Chasing the scream – when what we think we know is wrong.

I am not an aficionado on drugs or the drug trade. This probably doesn’t come as a surprise, but because of what follows it is important to mention. I don’t have first hand experience but blessed, comfortable naiveté, and I read this book to change that but I did so from a foundation of neutral. What I read ripped things inside of me that were not already frayed, which means they are more easily re-sewn. I cried my first tears about this and stopped to highlight everything, not because it resonated with a lifetime of sadness but because it has taken me this long to ask about the pain. What does it feel like? Why is it happening?

One book does not any kind of answer bring. But it has started the task of education, and so I offer this to you as a nobody with no experience who read a book that changed me. For those of you who walk this road outside the pages of neatly printed typeface, I shudder to presume to comment. The wounds inside you from years of blurred heartache are nothing akin to my tiny fissures. I do not want to present logic to pile upon your sorrow. Forgive me for the moments this review seems like I know what this is like?

Chasing the Scream: the first and last days of the war on drugs is written by journalist and former addict Johann Hari who spent 3 years trawling the world and tracing the ebbs and flows of the illegal drug trade. I came to it ‘knowing’ certain things: drugs are addictive, drugs ruin lives and as a result, they should be every kind of illegal. Hari challenges all of my internalised truths, painting a complex picture of power and control, fear and failure. I beg you to read this book. You don’t have to agree with anything he says, but let his investigation inform your reasoning.

His investigation traces the history of the ‘war on drugs’ through the US, South America, Europe and the UK. He interweaves statistics with historical narrative, personal testimony and political intrigue. The result is a page turner, even if it doesn’t sound like one. This is not the work of an addict arguing for legalisation so he can get his fix. It speaks of a world where heroin was metered out legally as tonic turning into one of cartels and dirty syringes, of monopolies and money and advantage, a game where even the winners lose in the end.

Here are stories of traumatised buffalo seeking solace in opium fields during the Vietnam war. Here are stories of celebrities and nobodies in cycles of dependence and despair. Here are stories of a great stain of loss and loneliness, from which drugs are a temporary reprieve. There are so many new thoughts to think in this book, surrounding solutions which have partially worked, campaigners who advocate for change and suggestions for the current toxic climate. Have you ever thought about how scarcity makes the most potent drugs the only ones worth selling? How drugs are often sought as a solution, rather than earmarking the beginning of the problem? How making criminals of addicts perpetuates the downward spiral?

I have loved and feared the way this book made me question my privileged presuppositions. How the solutions are frightening and nuanced, but not more so than a hundred years of bloodshed and banishment. I am not the right person to speak knowledgably on this issue, but perhaps I am the right person to consider someone who does, and get myself ready for solutions I shrink from by virtue of my ignorance.

This book left me more uncomfortable, more informed, less certain. I hope and pray it leaves me yet more compassionate. My favourite quote comes in those final 20 pages, a reductive sample that doesn’t give a neat solution, but hints perhaps at a vital component of it:

“I think I understand something for the first time. The opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety. It’s connection. It’s all I can offer. It’s all that will help him in the end. If you are alone, you cannot escape addiction. If you are loved, you have a chance. For a hundred years we have been singing war songs about addicts. All along, we should have been singing love songs to them.”

In my very limited experience of addicts, mostly from the streets of Newtown over the past few precious years, I have to agree. It sounds simple, but love is far from it. Love is the costliest of solutions, complicated, messy, spilling over into compartments I will not relinquish to “evangelism” or “caring”, compartments with my name stamped on them as sacred. I am afraid of loving the way people need to be loved, to live. This is true of people suffering from addiction, but also of poverty, of displacement, of grief and despair. This thoroughly secular book ends with connection and compassion. And it gets me to thinking.

Ultimately patting someone through their loneliness is not enough when you know the God who came near, but it IS part of it. It has to be. We must whisper, sing and shout of Jesus who lived and bled and died and rose again for a messy people in desperate need of him. A sin-stained people who need forgiveness for their rebellion and to be washed clean. A broken people who ache with loneliness because they have rejected the very God who bids them come, be a part of his family. We must tell this gospel message, a spoken word of salvation to the nations. And we must do it from alongside, in the middle of the mess. My Saviours love was costly and complicated, and so must mine be. It cannot be a love which reads newspapers and feels only coldness. Which turns to buzzfeed because I cannot bear the bloodshed elsewhere.

This marvellous book has nothing to do with the God who came near. But he is the answer for a world aching with loneliness, in the grip of desires which do not deliver. And he is the reason we are not satisfied with lives spent dishing out love in metered tonics. I don’t know what it means practically to love my neighbour as myself, but I know it means telling them about Jesus, and I’m pretty sure I’m supposed to hold their hand while I do it. I am still not an aficionado on the drug trade. I don’t know truly what I think about the solutions proposed in this book. But I know what the answer for loneliness is, and what love looks like, because it has been shown to me. And I am challenged, once again, of what it means to follow in his steps.

1 John 4:10-11. “This is what real love is: It is not our love for God; it is God’s love for us. He sent his Son to die in our place to take away our sins. Dear friends, if God loved us that much we also should love each other.”


6 thoughts on “Chasing the scream – when what we think we know is wrong.

  1. It sounds like a book worth reading for sure. I was thinking about your comments on living out our faith regarding loving the unlovely and realised that is exactly who we are to Christ, the unlovely that He gave Himself for…

  2. This is an amazing book. It brought so many things to the forefront of my consciousness about addiction. What it did not do, and nothing can ever do, is take away the pain of the way people treat my heroin addicted son. As if because he is an addict, he has no feelings at all. What it did do is help me to respond with love, love and more love.

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