Talking about addiction with Westminster Skeptics

Posted on January 11, 2012


Westminster Skeptics, convened by media lawyer and journalist David Allen Green, is one of the best places to go and hear interesting talks. I’ve been going for a couple of years now. Recently I’ve seen Juliet Jacques talk about transgender issues and the media, and Paul Lewis talking about the riots. Longer ago, I saw Belinda Brooks Gordon on the law and policy of sex work, and Frank Swain‘s seminal critique of skepticism. Sadly I missed, among many others, Heather Brooke on freedom of information, Suzanne Moore & co discussing just how bad the mainstream media is, DAG himself talking about privacy, and Crispian Jago on how to point and laugh at irrational nonsense.

And then, last night, it was my turn. I feel a bit embarrassed adding my name to the above list of luminaries, but 100 people came, and they can’t all just have been there for the burger and chips. The full title of the recent series of talks is ‘Thinking critically about…’ and my aim was to cover a reasonable amount of ground.

Before I started, we were privileged to have Michael Peacock and his lawyer, Myles Jackman, stand up and say something, fresh from the obscenity trial. I actually met Michael several years ago through the Erotic Awards. He’s a lovely guy, and the whole thing was an important legal milestone. I was also privileged to have Juliet introduce me and chair the discussion.

Addiction is a huge topic, covering medicine, society, relationships, policy and morality. And everything else. It’s never out of the papers, and the language of addiction is all over the place, with detox teas and the Priory becoming a household name. However, as most people probably know, I’m not a psychologist or a scientist, I’m a writer and therapist-in-training, so I’ve not going to give you a slew of graphs and stats. As far as I’m concerned, every statistic has an equal and opposite statistic, and it takes an expert to juggle them effectively. So I present the human face of addiction, as far as I can.

Cleaning Up came out four years ago now. A lot has happened since then, but I’d put money on having lost work because of having it published. Writing about alcohol and drugs, particularly drugs, under your real name, is always a risk. I’ve now effectively labelled myself for life, and although it’s been wonderful to get emails from people who say the book has helped them, I wonder if it has actually helped me. A potential employer might see it on my site and think, ‘Hmm, mental, potentially flaky, and liable to fall off the wagon at any time.’ Who knows. Anyway, too late!

I did this talk in Manchester last summer, and it was an intimate environment, which created an intimate talk, and after the break, several people shared very personal stuff. This gig I knew would be tougher. Still, when I mentioned Seroxat and asked who in the room had had experienced of withdrawals, about eight people put their hands up, and someone actually mentioned the famous ‘brain zaps‘ before I did. I read out the 12 steps, despite objections from one man. People are still hung up on the ‘God’ element of the 12 steps, even though the higher power could be anything you like. My concerns about it all are nothing to do with the God stuff, but the habit forming nature of it.

After the break, we went to Q&A. My nose was a little put out of joint by one of the first questioners, who said that someone had tweeted something mildly critical about my talk. Thanks, mate! The trouble with these sorts of talks is that people often don’t ask questions, they make statements. Which is totally fine, and adds to the pool of information, but I ended up standing there slightly dreading the look of expectancy that always comes after someone has given their opinion. The only logical response in a lot of cases is ‘Thanks, yes, I agree.’ Ditto the ones that want your view on something you know nothing about. Someone asked me about the orchid hypothesis and looked positively bemused when I could do nothing but tell him it sounded interesting. But we bounced plenty of good stuff around.

My essential message doesn’t involve stats and theories, but that people really need to stop judging people for all this. Addiction isn’t a binary. We’re all on a sliding scale of addiction, depending on what we like and what we like more than is beneficial for us, or those closest to us.

Anyway, I had a great time, and thanks to David for inviting me. And thanks to everyone who came down. Too many to name, but check out Zen Buffy and Your Brain On Drugs.

Oh yes, and the neuroscience paper I mentioned is The Neurocircuitry of Addiction: An Overview.