Saturday January 22, 2022

Let’s talk about addiction

December 07, 2021

Before working as a teacher in an underresourced community, I thought of addiction as something afforded by privilege. This was a naive take, particularly for someone who had seen the toll wrought on families that silently struggle with loved ones’ alcoholism or other damaging dependencies.

I have encountered numerous stories of families, particularly in conservative communities, hiding in shame the multitude of challenges that come when a parent, child, or sibling seems lost to this all-consuming disease.

A family that struggles to live each day, in spite of the addiction hidden away within its walls, has a few trademarks. The brunt of financial and emotional responsibilities for support naturally falls, disproportionately, on members who are ‘healthy’. The actual health of these members is highly compromised given the cognitive dissonance of having to love and care for an addicted family member, in spite of the pain or torment that is consciously, or mostly unconsciously, inflicted upon them by those who are unwell.

As individuals seek to break cycles of violence and drug use within their families, the greatest obstacle to this is one all of us create and maintain together: shame. The feelings of guilt that surround children, wives, parents – when they know their family is plagued by a problem that is so terrible, it is hardly even spoken of in hushed voices – do great harm in ostracising individuals from communities, forcing children, in particular, to grow up with pain, shame, loneliness, and often, the fear of never being able to get out.

As I reflect on my time teaching, I think of students – nine or ten years old – who, after two years, were finally able to confide in their teacher, “My father is in jail because they accused him of being addicted to heroin. It’s not true. You shouldn’t believe it if anyone tells you otherwise”. Or in other cases, of children who had said nothing, but whose struggles I knew of because of staffroom chatter, “iska abba toh powdri hai” (their father is a heroin addict).

Addiction is heartbreaking, because of the fear that comes with the thought of being understood by the world through the lens of the very thing that one is most ashamed of. Struggle and disease are difficult for everyone, but addiction, in particular, is isolating. Too many children grow up with it being a part of their lives, without being able to get the emotional, and in some cases physical, help they need to cope with these situations.

The thought of their loved ones never recovering, the pain of watching promises be broken over and over again, and oftentimes, the violence and financial vulnerability this disease exposes households to – along with the natural internal fight between loving and hating those that they know are themselves suffering – are some of the things my students and members of my community across private and public schools – elite and underprivileged settings – share in common.

Narrative-building around one’s life, around who we are and who we will be, is especially important for children and families of those who are addicted. In the classroom, my students and I spoke of cycles of violence and drug use specifically, about the fears we carry when we think we will end up like the worst role models we have.

These were empowering moments, for all of us. For a few people I know of, access to high-quality psychological care while growing up was the key to building healthy narratives of their place in the world and where they wanted to be headed. For my students, I hope now, connecting with one another, and their teacher, knowing they had someone they could talk to about these problems – was one of the most important things to come about from our time together.

However, addiction is a large-scale problem. Where do resources for support exist around us, for the ordinary 10-year-old at a government school who is forbidden from talking about the things they see at home? For the too few resources that do exist, how do we de-stigmatise the guilt of coming forward and seeking help, admitting out loud to another the nature of this hidden struggle? There are no mainstream programmes in Pakistan for families and children to cope with the everyday loss and pain they face with addiction.

The small Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) chapter in Pakistan is quite plainly very good at being anonymous. Where is the public discourse and pressure on the government to intervene and protect vulnerable people who are suffering behind closed doors?

This gap in need and provision exists because of social stigma, and our failure as a society to articulate that addiction in our communities is a real problem that cannot be left to individual households to resolve, amidst isolation and shame. From our most economically vulnerable communities to the most privileged, we need to look ourselves in the mirror and pluck up the courage to have honest conversations about those who are struggling with drug dependencies, and get them the help they need.

We need to reach out to the families of those who are addicted, to have them know that they are not alone in their struggle and to have them know that with us, there is a safe place to turn to. and they need not fear being judged or ostracised.

Cognitive and social development, the ability to form healthy personal relationships, and the potential to be a contributing member of a society, all hang in the balance for families embroiled in the collective trauma of addiction. Almost all of us in Pakistan know of someone who is struggling with either their own or a loved one’s drug dependency.

Whether we proceed by starting small support groups within our communities, or pressure policymakers to create large-scale programmes to de-stigmatise, treat, and support those suffering directly or indirectly, we need to do something across individual, programmatic, and system levels. The best time for us to have thrown shame out the door was decades ago, but we might do something – really, anything – to meet the challenge now.

The writer is an educationpolicy expert from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She tweets at @AroojNHaq and can be reached at