Building a road out of hell

Annemarie Ward is in long term recovery from addiction. She’s also a campaigner who has been fighting for other addicts to get the same help she did. Scotland has the highest rate of drug death in Europe but she believes change is possible.

On November 10 2018 my mother died of a gastrointestinal bleed caused by excessive alcohol in-take. Her alcoholism was what inspired me to go to my first recovery meeting. I would not be a person in recovery today had I not sought help for her.

It was at that very first meeting in 1997, looking for help for my mum, that I realised I identified with the stories of the people in the room calling themselves alcoholics.

Through the Grace of God, this rude awakening was quickly followed by a spiritual one.

The simple 12 step programme laid out before me was a solution to the deeply ingrained dysfunctional coping mechanisms that so many in our community have used to respond to the traumas of unemployment, poverty, and anti- Catholicism.

We made it normal to rely on escaping our troubles through binge drinking, over eating and gambling.

As long as you made it to your work and everything ‘looked ok’ we could justify how we were hurting ourselves.

I believe Divine Providence got me into recovery and has since led to me founding the charity Faces & Voices of Recovery UK.

We work to remove the shame in asking for help that so many feel and make sure those needing assistance, love and compassion can have a clear path to access the treatment they so desperately need.

Those things do not exist in Scotland right now. Scottish drug death rates are nearly four times higher than those in England and our alcohol death rates are twice those of neighbouring UK countries.

We have a higher proportion of the population suffering and dying from addiction than any country in Europe.

We spend a tiny fraction of the addiction treatment budget on actually helping get clean and sober.

There is a lack of knowledge at the very highest levels of decision making that is keeping us trapped in an everlasting loop of ignorance and suffering. Addiction is a condition that needs treated medically, emotionally and spiritually.

In Scotland the vast majority of our budget goes into the medical leaving a tiny fraction for the emotional and spiritual. This bias is unsurprising when you realise treatment in Scotland all goes through the NHS.

One of the reason the number of people dying of overdose in England is much lower is because there are charities, often staffed by people in recovery, who are commissioned to deliver treatment ensuring a more balanced approach.

For the last three decades the treatment of addiction in the UK has been plagued by the debate of harm reduction versus abstinence.

To the man on the street this argument comes down to methadone, antabuse (harm reduction) or rehab (recovery). Commentators, politicians, leaders and experts have all contributed to this false dichotomy. It is false because both are useful in saving lives.

The leadership in the addiction field in Scotland has become so entrenched in this debate it either stubbornly refuses to see how stark the investment is only in one area.

The same tired old lines around harm reduction or abstinence are rolled out now when the balance of investment in only harm reduction interventions is highlighted.

When the public thinks of treatment they think of combating illness, getting well and recovering.

When the majority of addiction professionals use the word treatment they mean managing the symptoms of addiction, which means stopping the risk of blood-borne viruses, safe injecting practices and other valuable and vital harm minimisation interventions.

Using Glasgow as an example we can see that addiction ‘treatment’ is funded to the tune of £47 million per year. But only £500,000 of that is spent helping people get into rehab and to get off alcohol or other drugs. The rest goes on clean needles, methadone ans so on.

Glasgow has an estimated 18,060 problem drug users and 132,955 problem drinkers. The actual figures could be much higher.

Glasgow only has 16 rehab beds – that means one person in every 9,500 people will get the chance to go to rehab.

Is it any wonder we are dying in greater numbers than anywhere else in the world? There is a mounting body of evidence to suggest long-term rehabilitation, far from being a super-expensive intervention of last resort, is actually a money-saving investment.

People in long-term rehabilitation cost a fraction of what they cost society prior to entry and a significant percentage go on to enter full-time employment with their taxes going to cover the cost of their treatment many times over.

It is time for our politicians to acknowledge honestly that the pendulum has swung so extremely in the favour of only harm reduction interventions that we no longer really invest in helping people get well.

We have a bill before the Scottish Parliament now, the Right to Recovery Bill. We need to keep harm reduction interventions available but we also need to help people get better.

Without long term sustained and adequate investment in actual treatment, we will not deliver the impact needed to save lives and we will continue to see the addiction death numbers rise despite our failing attempts to invest in keeping people alive.

The Right to Recovery Bill would ensure we have every choice and every chance.

The people of Scotland deserve better, we all deserve better and as people of Faith we can play our part to make sure our friends and family have access to life saving care.

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