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Beyond AA: Online mag offers stories of addiction and DIY sobriety Add to ...

In the bottomless pit of heroin addiction, Tony O'Neill watched his teeth fall out and pus-filled abscesses form in his punctured skin. He hit a new low when he screamed at his then-wife because she refused to have sex with a drug dealer in return for a $40 bag of smack. But even that wasn't rock bottom.

Mr. O'Neill, 32, didn't seek treatment until he was a "near-dead junkie." It took years of relapsing before he finally quit the stuff. But ever since 2003, the New York-based musician and novelist has managed to stay off heroin and methadone by smoking pot to "short-circuit the cravings."

Mr. O'Neill describes his brand of sobriety in The Argument Against Abstinence, an article he wrote for TheFix.com, an online magazine helmed by ex-Radar editor Maer Roshan.

Launched in March with the tagline "Addiction and recovery, straight up," the magazine is the public face of a recovery model that leaves plenty of room for harm-reduction approaches and DIY sobriety as well as the 12-Step programs that have helped so many.

Contrary to the narrative popularized on TV shows such as Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew, committing to a lifetime of anonymous meetings and reliance on a higher power isn't the only path to sobriety, The Fix suggests. Lots of people have drifted into problematic drug use and drifted out of it themselves, Mr. O'Neill says. "It may be a more common story, really."

But until recently, Mr. Roshan says, this story has rarely been heard.

"The justice system here in the United States routinely sends people to Alcoholics Anonymous for [drunk-driving]infractions. Doctors send their patients to AA because they don't really know what to do with them," he says. "But what becomes of people who can't adhere to the AA model?"

The Fix checks out the alternatives in edgy articles covering topics such as cognitive-behavioural therapy for addiction treatment - offering a forum for psychologist and anti-AA "heretic" Stanton Peele - as well as salvia, a psychoactive herb that's banned in Canada and many states.

The salvia article, in which the author inhales the stuff for journalistic purposes, reflects the magazine's critical view of the "war on drugs", Mr. Roshan says. Since studies on rats suggest that salvia has potential to treat cocaine addiction, he says, "why are we rushing to ban it?"

The Fix's scrappy take on drug issues is clearly a hit with its target readership: urbanites under 35. Already, the website pulls in about 380,000 visitors a month with its eclectic range of personal essays ("Finding the Perfect AA Meeting"), medical updates ("Acupuncture for Addiction?") an ask-the-expert section ("How should I respond when my boyfriend follows a long sober stint with an ugly binge?") and TimeOut-style rehab reviews.

Even though it reads like a lifestyle magazine for addicts (on and off the wagon), The Fix has so far declined advertising from sobriety-oriented businesses in favour of mainstream clients such as Crunch Fitness and Kenneth Cole.

"The point is to show people that [addiction]is really a mainstream problem," the editor says, adding that 20 million Americans describe themselves as being in recovery. In Canada, about 11 per cent of the population reported having a problem with drug or alcohol abuse in a 2008 study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry.

The Fix may be tapping into a broader market still. The public has never been hungrier for "quit lit" such as Keith Richards's Life, Nic Sheff's Tweak and Nikki Sixx's The Heroin Diaries. On TV, Celebrity Rehab and Intervention draw top ratings. And judging by the recent comebacks of reformed addicts Steven Tyler, Owen Wilson and Robert Downey Jr., hard drug use has only added to their mystique.

Rehab is having a moment, Mr. Roshan points out. "There's just a great interest in the subject of addiction generally."

Voyeuristic thrills are in ample supply at The Fix, where uppers and downers include a slideshow on the late Jeff Conaway ("Kenickie" in Grease) and a rambling interview with Courtney Love that reveals the fashionista hell raiser's shaky definition of sobriety (her program includes a line of coke here and there).

Nevertheless, The Fix isn't pro-drug, the editor insists. "I'm not sure what the right route [to recovery]is," says Mr. Roshan, who abstains from alcohol and doesn't do drugs. "I just think we should present as many options to people as possible."

For addicts, exploring alternatives to complete abstinence is a valid approach, says Peter Selby, director of the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. While 12-step programs are "lifesaving for many people," he says, in the past 20 years centres such as CAMH have moved toward a coaching model to help people with addictions. Those seeking treatment are encouraged to set goals and consider strategies including behavioural changes and medications to reduce cravings, Dr. Selby says. "There are many routes to getting better."

Adi Jaffe, a psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, notes that 75 per cent of people who meet the criteria for alcoholism recover by themselves without treatment or AA, according to a 2002 survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the United States.

Articles about ex-addicts who still have a badass side help make recovery more attractive to young people, says Dr. Jaffe, an ex-methamphetamine addict turned social drinker who runs Allaboutaddiction.com, a website he describes as a competitor to The Fix. "When you're 20 years old, you're not giving up fun for the rest of your life."

Similarly, addicts never entirely give up their obsession with mind-blowing tales of the abyss, says Mr. O'Neill, whose recent novel Sick City is a brutal ride through Hollywood's heroin-laced underbelly. "There's nothing any ex-junkie enjoys as much as sitting around talking about drugs."

Lucky for them, The Fix's chat room is coming soon.

Editor's note: Dr. Adi Jaffe is a former methamphetamine addict, not a former methadone addict, as stated in the original version of this article. This version has been corrected.



 

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