Understanding addiction - it's mysterious . . . and ugly

The more you talk to people, the more you realise there is no such thing as the perfect life. Oh yes, it is possible to catch glimpses of perfection - those moments are usually when people update their status on Facebook.

I have come to believe you would be hard-pressed to find someone whose life has not in some way been touched by the ugliness of addiction. It might be more distant, like a friend's cousin or an uncle you don't see any more. It may be as close as a parent or partner.

We see it in the news daily. The violence it causes to strangers, the strain on families. Take this week's court story about Daniel Lee Wootton. The 30-year-old (in euphemistic court-speak) "became angry at having to wait in the queue at a food outlet drive-through". He head-butted one person and struck two others over the head with a hammer.

The judge cited synthetic cannabis as being a "significant part" of Wootton's life in the lead-up to the multiple assaults.

He had tried several rehabilitation programmes without success.

You might not know Wootton but perhaps you know of one his victims. Six degrees of separation and all that.

For one reason or another, I have worked on two features concurrently that deal, at least in part, with addiction.

One on The Salvation Army touched upon drug and alcohol addiction. I was told that they are seeing a rising number of people addicted to drugs, in particular synthetic cannabis.

From January to March last year, of their 223 referrals, 6.7 per cent identified cannabis as the main issue. In the same period this year, the 315 referrals had 18.4 per cent with cannabis as the main presenting problem. The head of their addiction programme said there was no doubt synthetic cannabis was the main substance being abused.

The other story I am working on is about the old Queen Mary Hospital in Hanmer. For a part of its life span, the hospital was a rehabilitation service for alcoholics and their families. Knowing memories are best jogged by familiarity, I drove two former patients to Hanmer for the day and we strolled around the abandoned buildings as they recounted stories.

We had lunch afterwards and they asked my opinion. What did I think of the term addict? What did I believe addiction to be? I find it quite confronting when a story subject asks my opinion. I ought to be gaining theirs, not the other way around.

Since I started at The Press I have written a number of stories on addicts, admittedly those who have conquered their addiction or who say they do so "one day at a time". I used to believe it was a matter of willpower; now I think of it as a disease.

A close family member of mine is hopelessly addicted. It's probably coming up on two decades of watching her devolve. Occasionally there are glimpses - times when she tries, stints after rehabilitation - when she seems almost like the girl I grew up with. But then she's gone again. A dribbling wreck saying she'll try again, only to give her immediate family another bout of hope.

"She's good this time," they say.

And then she's not and it kills them more than it does her. If you want to talk about resilience, don't talk about quake-weary Cantabs, talk about the families of addicts.

Doing these stories has helped me more than the other way around. So whether you believe the person is a hopeless drop kick or suffering from a disease beyond their control, addiction is a problem that, at best, wastes one life and, at worst, tears a family apart and creates life-long issues for those closest to them.

Addiction is misunderstood and mysterious, it needs a variety of programmes. What works for one person will not necessarily work for another. And I, for one, am glad there are people willing to try.

The Press