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I am writing these words to you in early September during the lead-up to the New Zealand General Election. During the short space of time between when I was asked to write this opinion piece and when I started putting pen to paper, two of my friends committed suicide and another nearly overdosed. She woke up cold and alone in her lounge with music blaring at 4am, surprised she had woken up at all.
Mental health is notably on the agenda this election (and hopefully post-election). Given our suicide rate now sits at a heart-breaking 606 people in the last year, this focus is long overdue. Faced with the loss of my friends and the overdose too, it has made me realise we need to have a very public and brave conversation about mental health – and of course addiction. As is often the case, the two cannot be divorced from each other.
Labour has promised to throw $48 million at mental health, and leader Jacinda Ardern is tentatively thinking about decriminalising cannabis. National has committed $40 million to funding addiction services, which would have been brilliant if this funding wasn’t attached to their draconian new crackdown on drugs and gangs policy announced by Police Minister Paula Bennett. The terminology used in the policy/package title alone echoes that of the failed War on Drugs, and it will further criminalise those with addiction issues. In particular, the crackdown is focused on meth and, as journalist Russell Brown points out, “The package … includes a proposed new charge of ‘wilful contamination’, which [is] a doubling-down on the ‘meth contamination’ boondoggle and represents another way of criminalising people with drug problems.”
To compound things, during a press conference that followed announcement of the package, Paula Bennett said some gang members had “fewer human rights” than others. Her comments were widely condemned.
Tommy Wilson, Executive Director of Te Tuinga Whänau Support Services in Tauranga, put it well when he told the New Zealand Herald last month that the current system of criminalising people needed to change.
“[We don’t need] task forces of police coming in,” he said. “The secret is to reconnect them.”
The opposite of addiction is connection. Dehumanising, isolating and eroding the human rights of those deeply involved in drugs isn’t going to solve the problem – it never has. However, National’s punitive approach speaks to a wider culture within Aotearoa, which sees those with addiction as criminals who should be shamed and coerced into abstinence.
However, in Aotearoa, we have strong and robust (though underfunded) models of addiction and recovery that serve not only as pathways to wellness but also as models of resistance against stigmatisation and dehumanisation towards those with addiction. These models are based on compassion and aroha with peer support strongly at the core.
I know all this because I have substance abuse problems, and as I type these words, I am six weeks out of a community house called Puna Whakataa, which is a short-term respite for people with addiction. Interestingly, alcohol (the drug that does the most harm in society) has been left out of the new crackdown, though it’s long been my choice of poison.
The opposite of addiction is connection. Dehumanising, isolating and eroding the human rights of those deeply involved in drugs isn’t going to solve the problem – it never has.
I’ve been a binge drinker since I was young, but in recent years, my drinking got heavier and heavier. It was a combination of trying to get through long, hard and lowly paid hospitality shifts while managing the depression that often comes when you are poor and struggling to find decent work. But last year, there was a sudden uptick in my drinking, which was brought on because I was sexually assaulted. I started drinking daily to beat back flashbacks and trauma that I had zero skills to cope with.
My drinking quickly became unmanageable, and I became desperately depressed. I started seriously worrying about my health and, if I am honest, my life. I got help. I contacted Mahi Marumaru, which is a peer support addiction and recovery counselling service offering one-on-one counselling in your own home. Given my level of drinking and depression, my peer support worker suggested I go into addiction respite care, which seemed a bit excessive to me at the time. But later I relented. I was exhausted, I looked like shit and I was desperate for help.
On a Tuesday morning, my peer support worker drove me to Puna Whakataa, and during my two weeks there, I found it a house of aroha, compassion and learning. It was the first time in my life I could be honest about how serious my drinking had become. The level of care within Puna is incredible. You get your own room, a chef cooks your meals each night and the care is 24/7. There is always a clinician or peer support worker directly on hand to whom you can talk day or night. They don’t lecture you, they don’t shame you, they listen to you.
Two times a day, there are classes that teach tools to manage cravings for booze and drugs as well as tools to cope with uncomfortable and tender emotions. I have spent a lot of my life pouring alcohol onto the emotions I couldn’t handle, so sitting sober with these emotions was incredibly painful – but I survived it.
One of the clinicians told me while I was there, “There is rarely anyone who comes through here who isn’t suffering from trauma and PTSD.”
Those of us who have addiction issues generally come from hard lives and a lot of pain. I wish wider society (including people like Paula Bennett) would acknowledge this.
However, the belief goes that if you increase the pain of those with addiction through, for example, punitive drug polices, those with substance abuse issues can be shamed and coerced into stopping. In reality, this erroneous strategy only criminalizes, stigmatizes, and further isolates those with addiction, further entrenching addiction and the impacts within wider culture and communities.
In Puna, I spent nights drinking coffee and talking to other people in the house, and everyone had a story. Some had been using for decades, some had only been using for a short time, some had lost everything and some were doing everything they could to hold on to what they had left. Notably, most of the women there were survivors of intimate partner violence or rape or both.
Puna has a powerful model of recovery through which people with addiction and trauma can come and rest and aim for a bit of healing while in a supportive environment that doesn’t cut you off socially. We weren’t told how to live our lives, but we were taught the skills needed to maybe live them a little better, bolder and braver.
Wider society teaches that people like me who are struggling with substances do not deserve help. I made bad decisions and therefore should be punished for my bad behaviour. These types of pervasive narratives are deeply harmful and are often written into governmental drug policy. They put barriers in place for people who actively want help, and they also happen to be untrue.
Like anyone else struggling with addiction, I deserve to be treated with dignity, compassion and aroha.
Chloe Ann-King is a writer and community activist who also advocates for hospitality workers and those on welfare. She is currently training to become a peer support worker in addiction and recovery.
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