A little over 10 years ago, as a young anthropology student, I arrived in the dusty, shrub-infested outback town of Alice Springs in a champagne-coloured Toyota Camry. It’s an extraordinary place: vast and dry and scorched. I planned to spend my summer break managing three local liquor stores there — given the town’s reputation for Aboriginal alcohol abuse, I thought it would make an interesting case study — and ended up living in Alice Springs for much of my early adulthood.

Driving through the town’s little streets at night, it wasn’t unusual to see people staggering across the roads in a drunken stupor. One night I saw a woman, completely naked, crawling along the side of the road. Day in and day out, binge drinkers stumbled through the doors of the liquor store, some smelling as if they hadn’t washed for weeks. A few even relieved themselves in the store. Theft was almost an hourly event, and fights over alcohol were common; stores were prone to being ransacked by mobs of up to 15 people, forcing staff and security against walls or bailed up by flying bottles of bourbon, while their comrades made away with cartons of wine.

In 2022 the problem reached its zenith, when the small Outback town of 25,000 accumulated 2,653 reported assaults. There was a 53% rise in alcohol-related assaults: shopkeepers installed metal barricades to prevent burglaries and concrete bollards were put up on roads to stop stolen cars. “We’ve already filled the jails,” warned the state’s police commissioner.

In January last year, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese arrived for an emergency meeting, keen to resolve the local disorder ahead of his divisive “Voice” referendum on indigenous representation to the Australian Parliament. The meeting ended on a controversial note, with the re-imposition of a ban on the sale of alcohol to indigenous Australians in some communities, who make up a fifth of the population. Since its reintroduction, there has been a substantial drop in domestic violence and other antisocial behaviour. However, recent months has seen a rise in crime by indigenous youths in Alice Springs and the imposition of a temporary 6pm curfew.

Many white Australians believe that Aboriginal people cannot be trusted with alcohol, a view echoed by some authorities on drug addiction. Psychiatrist and former White House drug czar, Robert DuPont, captures this sentiment in his 1997 book, The Selfish Brain: Learning from Addiction. He bemoans that: “To see Native Americans suffer from the use of alcohol and other drugs, and even cigarettes, or to see similar suffering among Australian Aborigines, is to face the painful reality that traditional cultures are not prepared to withstand exposure to modern drugs and to tolerant values governing drug-taking behaviour.” His book suggests that non-indigenous culture is superior in regulating social standards surrounding dangerous drugs such as alcohol, while tough pressure is required from an external source — white governments — to prevent their use in indigenous cultures.

What DuPont doesn’t seem to grasp is that Aboriginal culture does not exist in an a-historical vacuum. Stripping a culture of its regulatory mechanisms for discordant social behaviour and then declaring that culture to be inherently inferior in regulating substances intertwined with that behaviour leaves much to be desired in DuPont’s diagnosis of the problem. And in any case, if proximity to traditional Aboriginal culture could explain addiction, then the indigenous children of the “Stolen Generations” — taken from their parents and raised as white people as part of Australia’s Assimilation Policy — should have fared relatively well. Instead, they descended into a spiral of substance abuse. Christina Green, who as a child was taken by the government and raised in Parramatta Girls Home, recalled: “Most girls became depressed, suicidal and addicted to drugs and alcohol later in life.”

These children suffered horrific psychological scars — and some were abused and raped in the institutions that tried to assimilate them. In his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction,Canadian physician Gabor Maté explains how trauma in Australian indigenous communities has been passed from one generation to another through violence, sexual abuse, and child neglect that originally emanated from the trauma of colonialism. “If you look at why addicts are soothing themselves through chemicals… you will see that they have all experienced childhood adversity — the pain and distress that they needed to escape.” This explanation is not without its critics, such as those who would point to extreme levels of violence in indigenous communities prior to white contact. Moreover, confining the explanation to psychopathology derived from the childhood period seems to miss far broader determinants of addiction.

That is because trauma is not the only cause of addiction: boredom is another trigger. In his book, Maté draws from a well-known case study. During the Vietnam War, many American soldiers became addicted to opiates, causing an alarmed American public to prepare for an avalanche of returning addicted soldiers — who instead spontaneously quit drugs once back in the United States. This story is often told to highlight the causal role of the stress and boredom of war on drug addiction. Bruce Alexander’s now infamous Rat Park experiments in the Seventies came to a similar conclusion: taking fun activities away from rats induced them to drink a morphine solution that they otherwise couldn’t stand while living a normal rat life.

I’ve met my fair share of indigenous people who drink or use drugs for no other reason than stress or boredom. During the pandemic, I took up a position as a case manager in a drug rehabilitation service for indigenous people in the minute town of Katherine, to the north of Alice Springs. It was the only such centre in a 300-kilometre radius. One afternoon, I was in my office when a support worker reported a client missing who had that day tested positive for THC and had broken his parole conditions. Pushing through the long grass that extends into the bushland around the facility, I found the young Aboriginal man sitting in the bushes, wondering whether to make a dash for it. “Why did you decide to use ganja?” I asked him. It was a response I became used to hearing: “Rehabilitation is boring.”

“I’ve met my fair share of indigenous people who drink or use drugs for no other reason than stress or boredom.”

Two years later, I found myself working in the largest drug and alcohol detox and rehabilitation facility in Darwin, the capital city of the Northern Territory of Australia. One indigenous woman, Patricia (not her real name), was a former heroin-turned-methamphetamine addict. Over a period of six months, she’d tell me about the often highly embarrassing misadventures she had in trying to support her meth habit. It seemed that she held nothing back in these discussions — the people she’d slept with for money, diseases she had picked up, thefts she had carried out.  As a former secretary for a prosecutor, she was also incredibly bright; we discussed Charles Darwin and our shared love of psychology. With her intellectual curiosity and openness to discussing anything in her life no matter how raw and embarrassing, you would think that our conversation would have uncovered some form of childhood trauma. But there was nothing. She insisted that she had enjoyed a happy childhood, received all the love and support she could have asked for, wanted for nothing, and didn’t suffer any trauma that she could put a finger on. Her introduction to drugs was simply a response to the boredom of her early adulthood.

One night, Patricia turned up at the rehabilitation facility in a meth-induced psychosis, claiming that she hadn’t slept in a week. It was obvious that she required urgent medical care, but due to Darwin’s overstretched ambulance service and limited staff in the night-time hours, there was no one. I sat alone with her for hours, as she twisted, gyrated, and cursed. It was the last I saw of her.

If we are to get to the root of indigenous alcohol abuse, we have to take this apathy seriously. Much of it comes down to extreme levels of unemployment, which a series of Australian governments has tried to tackle to no avail. Stripped of the traditional hunter-gatherer lifestyle, a purgatory of chronic boredom now afflicts their communities. But there’s another problem: as in the case of Patricia, indigenous people often start taking drugs after gaining employment, especially in menial, repetitive jobs, such as in an abattoir or factory. Some have implied to me that their substance abuse is a product of the boredom and monotony of white man’s work. But there’s another way in which employment gives rise to stress in Aboriginal culture.

I would often sit with Aboriginal clients while they talked with government welfare officers. One question that was routinely asked was: “On a score of one to ten, how confident are you that you will look for work?” I never heard a client give any response other than one. In Alice Springs, I worked with an Aboriginal man, an extraordinarily bright and dedicated member of staff. But he had a problem with his family members coming into the store and asking for his pay check every week. One day, he finally decided to take the advice offered to him by so many non-indigenous people: he told his family that he wouldn’t slavishly hand over all the money he earned at his job. He was subsequently thrown out of a car and reversed over, losing both legs. Given the resentment in communal Aboriginal culture towards anyone who hoards resources individually, it’s no wonder that the usual refrain that Aboriginals should “go out and get a job” so often falls upon deaf ears. This deepens the mystery as how to integrate communal hunter-gatherer cultures into an industrial economy.

It’s also worth noting that when it comes to indigenous alcohol abuse, addiction is not the only problem. Aboriginals are less likely than white Australians to use alcohol according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and — according to a study published in Drug and Alcohol Review last year — are no more likely to be physiologically dependent on alcohol than white Australians. The problem, in many cases, is the occasional binge.

This is what claimed the life of Jimmy, my kindly, middle-aged Aboriginal neighbour whom I befriended in Alice Springs. In the months I knew him — and we spent a lot of time sitting on the porch discussing Egyptian archaeology — I didn’t see Jimmy drink once, until one day when he started drinking and didn’t stop. That night, my partner and I briefly attended his birthday party, and she sang a karaoke duet with him. The following day I woke to find police extracting his dead body from his apartment. He was last seen drinking himself silly. As I would later discover, indigenous people are more likely to go on dangerous alcohol binges, punctuated by periods of abstinence, than go through long periods of constant drinking that we associate with addiction.

Some surmise that the historical bans on alcohol consumption by indigenous people meant that they would be more likely to drink alcohol rapidly should they chance to acquire it. But what needs explanation is not only the rapidity of drinking, but the continuance. And this could be blamed on the loss of daily structure concomitant with having traditional lifeways and responsibilities washed away. Humans are good at blaming people. I suspect that many people reading this are readying themselves to blame someone for the plight of Aboriginals — the colonialists, contemporary non-indigenous people, Aboriginals themselves — in order to tie a complicated psycho-social problem into a neat little package. But these narratives over-simplify matters and offer only a low-resolution narrative as to how we got here.

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Source: UnHerd Read the original article here: https://unherd.com/