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Personal stories of alcohol or other drug addiction, dependence or habit

Welcome to Lives of Substance. This website has two aims. First, it aims to support people who consider themselves to have an alcohol or other drug addiction, dependence or habit, and second, it aims to inform the public by sharing personal stories of these experiences. Why this website now? The media has long been filled with stories of addiction and drug use, but these stories often rely on stereotypes and offer few clues about the range of people affected by addiction issues, the variety of experiences people have and the many ways they cope and even thrive. Lives of Substance aims to fill in the many gaps in public discussions of addiction, to counter stigmatising misconceptions, and to promote understanding and more effective community responses.

The website is based on a carefully conducted research project that collected detailed life stories of people who consider themselves to have an addiction, dependence or drug habit. These stories were analysed by a team of highly experienced researchers, and key themes were identified. These are presented here using video re-enactments, original audio recordings and written extracts from the interviews.

Because addiction is stigmatised in Australia, and people associated with it face discrimination, the website’s interview material has been altered to protect the identities of participants. Written and audio clips have been edited to remove potentially identifying information, and the video clips have been produced using actors who have re-enacted the original interview material. The video and audio clips, and written extracts were selected on the basis that they illustrate one of the key themes identified, for example how people look after their health, or how alcohol and other drug use fits into their lives. These clips present a diverse range of experiences but because they have been extracted from lengthy interviews, they are not intended to offer a full picture of each person’s life.

Also presented are life stories reconstructed by the researchers from the accounts people give of their lives in the context of their drug use. These personal stories provide important context, often making clear that, contrary to popular perception, people affected by addiction share the same joys, fears and experiences as everyone else. That said, the stories are not intended to be historical documents offering the ‘facts’ of a life. Instead they offer a perspective on a whole life put together from the details of a lengthy interview. Notably, the personal stories have been checked and approved by participants who chose to review them. The participants were also asked to look at the written transcripts of their interviews to ensure they were accurate, and were invited to add extra comments or mark parts they no longer wanted included in the research.

The website content is drawn from interviews conducted with 60 people living in cities and regional areas of Victoria and New South Wales, Australia. The participants range in age from 18 to 59, and come from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. They also vary across occupation, education level and sexual orientation. Some describe consuming only one drug, while others talk about two or more. Alcohol, much more widely consumed in Australia than any other substance and associated with more health and other issues, is included, but because the aim of this website is to explore diversity, it doesn’t feature as heavily as might be expected given its widespread presence in society. Detailed information about the people interviewed can be found here.

What can you expect to find on Lives of Substance? By browsing our list of topics, you will find stories of how alcohol or other drug use fits into daily life, how people manage regular use, how they look after their health and well-being, how they have cut down or stopped altogether, and many other issues. Some talk about experiences of treatment and give suggestions for improving health and other services. Many offer advice and messages for other consumers, for family and friends, or for policymakers and healthcare professionals. Importantly, while the project on which this website is based aimed to gather a very diverse set of experiences, the content does not include all experiences. If you have had experiences not reflected here, please feel free to communicate them via our moderated comment section.

We hope you find Lives of Substance helpful and informative.

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What is Addiction?

Addiction is by no means a simple issue. Many different definitions exist, along with different terms and different explanations for its causes. For some experts, addiction is the result of early childhood trauma, for others it’s a response to stress, and for still others it’s simply the result of exposure to particular drugs. Some experts see addiction as a learnt behaviour, some as a way of coping with unspoken feelings, and some as a ‘brain disease’ caused by the interference of drugs in the brain’s structure and chemistry. This website does not rely upon one definition over another, or take a view on causes. Its purpose is to give voice to those who see themselves as affected by addiction, to present their experiences in informative ways and to provide avenues to learn more or seek help where relevant.

A note on terms

Given the many definitions of addiction, it’s perhaps unsurprising that the stories presented here use several different terms. Some participants use the word ‘addiction’, while others prefer the term ‘dependence’ and a few opt for the word ‘habit’. Whichever term they use, all describe regular, heavy consumption of one or more legal and illegal drugs, including alcohol, cannabis, crystal methamphetamine, heroin, ‘party drugs’ and prescription drugs. Choosing the right word to describe these experiences is a very personal matter. It’s also a controversial one as different terms are considered by some (including healthcare professionals and drug user advocates) to carry specific meanings or to reinforce the stigma that is a major feature of life for people affected by the issue. This is especially the case for the word ‘addiction’, which has wide recognition but in Australia is sometimes seen in health and welfare circles as stigmatising or otherwise laden with negative baggage. On this website an effort has been made to use the terms chosen by our participants, or, where general statements are made, all three terms are sometimes used. More often the term ‘addiction’ is used, mainly due to its recognisability. Overall, the aim is to ensure content is as clear and understandable as possible, to avoid reproducing unhelpful ideas, but also to speak in language most meaningful and relevant to our participants and to you, our site visitors. The aim is also to encourage reflection on the meaning of ‘addiction’ as visitors encounter lives and experiences rarely associated with the word addiction in the media.

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