid to come out of hiding and share their success with the world. They remain afraid of facing the same consequences they did during their active addiction because society fails to realise that addicts who come into recovery are true examples of success, determination, and more than anything, hope. Not only do they deserve to be given a second chance, they also deserve to be acknowledged and applauded for their bravery.
The question then becomes, why is one forced to live in shame and hide their story when one should really be wearing their journey on their lapel with pride?
*Names have been changed to protect the identity of the people interviewed.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.