I have always found the parable of the Prodigal Son sickeningly unfair, and I felt this again while driving a close relative down a motorway in a frightful gale at night to a residential rehab.
-That morning I’d had an emergency consultation in London on behalf of the said relative, with the head of the rehab place, who I’ll call Dr X. Throughout, I’d had the uneasy feeling that Dr X was subtly trying to make me feel at fault for not being sympathetic enough to my relative’s situation. Actually, I have suffered for years from his wild and selfish behaviour while on cocaine and alcohol, and have often tried to help him.
Dr X is an expert on addiction, and a self-confessed addict (though not to drugs or drink). His thesis was that he and my relative, and others like them, had a ‘disease’ which I, an ordinary person, a non-addict, could not fully understand. Yes, I was being made to feel second-best — even inferior — like the ‘good’ son in the parable. And I resented it.
I see on the internet that Dr X is still taking this line. And now, everywhere, in magazines, newspapers, blogs, on TV and radio, we are confronted with addicts telling their stories: of their indulgences, recoveries and sometimes their relapses. A new film, Beautiful Boy, directed by Felix Van Groeningen, is advertised as telling ‘the true story of a father and his drug-addicted son’. The young food writer and campaigner Jack Monroe who came out as ‘non-binary’ in 2017, has now just ‘come out’ again — as an alcoholic.
Hearing interviews recently with homeless people on the radio, I was struck by the way several talked about their addictions as if these were the natural course of events. (I am not discounting the neglected childhoods that many of them had.)
My American friend Dee, an alcoholic who hasn’t drunk for 40 years and who still discreetly attends two AA meetings a week, says that certain alcoholics seem to think that drinking, giving up, then drinking again is part of being an alcoholic. She calls it ‘the Revolving Door Element’, and says certain alcoholics know more about getting drunk than getting sober. Alcoholics Anonymous, she says, should be about ‘ego deflation in depth’, not about standing up and telling one’s story to the media. ‘Whatever happened to the word “anonymous”?’ she asks.
It does seem that too many addicts and alcoholics like to stand up and confess. They are used to doing it in AA meetings, to each other: ‘My name is So-and-so and I am an alcoholic.’
When an audience member at a literary festival praised an accomplished writer who was promoting her family memoir for her ‘bravery’ in standing on the platform and declaring that she was an alcoholic, I couldn’t concur, though everyone else clapped like mad. Didn’t they realise that alcoholics and addicts ‘confess’ all the time? ‘They are always grabbing attention,’ I thought sourly. (Also, what she had said about her book was much more interesting than what she said about her alcoholism. Alcoholics’ stories tend to be predictably similar.)
Four members of my immediate family drank. My father died at 64 of cirrhosis; my mother broke limbs falling over; one brother, an alcoholic from the age of 16, also took far too many drugs and died at 24; my last brother is still alive — just.
I have had a boyfriend and various friends who are alcoholics, and there may be others I don’t know about who, like my friend Dee, discreetly attend AA meetings. Some, like her, haven’t indulged for a long time. I admire them for their self–discipline and admit that I would find it very difficult to give up alcohol. I certainly do not want to criticise AA for helping them.
The prevalent thinking is that addiction is a ‘family disease’ and that we, the non-addicts, should stay involved and regularly attend meetings of AlAnon or ACOA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) — both spin-offs of Alcoholics Anonymous designed to help people who have family members who are addicts or who are in relationships with addicts, by sharing experiences with others in a similar situation and telling our stories. I daresay they do help in stopping people from feeling so alone. Ideally, these meetings should reinforce the idea that it is up to the addict whether he or she quits — it is not up to the relative or friend to be a ‘compulsive helper’ or a ‘co-dependent’.
Unfortunately, the only times I attended AlAnon and ACOA meetings I came out feeling unutterably depressed. One man who’d been attending for ten years boasted of sending his faeces through international post to his parents in the Boston area. I wondered how this could possibly be helpful to the rest of us. Shouldn’t he have ‘moved on’ by now? I’d much rather not have heard his story. And anyway, why should we go to meetings if we don’t want to? Haven’t we already suffered enough from the behaviour of our addict friends, relations and lovers? Do we have to keep being reminded of their destructive behaviour?
I see that Health Secretary Matt Hancock, in an attempt to spare the NHS its burden of dealing with the plethora of illnesses created by alcohol abuse, is thinking of targeting alcoholics while they are in hospital. They could get ‘a stern talking to’ lasting up to 40 minutes by doctors and nurses. Will this work? I doubt it. The genie is out of the bottle — more ‘personal stories’ will be let loose.