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Can someone tell the Scottish government that my alcohol problem was not an illness?


ONE of the defining characteristics of the Covid era is how it has exacerbated the ongoing abandonment of personal responsibility which has been a feature of western culture for decades. Initially, this piece was going to focus on how government strategies regarding Covid have accelerated that trend, but in conducting research I discovered a public health policy being enacted by what passes for a government in Scotland that deserves an article all of its own. 

The Scottish government are currently promulgating an absurd public health campaign to promote the idea that alcohol and drug addiction are a ‘health condition’ as opposed to the outcome of getting off one’s head on a regular basis. 

To illustrate why I think the Scottish government’s policy is beyond ridiculous, I will reference an unflattering period in my own life.

From my mid-teens in to my early twenties, I lived a very hedonistic life. I engaged in very heavy drinking, often solitary, and heavy cannabis use along with dabbling in other drugs. By the time I quit, I was a daily drinker/drug user. Once you are into problematic drinking and drug use, it comes with feelings of guilt and shame due to the harm you are doing to yourself, your family and wider society. I deserve zero praise for turning my life around as I did so to rid myself of the negative feelings associated with a burgeoning addiction. Besides, for a few years after quitting I was just as selfish as I had been while drinking. I’ve never understood why people free of addictions for many years have anniversary parties to celebrate their abstinence. Why should I be clapped on the back for not engaging in self-destructive behaviour that is also socially corrosive? To paraphrase the American comedian Chris Rock: You’re not supposed to get credit for something you shouldn’t have been doing in the first place. I have yet to meet a ‘recovering’ burglar throwing a party for himself because he hasn’t ransacked anyone’s house over the last decade and expects to be praised for it. Too many of us former drunks/drug addicts need to get over ourselves and stop defining ourselves by addictions that are long behind us.

Just to show that I’m not devoid of all compassion, I can somewhat understand giving someone a nod of recognition or a ‘well done’ for getting through the initial phase of freeing oneself from a dependency, even more so for those who have reached the chronic stage of addiction. However, it takes a very special kind of entitled narcissism to throw a ten-year sobriety party and ask those you have harmed throughout your addiction to applaud you on an annual basis for having ceased to be a blight in their lives.  

When I was quitting, I engaged with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, the twelve-step support groups who assist people to overcome alcohol/drug problems. While I have many criticisms of these groups, they do have some positive aspects, and parts of their philosophy are beneficial. For instance, many people dependent on alcohol and/or drugs find it hard to accept fully they have a problem. Twelve-step groups are quite effective at getting people to face up to their addictions, and I believe their emphasis on abstinence is the surest way to break the addictive cycle. There is also much to be admired in their desire that amends are made to people that your actions have harmed, and in helping others who are dependent on alcohol/drugs to quit. There are many well-intentioned people in these groups. 

However, there is much in the twelve-step philosophy that is deeply flawed. The ideology of groups like AA and NA assert that my problem drinking and compulsive cannabis use of over 25 years ago are due to my having an illness. 

Through my own dedicated research into substance abuse, I conclude that a more accurate analysis was that I chose to abuse alcohol and drugs because they were initially mostly enjoyable and also alleviated the severe anxiety that I suffered, and that repeatedly doing so over time led to a degree of dependency. Some people may be more psychologically primed for addiction – I definitely was – but you become addicted only by choosing to consume addictive substances in large quantities. 

Twelve-step ideology asserts that the ‘disease’ of addiction never leaves you even while abstinent. You are never a fully ‘recovered’ alcoholic or addict, but rather a ‘recovering’ one. What’s more, your state of perpetual ‘recovering’ can only be maintained by surrendering your will and life to a God of your own understanding and through ‘working the steps’ which involves attending meetings every week for the rest of your life. It is repeatedly preached at AA meetings that to cease attending meetings and ‘working the programme’ guarantees a return to addiction. That’s not a message of emancipation but of swapping a dependency on chemicals for a dependency on ideological group conformity.  A guy at an AA meeting once told me that if you can stay off the booze in here listening to all these moaners for the rest of your life you can get through anything. 

‘There but for the grace of God go I’ is a popular aphorism at AA and NA meetings that is used with reference to those who have had a ‘relapse’ and returned to drinking/taking drugs. This is a complete inversion of the Judeo-Christian concept that man is bestowed free will by his creator and that he must take conscious responsibility for his own actions.   

The Scottish government have clearly imbibed the widely debunked notion promulgated by Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step groups that addiction is a ‘disease’. It must be the only illness that you can pick up by repeated trips to the off-licence and through the daily purchase of illegal substances. The Scottish government’s campaign says: ‘People should receive help and support, not judgment. Let’s end the stigma of addiction.’ 

When I was cleaning up my act, it would have been quite solipsistic of me to demand that the people I had affected negatively through my drinking make no judgments of my behaviour and that they should have been there solely to offer me support. 

As I am opposed to authoritarianism of any kind, I have no desire for the state to take a punitive approach in dealing with drug and alcohol addiction.  As history has shown us, prohibition in the USA was a dismal failure just as the war on drugs has been. Instead, I would prefer to see a return to a culture that emphasises personal restraint and that views both habitual drunkenness and drug abuse as personal failings. In my own case, it was awareness of the social stigma associated with addiction along with well-intentioned judgment from others that imbued me with the conscience that in the end propelled me into effecting change in my life. The Scottish government really need to revise their approach to tackling addiction because at the moment you’d get more insight into the reality of the issue from Scotland’s alcoholic philosopher king Rab C Nesbitt than from any of the numpties in the SNP. 

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Andrew Devine
Andrew Devine
Andrew Devine is an Orwell Prize winning writer & blogger

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