Can We Create a Culture of Compassion?

Earlier this month, a British politician died. Charles Kennedy was only 55, and died of alcohol-related causes, having struggled for years to overcome alcoholism. He was also widely loved, and not just by those of his political party. It’s common for people to speak kindly of those who have died, yet everyone seems in agreement that this time, they mean it.

Well, most of them meant it. Others had hounded Kennedy for months, years even, hurling verbal abuse at him. In the run up to the recent General Election, in which Kennedy lost his seat, the online abuse was reported to be so bad that his staff monitored it in an attempt to shield him from the worst. The leading activist in his main opponent’s camp has since quit his post after reportedly making over 130 abusive tweets. On the other hand, a cartoonist who represented Kennedy sweating over a glass of lager was unrepentant.

In the days after Kennedy’s death, several articles appeared in newspapers and online, saying our society needs to change, and that MPs need to change their culture of denial around heavy drinking. Kennedy is by no means the only MP to have had or to have a problem with addiction. Winston Churchill, who some consider the UK’s greatest Prime Minster, may or may not have been alcoholic (historians are divided on this.) It seems the Prime Ministers who didn’t rely on drink to get them through were rarer than those who did. From Tony Blair admitting to using alcohol as a prop during his time as PM, to various stories about Margaret Thatcher allegedly drinking all night during crises, stories of politicians and alcohol abound. It seems that Charles Kennedy was different because he admitted he had a problem – and was publicly humiliated for it.

Compassion LogoAlso in the days after Kennedy’s death, much was written and spoken about his disease. One article in particular struck me, because it was different. The writer, a doctor who works with people who use drugs or alcohol, says that many of his colleagues do not agree with the disease model of alcoholism. They feel sympathy for those suffering, but they believe the disease view doesn’t help the alcoholic – instead it leaves them feeling powerless. This doctor adds: “What always strikes me is that drinking is an attempt to blot out intense emotional pain and psychological distress.

I came to a similar conclusion, years ago, when I was researching my novel Drawings in Sand, in which a woman struggles to overcome years of alcohol abuse. The following extract occurs after Stella, the main character, has collapsed at work. A senior colleague, Mrs Firth, supports her to see herself differently.

“It is my belief, Stella, based on some degree of experience, that nobody drinks to excess unless there is something deeply wrong in their life. Why else would you spend half your time escaping and the other half hating yourself for doing so? ”

As part of my research, I spoke to counsellors who supported people trying to overcome problem drinking. I had started out with the intention that my character would go to Alcoholics Anonymous, but the counsellors I spoke to had similar views to the doctor I’ve quoted. They accepted that for many people AA is a lifesaver and they saw other possible ways to support people.

In the article I’ve quoted above, Dr Pemberton also says: “The disease model communicates sympathy and understanding — qualities we’re quicker to offer middle-class drinkers than working-class kids with needles in their arms. It says to people: don’t worry, we’re not judging you, we know how hard this is for you.”

Although I take his point about class, I’m not sure if the part about drug addiction is accurate. Last year when Peaches Geldof died of a heroin overdose after treatment for drug addiction, the coroner, described her attempts to come of the heroin substitute methadone as “a significant achievement.” He said this was different to her mother Paula Yates, who also died of a heroin overdose, but who was not an addict. At the time of Yates’s death, the coroner described her drug-taking as “foolish,” and many people said similar things about Peaches. So perhaps we are more willing to forgive the disease of addiction than we are non- addicted using.

Geldof was mother to two very young children, publicly trying to practice attachment parenting whilst struggling with addiction. Her death struck me as intensely sad, the shame she must have felt immense. At the time I wrote that we need to: learn the difference between blame and responsibility [and] …create a culture of openness and honesty where someone who is struggling to keep up with the demands of a public career and two tiny children can say, “I need help.” Before it is too late.culture of compassion

I still think that.

Around the time of Kennedy’s death, I kept coming across an article by Johann Hari, The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think. Hari cites some interesting research into addiction, including experiments that found when rats are left alone in a cage with two water bottles, one of which is laced with hard drugs, they will become addicted and die. But if rats are in a community, and have plenty of toys, very few took to drugs and none died. Human examples of this same effect are: soldiers hooked on heroin in the Vietnam war – 95% stopped using when they returned home to a safe environment, and hospital patients who are given morphine for months and then go home with no addiction.

Hari says this: is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. (I’m not sure I’d agree those views belong to right and left, but his point is valid.)

One expert Hari spoke to explained that: “human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections.” Break that bond or take it away from people, as we often do with addicts, and you foster the environment for addiction. When we can’t connect with people, we connect with whatever we can, whether it’s a whisky bottle, roulette wheel or video game.

During Hari’s research he came to realise that the “tough love” so often advocated for dealing with addicts is more likely to fuel disconnect and so addiction. Many of us instinctively know this, and again, I wrote about it in Drawings In Sand. Here’s Mrs Firth again:

“You do such a grand job of putting yourself down that I can’t see how more punishment would help. I know it’s supposed to be tough love, or whatever fancy name they call it, that brings about change, but, my dear, I can’t see what’s wrong with a little kindness.”

Hari writes that everything we’ve been told about addiction is wrong and that: “If we truly absorb this new story, we will have to change a lot more than the drug war. We will have to change ourselves.”

I agree. We humans are an odd bunch. We consider ourselves better than those we judge, and this feels satisfying – for a few moments. The trouble is, that feeling doesn’t last. Deep down we feel ashamed for judging. We might even know our judgements aren’t entirely true. But, rather than face our own self-loathing, we look again for evidence that “they” are bad. Just as those of us who are addicted reach again and again for a substance to try to ease their psychic pain and shame, so too do those of us who judge them. Judging others is as much an addiction as substance abuse – it’s just (perhaps) harder to notice.

The way out of it, and – I believe – the way out of our culture of addiction and shame is compassion. Compassion for others and for ourselves.

The way out of our culture of addiction and shame is compassion.

I’m human, so I mess up. I say things I wish I hadn’t, particularly to my kids or husband. Some mornings, I wake up tired and it seems that everyone is trying to annoy me. I react to their bad moods, with a bad mood of my own.

And then, I remember. I notice that they are worried about exams or jobs or something else. I remember that they are taking something I say personally because of their own anxieties, not because I’ve said something terrible. I stop beating myself and stop reacting to them.

Outrage is easy to come by. Understanding, empathy, compassion, forgiveness: not always so easy. Like Hari says, this calls on us to change. It calls on us to look deep inside ourselves to see that we are not so different from those whom we would judge. But it’s what heals. It’s what we need to foster if we are to have that world I dream of – a world where anyone who is struggling with addiction or with mental illness or even just plain old loneliness can say, “I need help.” And receive it.

I’ll leave the last word to Mrs Firth.“Sometimes it’s not willpower we need to change, but a little self-love.”

Sometimes it’s not willpower we need to change, but a little self-love.

only us

This post is part for 1000 Voices Speak For Compassion, a worldwide blogging initiative that aims to bring more compassion to our world.

Here’s how to get involved:

Join 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion on Facebook

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Click the blue button below to read more posts about compassion or to contribute your own.

1000 Voices Speak for Compassion began partly in response to the massacre of journalists in France by extremists and of villagers in Nigeria by Boko Haram. With the murder of people in Charleston, it’s clear that our voices speaking for compassion are needed still. The families of those who were murdered are an inspiration to us all in their determination to forgive, and in forgiving to heal.This month the link-up will remain open for a week to allow participants time to write posts standing with the people of Charleston.


  1. Such amazing post with so much truth, a culture is what we need, a culture that will adapt more empathy and understanding.

    1. Author

      Thanks Sacha. I do think that compassion, empathy and understanding are what help us all thrive.

  2. While I agree with you that kindness and compassion are needed in order to help addicts recover, I don’t believe that the disease model is inaccurate or misleading. For those who are ashamed of their addiction (especially alcohol and food addictions) and look around to see others who do not struggle for control as they do, the disease model gives an explanation for the problem and removes the shame. It opens the door to recovery. A person who thinks they drink because bad stuff has happened to them is indeed powerless — they can’t change the past. But a person who has a chemical response to alcohol and knows about it has power — they can choose not to drink, knowing that if they do, their chemistry will take over. Granted, many addicts have some awful stuff in their life. The addiction may start as a result of a stressful, painful, or frightening event. But a true addict will use in good times and bad. The physical craving rules their lives.

    Thanks for sharing the information about the need for connection to help people recover. I think one of the reasons 12-step programs work for many people is the fellowship of the members that helps support them and show them how to live without using.

    This is a great and thought-provoking article, and I’m very happy to see someone writing about the need for compassion to help those who are struggling with addictions.

    1. Author

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment Kit. I guess for each person what creates shame is different. Some years ago, a friend of mine who has had mental health struggles felt guilty when her child became depressed – because she thought she’d passed on faulty genes, but for others, as you say, the explanation offered by the disease model may allow them to feel less shame. The doctor I quoted agrees with you that this is why it is common to use the disease model, and he also agrees with you that there is an element of choice. But he believes we can show compassion for people struggling with alcohol dependence whether or not we consider it to be a disease.

      I don’t see that something bad happening in the past renders someone powerless. As you say, you can’t change the past, but you can change how you react to the memory of it now, and by learning to see it differently it’s possible to be free of it. Although I’ve never been addicted, I speak from personal experience – I had a few traumas in the past, including a being held at knife-point, and questioning my thoughts about these situations freed me to live more happily in the present.

      Thanks again for your comment.

      1. “for there is nothing neither good or bad, but thinking makes it so” (Hamlet, Act II Sc ii)

        So much of what has caused me trouble has merely been the way I think about things! So I am both impressed and unsurprised to hear that you have dealt with traumatic events of your own by reconsidering them. A great example of compassion towards ourselves (and sometimes others — I have to think differently about everyone).

        1. Author

          Kit, that Shakespeare quote it great! And honestly, you are not alone – our habitual thinking is what gets most of us into trouble! Several years ago now I started using a process called “The Work” to question my more stressful thoughts and I still do this almost every day. It’s helped me so much (and still does) that I’ve written about it a few times. If you are interested, I can point you to a few posts and to the website. It’s not a panacea, but definitely helps.

  3. This post is so well-done.
    This is a complicated subject and compassion is needed. Everyone has a different viewpoint and those who suffer with addiction need help, but it isn’t always easy to know how to give that help.

    1. Author

      You’re right Kerry – it’s not always easy to know how to give help. And not just with addictions. Several people in my life are going through hard times just now, and sometimes they are just not ready for the support I’d like to offer because to them it can feel like an attack on their identity. I do understand that, because I’ve also felt the same way!
      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Excellent post, Yvonne. We are all human and as such we all have different strengths and weaknesses. If compassion ruled the hearts of humans the way it should, then far less judging would take place in the world. People with problems (weaknesses) would feel far less shame and would be far more apt to ask for help when they need it. Compassion is and always will be the way to put an end to this terrible cycle.

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