New Year, new me – fighting the dirty war of addiction
My mother has always considered the New Year’s resolution as a sacred act. Every January, I hear the same phrase:
‘It is beginning of a new year, and it is the beginning of a new me.’
So, for many years I lived by the same rules. January was a time of repentance, a time for reservation and self-progression. Unfortunately, a year is a pretty long time. Books would remain on the shelf, my nails would remain bitten, and I would spend too long on the sofa. Like many people, by the end of the month, I was back in the same place with the rest of the year to relish in my sins. Next January- same story. Same resolutions; same regressions.
This issue was only exacerbated when, in my late teens, alcohol and tobacco was added into the mix. Now, every January 1st was a day that was spent in bed nursing a vicious hangover. No time for resolutions when your head feels like it is full of battery acid.
For me, most resolutions I would make would be an attempt to address bad habits. Eat healthier, less drinking, stop smoking, etc. Although to varying degrees, I am addicted to these habits- we are all addicted to our habits, I suppose.
One of the adverse effects of Covid-19 is that our habits have become more rooted and extreme. Humans are creatures of habit, and when isolated, we rely on it even more. Addiction is on the rise. The Royal College of Psychiatrists latest study states that:
‘Analysis of Public Health England’s latest data on the indirect effects of Covid-19 found that over 8.4 million people are now drinking at higher risk, up from just 4.8 million in February.
This surge in higher risk drinking comes at a time when more people addicted to opiates are seeking help from addiction services. Statistics from the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System (NDTMS) show 3,459 new adult cases in April 2020 – up 20% from 2,947 in the same month 2019 – the highest numbers in April since 2015.’
Whether it is streaming or watching tv programs, social media, takeaway, alcohol, tobacco, or even worse, our habits and addictions have comforted us through this wave of desocialisation.
It is here that I would like to introduce you to a man named Neil Parsons. At the age of 52, Neil has spent the last two and a half years living homeless. Although he currently has access to a hostel, it is not always guaranteed that there will be a place for him to sleep.
He can be found giving polite good-mornings and heart-felt blessings in the centre of Swansea. We all have our habits, and unfortunately, Neil’s was heroin. Heroin- the abusive partner, the alluring poison, the seductive dagger.
Many have battled addiction, but heroin has quite a reputation for being especially addictive- making it all the more impressive that he is now six months clean. Neil has spent the entirety of the pandemic living on the street, with no security and no one to rely on. I asked him how he started taking heroin. ‘Bad company’ -say no more, we have all been there.
‘Some people… once they know you’ve got a weakness, they prey on it. And unfortunately, heroin was my weakness. I enjoyed using when I was using- but the money runs out and you still want to use, you can’t. You end up doing anything you can to get it. It’s a horrible drug. I wish I stuck with cannabis – I never got in trouble with cannabis.’ He continued, then sighed. ‘Heroin is the Devil’s dust.’
Every addiction comes with a price, and that price is varying degrees of dependence. When something you are dependent on is taken away, you suffer withdrawal. You crave it. You lust for it. Again, however, when it comes to withdrawal, heroin is the big daddy.
‘The cold turkey was hard – the side effects especially. Constant diarrhoea, and you can’t eat. You have to force yourself, even if you can’t taste it. It’s horrible. It fucks up your life completely.’
I may be a bit of a moody bastard whenever I try to stop smoking, but that sounds like a walk in the park compared to Neil’s experiences. I asked him how long it took for him to stop feeling severe withdrawal symptoms: ‘My withdrawals took me about four months to be honest. It’s taken a good four months.’… Four months? Four bloody months. Four months of knowing all your suffering can be dissipated in a single action. A single mistake.
‘When you’re fighting addiction, you notice the changes – your loss of appetite, your chain of thought. I did take methadone for the first few weeks, but I missed my prescription by three days, so they took me off it. To get back on it, it would be another six weeks. I didn’t bother. I would just be kicking one habit for another anyway. Because methadone, I’ve been told, is just as bad as heroin to come off. So, I’m glad I’ve done it the hard way – I know I don’t want to do it again.’
‘Kicking one habit for another.’ A common approach. A futile attempt at weaning oneself off of a given substance for another. The piecemeal approach. The issue with this approach, however, is that humans are greedy sods, and we always want more. Try having a single bite of a donut and not finish the whole thing. Try having just half a pint on a night out. Impossible.
The other issue is that the alternative may be weaker, not as filling, or less satisfying than the former. Meaning, it must be consumed more regularly to fill this void. Or the alternative is just not enough, so you pack it in and resume with the old routine. Neil decided to tackle the problem head on.
It is worth mentioning that the more one consumes, the more addicted one becomes, and therefore, the harder it is to stop. I asked Neil about how much heroin he was consuming at the height of his addiction:
‘The drugs I’ve taken- and the amount I’ve taken… Fucking stupid. Most days I was spending two-hundred pounds on it. I blew a lot of money. I was injecting three, four times a day. Taking thirty, forty quid’s worth at a time. On a good day – well, I can’t really call it a good day – I could be spending up to four-hundred pounds. Dealers prey on you then, see. Once they know you’re addicted and you’ve got a bit of cash, they’re on you. Constantly offering you deals that aren’t deals. They make sure they get their money, and a bit on top.’
I sat quite speechless. That is a lot of heroin. Which makes it all the more impressive that Neil is now clean. He continued: –
‘It’s been a long road, and I’m not out of the woods yet. It’s always in my mind, and I’m fighting it every day. As long as I stay strong, I’ll come out with winner. It’s about not letting your guard down. I’m not going to get mixed up with the wrong crowd again. Since I have gone clean, I’m finding out who my friends are- and who the assholes are. Your true friends will help you, and other friends won’t help you, they’ll try and pull you back into that pit.’
As we talked, an intoxicated acquaintance of Neil’s approached asking for some Valium. After Neil reminded him that he was clean, he then requested in a jovial manner that Neil should try and get him sixty tablets and keep hold of them until he next returns. ‘We’ll see’, Neil responded politely. Once he disappeared behind the corner, Neil turned to me and said, ‘see what I mean? If he was a true mate, he would never put me in that position. Not to mention if I get caught with sixty Valiums, I’ll spend six months in the slammer.’
We all face peer pressure. We have all given into peer pressure at some point also. But when it comes to addiction, it can be the final straw. When your friends are doing it, it is much easier to give in. It relieves the initial guilt, but ultimately leads to the same outcome – self-loathing and disappointment. Like Neil, one should be wary of their company. Inadvertently, one can find themselves in a situation where the only thing that binds them to their companion, is the addiction itself.
Whether it is drinking with the lads, that group of stoners sat in the corner of a park, or those fitness freaks who go running every Sunday morning, humans are social animals, and we gravitate towards people who are similar to oneself. When engaging in fitness, this is great, as it encourages everyone to push themselves. When it is drinking, this is terrible, because everyone gets absolutely trolleyed. And when this mentality comes to heroin, well… You can imagine.
What I admire in Neil is his ability to reflect on his addiction in a pragmatic and progressive way. He has placed a red flag above anything that will trigger him.
‘I’m doing it. It’s a long old road, but I’m doing it. I know I’m going to be offered it three, four times a week. As long as I keep saying no, I’m getting stronger.’
And so, sorry mum, but I have decided that the idea of a New Year’s resolution is a pointless affair. Life is a constant battle, and it must be fought every day. If you seek change, then you must change your habits, your attitude, and indeed, your addictions. It is gruelling and exhausting. Like climbing a sheer cliffside, one slip can pull you down into oblivion. It is only when you reach the top that you can take a moment to relax. Until that point, you must be vigilant. You may not be able to see the top yet, so you must focus on what is right in front of you. Every decision you make will have an impact. And it will take time. Be patient.
As Neil Parsons puts it: ‘If you saw me six months ago, I wouldn’t be able to hold a conversation with you. I wasn’t capable of doing it. But now I’ve got nothing to hide. The people who know me well know I’ve done it the hard way. But there are other people who will always pull me to one side offer a little bit of this, a little bit of that. I’m not letting them drag me back down. Not after what I’ve been through. I think I’ve been through enough. I’ve been through more than enough, but I’m still here fighting the good fight and I’m in the winner’s corner. I’m not on the floor getting counted out. I’m on my feet.’
As our conversation ended, Neil offered me half of a Mars Bar Duo stating, ‘it’s a bit much and I’m not a greedy person.’ As I left him, I reflected upon our conversation and swiftly concluded that Neil is the embodiment of will and perseverance. His battle is not over. He has been wounded; he fights on. The war of addiction is in one’s own mind and the battles must be fought against oneself. They say that if you win a battle, it does not mean you have won the war. If you win enough battles, however, you have a fighting chance.
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