Public-recovery movement key to addressing alcohol and drug addiction
AnnMarie McCullough started drinking heavily when she was 14, but it wasn’t until she was about 26 that alcohol really began to take over her life. The Toronto native had moved to Vancouver to be a DJ in 1994, right around the time that the rave scene was thriving. Add marijuana, ecstasy, and cocaine to the mix, and McCullough wasn’t just into hard-core partying; she was a full-on addict.
“From 1997 until 2008, alcohol and cocaine were the big focus of my life,” McCullough says in a phone interview. “With the late nights in the DJ world, you’re just surrounded by it. I wanted to quit that lifestyle, but it got to the point where it was no longer up to me. I spent 23 years in addiction.”
Now 42, McCullough has been sober for almost five years. Not only has her recovery led to a new career—she’s the director of communications and community relations at the Orchard Recovery Centre, a drug-treatment centre on Bowen Island—it’s also spawned a nationwide movement. McCullough helped found Recovery Day Canada, an event that originated in the U.S. but now takes place in 10 cities across Canada, including Vancouver and Victoria, this year on September 8.
To help convey the gist of Recovery Day to Vancouverites, this weekend Orchard is presenting a screening of The Anonymous People—a documentary about the 23 million Americans living in long-term recovery and the emerging, grassroots public-recovery movement—as part of its REEL Recovery Film Festival series for 2013. The way McCullough sees things, the film and the movement have the power to transform how alcohol and drug addiction are addressed within, and perceived by, society.
“We were inspired to try and put something together for Vancouver because with this being a city where addiction is such a huge problem, it just made sense to show the other side and focus on the solution. There are people living in recovery and who are doing well.
“The vision we have is to eradicate the stigma and build awareness around recovery and celebrate recovery,” she says. “We want people not to feel shame about getting help. The Orchard really believes in the recovery-advocacy movement in Canada, and we want to continue to work toward more and more people being comfortable sharing about their recovery.”
She’s quick to note that the Orchard recovery programs are based on the 12-step model, which emphasizes anonymity. Although confidentiality is still assured and respected for anyone who takes part in such a program, the public-recovery movement is being mobilized by those who are comfortable coming forward in the hope that their story will inspire others to get support.
People struggling with alcohol addiction might feel especially ashamed because it’s so misunderstood, McCullough says. When she was addicted to booze, she still managed to keep her day job in an office and shared a home with her husband.
“I hadn’t lost all the things on the outside,” she says. “The destruction for me was emotional. I woke up one morning and realized that who I thought I was and who I really was were not congruent. It was a really defining moment. You don’t have to be homeless or drinking out of a paper bag or living under a bridge, but when you hear the term alcoholic, that’s still what the general population thinks of. But you can also seek help before it gets to that point.”
Dr. Patrick Fay, clinical director of the Orchard Recovery Centre, explains that drugs “hijack” the brain’s reward centre.
“Depending on the route of administration, the effect may be immediate,” Fay tells the Georgia Straight. “The problem is they also impair brain functioning, eventually producing less dopamine and less functioning receptors, leading to depression and feeling lifeless. Then more drugs are needed just to feel normal.”
Brain impairment resulting from the use of crack cocaine and crystal meth is especially profound, Fay says.
“Dependency on these drugs is difficult to treat,” he says. “Dopamine transporters are significantly reduced, and the frontal lobe becomes affected, making planning and decision-making difficult.
“Drug abuse is a health problem rather than a moral failing,” he adds. “For most addicts, it is a primary brain disease, and drugs of abuse change the way the brain functions. The word addict is derived from addictus, meaning slave.”
Genetic factors account for about 50 percent of a person’s vulnerability to addiction, Fay says. Environmental factors, such as a chaotic home or peer influences, play a role too. Then there is the drug itself: its availability, effect, route of administration, and early use.
“The faster a substance reaches the brain, the more addictive it becomes,” Fay says. “Smoking or injecting a drug offers a faster route to the brain [than drinking]."
Successful treatment of addiction usually involves detox or residential care as well as relapse prevention, Fay says. Four factors are commonly present to prevent relapse, and at least two are required: external supervision, ritual dependency on a competing behaviour, new love relationships, and deepened spirituality.
“Competing behaviour means the addiction needs to be replaced by something of equal value,” he notes.
McCullough says that wanting to become sober was a huge part of her own recovery.
“It was my decision to go into treatment,” she explains. “I was not coerced by a family member. It made a huge difference. If you have a desire to get sober, you will do well.
“Willingness is a key ingredient,” she adds. “I came in with a desire and willingness…and because of that, I haven’t struggled. I’ve been through a divorce and I’ve lost friends and I’ve lost pets, things that are hard to deal with. But that’s what sobriety has given me: the ability to live life on life’s terms and not have to anesthetize myself in any way to pull through life’s challenges. I stick with people who are sober and do the work that’s necessary to stay sober. I’m happy in my own skin. I have an excellent life today.”