Maintaining the secret

I have been lucky to have never suffered with addiction myself. But I have been surrounded by it all my life

Where best to start this reflection? Naturally, back at the beginning, with consideration of how I selected the topic. I have been lucky to have never suffered with addiction myself. But I have been surrounded by it all my life. According to NHS figures, alcohol alone is responsible for 7.5 million dependences in the UK. Clearly it is a massive issue, and consequently, the target audience for this feature is very broad. Most British adults will know someone who has struggled with addiction. However, they may be unaware that they know such a person, due to so many ‘maintaining the secret’.

Many of the people I grew up with were lost to addiction. Others made a living catering to other people’s addictions. Then they went to prison, so indirectly, they were lost to addiction too. I’ve seen addiction impact my friends, family and children that I’ve taught. Throughout my life, it has been an omnipresent fog, clouding situations and making people get lost in the mist.

My best man at my wedding, is an alcoholic. He’s in recovery, and now works supporting others facing similar challenges. He played a fundamental role in this article, the ultimate fixer, although given the circumstance, perhaps that’s an ill-advised choice of words. But it is my relationship with him that refined my attention on the specific aspect of addiction which I wanted to focus on; the period where a person is secretly dependent on a substance, but those closest to them are unaware. Invariably, the person suffering the addiction is intent on keeping it secret for as long as possible. This aspect of addiction is all-consuming for the people afflicted by it, but it is barely recognised. Often we think of addicts as the people who are visibly tormented and controlled by their substance reliance. Some might think of AA meetings, domestic violence, homelessness or hitting rock bottom. But the relatively early stages, where an addiction is taking root, are much less observed. I shared a house with my best friend during that period of his addiction.

From the initial idea, the natural progression is to now reflect on the title. ‘Maintaining the secret’. We normally hear about ‘keeping a secret’. To me that somehow connotes doing it for someone else, keeping their secret. Language can be odd and perhaps subjective. There’s technically nothing about ‘keeping’ that implies it must be on someone else’s behalf, but it did not sit right. So I decided on ‘Maintaining the secret’. Maintaining suggests doing enough to ensure something continues. The people whose stories are told in this article were intent on doing just enough to keep the secret going, and thus, protect their addiction from outside intervention.

I was aware that to write this feature, I needed to speak to people who had been through a traumatic period. Obviously, that brings with it significant ethical considerations. Asking a person questions about a terrible period of their life could be harmful, taking them back to a place of pain and anguish. For this reason, I decided to target interviewees who were in a sustained period of recovery and had significant experience discussing their addiction. Many rehabilitation approaches, including AA, place emphasis on speaking and sharing experiences for the benefit of others. Fortunately for me, that meant that there were people well versed in the sorts of discussions I needed to have.

Perhaps my biggest challenge, and subsequently my biggest regret, is that the subject is not really suited to an 800-word feature article. I interviewed four fascinating people, all worthy of more time, words and focus. With Lewis and Henry, I was only able to describe one aspect of two very harrowing but ultimately uplifting stories. With Robin, I had no chance to focus on his journey or the work done by his clinic. And with David, a man who has studied hundreds of years of attitudes to alcohol, I could afford him only a few lines. Consequently, my biggest learning reflection going forward is picking a topic appropriate to fulfil the brief, and fully thinking through what that entails. In the end I managed to edit the article to 796 words, excluding captions.

When considering the short form video story, I wanted to create something which gave a flavour of what the feature comprises. I decided to use a first-hand account of addiction, and illustrate the story with reconstructed scenes, filmed from a ‘point of view’ perspective. Ultimately, this meant I had to wear a suit and recreate the events described. This was an element of the assignment which concerned me, as I am not as comfortable using social media as some of my classmates. However, overall I am pleased with the outcome and feel it works in synchronisation with the article.

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