Heather R. Hayes, LPC, CIP, CAI

A hostage is defined as, “A person held as a security for the fulfillment of certain terms.”

I am a licensed counselor, certified interventionist, Educational Consultant, International Certified Hostage Negotiator, and Equestrian. I am also in long-term recovery and haven’t had a drink or a drug since February 24, 1982. Using my experience as a guide, this article will focus on the parallels I have drawn between addiction, terrorists and hostages.

I battled with my own addiction during college, but after 4 months of treatment I realized my vocation was to work in the field of mental health and addictions and I went back to finish my studies in psychology. Since 1986 I have worked with over 3000 families. Thanks to my extensive experience and knowledge of the mental health and addictions field, I was asked by the head of the Forsyth County Georgia (a suburb of Atlanta) hostage negotiation team (or crisis intervention team as it is called), to join the team as their mental health consultant. I subsequently completed the FBI’s negotiator training, trained with some of the leaders in the negotiation field, and became an internationally certified hostage negotiator.

Members of the Negotiations team work hard, train extensively, and are continually ready to respond to an incident. They can be called out any time but are usually needed in the middle of the night. They never know what situation they might face when they get the call: barricaded gunmen, domestic disputes ending up in hostage situations, burglaries gone awry, high risk warrants, suicidal individuals, etc. It is intense; lives are on the line; and the stakes are high. They need to be able to think rationally on their feet as they collaborate to save lives. Coming into the work as a hostage negotiator after many years as an interventionist, I quickly saw the similarities between the two lines of work. Both situations involve high levels of stress and people’s lives are at stake.

Because the goal of negotiations is to save lives, the cost of failure is life. The emphasis on saving human lives does two things for negotiators: it increases their stress levels, and it attracts political and public relations due to the drama of life-death confrontation. It is important to remember that hostages are not there voluntarily. They are being held against their will, either physically or psychologically. Hostages are necessarily traumatized by their lack of control over the life-threatening situation, and they are made to feel powerless and dependent upon their captor. It is a dramatic event, and the terrorists understand and play upon the hostages’ vulnerability.

Victims in hostage situations invariably suffer PTSD symptoms after being taken hostage.

A well-known description of a trauma response that can transpire between hostages and hostage takers is Stockholm Syndrome. This term was coined after the event that took place in Sweden on the 23rd August 1973. A Stockholm bank’s quiet morning routine was disrupted by the chatter of a sub machine gun. A lone gunman shouted in English, “the party has just begun!” Jan-Erik Olsson was on prison furlough but did not return. Instead, he took four hostages: three women and one man. Olsson held them in the bank vault for almost six days, where he was joined by his cellmate, a condition he had negotiated. By the second day, the hostages and robbers were on a first-name basis, and the victims were observed being comforted by the hostage takers. When one hostage became claustrophobic in the safe, she was allowed to walk around attached to a rope held by her captors. She later recalled how kind they were to let her walk around on what amounted to a leash. The hostages’ bond with the captors continued to intensify, and when officials were allowed to talk with the hostages, they reported that they were more concerned that they would be harmed by the police than by their hostage takers. When the hostages were finally released, they asked the police to not harm their captors. They kept in touch with the hostage takers, and the hostages refused to testify against them. Some reports even say they raised money for their captors’ defense. This situation  exemplifies the psychological dynamics when persons are terrorized and lose autonomy.

The NYPD developed the crisis negotiation field in response to several hostage incidents in which lives were lost. This motivated them to examine and evaluate the use of forceful confrontation in hostage situations and to subsequently develop the Crisis Negotiations field. The Negotiations Unit was described by a former FBI director as, “the most effective, non-violent tool in law enforcement.” The negotiations field was developed by Harvey Schlossberg (a detective with a PhD in psychology) and Lt. Frank Blotz, who developed the tactics that led to the resolution of high-conflict incidents without the loss of life. They stressed the importance of:

  • Containing and negotiating with the hostage taker
  • Understanding the hostage taker’s personality and motivation in a hostage situation; and
  • Realizing the importance of slowing an incident down so that time can benefit the negotiator
  • Today they abide by the principle of Zero Acceptable Losses and it is the ultimate goal of hostage negotiations. This is a concept that translates directly into the addiction world: zero acceptable losses. I have worked with thousands of people and still mourn those who have lost their lives to this disease.

Understanding the hostage taker’s motivation and personality is an important principle in negotiations. All behavior is understandable, goal driven, pleasure seeking, and problem solving in nature. It is important to make sense of the terrorists’ behavior by understanding the person’s history, goals, or problem solving abilities. If an addict robs a pharmacy and takes the pharmacist hostage, the person’s drive is desperation, addiction, and fear of being without the drug. Understanding the context allows the negotiator to empathize with the addict  and work around the person’s fears and underlying issues. While not every hostage taker or barricaded gunman has substance abuse issues or mental illness, many do. Furthermore, most have poor adaptive and coping skills.

The definition of terrorism is, “a major threat to society or someone who or something that uses violence, mayhem and destruction – or the threat of those– to coerce people, communities, and countries into meeting its demands. Terrorism aims to frighten, control and dominate populations.” Much the same as a terrorist attack changes everything for those affected, so does having an addicted child or losing a loved one to addiction. Hostage takers have power over their victims, whereas addiction has power over the brain, the individual, the family, and the community. Like the hostages who bond with their hostage takers, enablers facilitate their loved ones’ addictions. Addiction is a terrorist that has been around for a long time and has taken us hostage. Addiction also works like a terror attack because it impacts the survivors, families, community, first responders, medical community, and educators, all of whom are left with symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and a looming fear that the attack may recur. There is media coverage; the nation is on guard, waiting, wondering, and fearful. It also throws all parties involved into an existential search to comprehend such pain and horror. Once there is an attack, things are never the same.

Between 2000 and 2017, 3310 people in the US and 140 people in the UK have been killed in terrorist attacks. In 2017 alone more than 72,000 people died from an overdose in the states and 3,756 in the UK. Now, according to the National Vital Statistics System, “every day, more than 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids.”

Drug use is on the rise in our countries. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), ‘19.7 million American adults (aged 12 and older) battled a substance use disorder in 2017.’ In the UK it was estimated that there were ‘589,101 adults with alcohol dependency in need of specialist treatment in 2016 to 2017 [and that] there were 268,390 adults in contact with drug and alcohol services in 2017.’ These figures are only ever conservative estimates though as experts struggle to agree on what constitutes an addict, problematic use or problematic user. Many different sources and ways of measuring have to be used when estimating how many people are suffering with substance misuse problems, not to mention the many people who don’t seek help and are therefore unknown. It is important also not to forget that these are just the statistics pertaining to the individuals who are addicted. The numbers increase exponentially when the families, friends, and others who are affected are considered.

The threat to society caused by addiction affects far more people than terrorist attacks yet receives much less media attention. Addiction is far more likely to kill us or our children than a terror attack, salmonella outbreak, or a car accident. However, we are not terrified of addiction in the way we have been taught to fear ISIS and other terrorist groups. We are, on average, more fearful of eating raw food contaminated with salmonella than we are of addiction. We should regularly hear about addiction and this terror attack in schools and on the air, and we need to collectively ask why silence is occurring and demand change.

Is the nonchalant attitude the result of our ideology around drug and alcohol use? By some accounts, we have a permissive and even enabling culture:  if you have a headache, take a pill and make it extra strength. There seems to be a chemical answer to everything. We are told that we can have even more fun if we enhance almost any activity with a mind-altering substance: drink this beer and you will look better, be smarter, and everyone will love you.

Perhaps we also avoid discussing addiction due to the stigma. Many believe that only weak-willed or homeless people can be addicted, and nobody wants to face the fact that it could be their kids or themselves who could suffer. However, this denial ensures that this terrorist stays hidden. We think the terrorist looks different from us, like a homeless person or a junkie on the streets and not a high school honor student, a college athlete, a pilot, attorney, a mother or a grandmother. Even after diagnosis, many people affected continue to be in denial or continue as enablers.  I once worked on a case in which a mother, whose son had made significant progress in therapy after a psychotic break from marijuana, was advised by doctors that her son’s brain chemistry remained fragile and any use of drugs could push him back into psychosis. Upon hearing this news, she agonized over the idea that her son may never be able to drink again. She thought future abstention meant that his life was ruined. If he had a peanut allergy and had almost died, she would surely not lament his future without peanuts. The stigma attached to addiction may be a key factor in why we are being held hostage by this chemical terrorist.

Unfortunately, we continue to stereotype and stigmatize addiction. The heroin epidemic has held a mirror up to affluent society and is terrorizing our honor students, suburbs, and athletes.  True to terroristic form, no one ever sees it coming or looks at their precious infant or precocious child imagining that addiction could one day ravage them and destroy their dreams. Addiction is everywhere. This terrorist is ravaging our families, our communities, and our country. As an interventionist I work around the world, not only in the ghettos, but also in the rich and affluent places and many in between. We can no longer pretend this is not happening in all of our homes and in all of our neighborhoods.

Why can this terrorist can live in our homes, our communities, our churches and places of worship, and we are not organizing protests and holding vigils until it has been eradicated? We should be on edge. We should employ the same precautions we do to fend off a terror attack, to ensure Ebola does not enter our country, or to protect a child with a peanut allergy. What stops us?

Is it that we don’t want to believe it, as if to say, it’s not my kid, not my family, and not my community? Do we deny the reality that it is here because it is too scary to believe or because we feel that if we don’t acknowledge it, it won’t happen? Or maybe it’s just too painful to acknowledge. Perhaps it is the stigma that paralyzes us. Has stigma been the other terrorist that has taken us hostage? Are we are too full of shame, embarrassment, pride, and ego to realize that we are under attack? Stigma maintains addiction’s distinction as the most negatively judged disease around. It is the sniper that keeps us locked in our dorm room, unable to leave, waiting for the crisis to end. We do not discuss it because people will think there is something wrong with us. They will think it is our fault and that we are bad people or, even worse,… bad parents.  Maybe, we surmise, we somehow caused it, or we might even have to admit we have it, too,. so let’s bury our heads in the sand and maybe it will go away.

If we suspected a terrorist sleeper cell, we would take the most extreme measures possible to stop it immediately. However, with addiction, we figuratively have sleeper cells in our own homes. Perhaps it started in the early 1900s when doctors had to decide which diseases they would and would not treat–and the Harrison Act was passed. The Harrison Act was a Narcotics Tax Act passed in the USA in 1914 that stated that it was  ‘ “an act to provide for the registration of, with collectors of internal revenue, and to impose a special tax upon all persons who produce, import, manufacture, compound, deal in, dispense, sell, distribute, or give away opium or coca leaves, their salts, derivatives, or preparations, and for other purposes.” The supporters of the bill said very little about the dangerous effects of addiction, instead emphasizing the importance of upholding the new international agreement to eradicate opium.’ In those days medical professionals did not have the research we have today, so it was passed off to law enforcement to handle, making it a moral, not a medical issue.

Who exactly is taken hostage and terrorized in cases of addiction? Clearly, the brain is terrorized by drugs since they hijack the dopamine system to become the addict’s  primary coping mechanism. In fact, drugs impair the user’s ability to access their frontal cortex, making it impossible to manage cravings or make good decisions. This impairment makes addicts and alcoholics appear to have no morals or values because they appear unable to distinguish  right from wrong. Yet, we know this is untrue. Addicts are often exceptionally sensitive, loving, loyal, and intelligent, but their addictions predictably eclipse these assets.

Families are also terrorized by their loved one’s disease and the resulting lies and broken promises. Family members often fear they caused the addiction and helplessly watch their loved ones slowly die. To compound matters, the industry of addiction professionals have often terrorized family members as well. We have pathologized their behaviors and reactions to a stressful, life threatening terror attack by calling them enablers. We have focused on deficiencies, not strengths. Families are impacted, and their thinking becomes impaired as well. We know that there are mothers purchasing drugs for their addicted children because they are convinced that they are keeping them safe. Families need help, not because they have had bad, enabling behavior but because they have post- traumatic stress disorder, too. Their fierce love and protection of their loved one and their susceptibility to manipulation–like a victim of Stockholm syndrome–simply do not work when alcoholism or addiction is involved. This terrorist does not play by any rules.

Those affected by addiction cannot become paralyzed with fear. We would not walk away from a hostage situation and just cross our fingers that things will work out for the best. Similarly, all of us must be proactive in this war. We must be willing to share our stories, stand behind families rather than blame them, and do more than hope for a solution. We must be willing to step into this work with both eyes open, prepared to say that this is a battle we are willing to fight and that we will use every resource we have to fight it. If we collectively sit back and do nothing, nothing will change.

Today we are in the best position we have ever been in to identify and deal with the terrorism of addiction. We now know the parts of the brain affected by addiction; we have evidence-based proven treatments and we have millions of people in sustained recovery.  We have to share the hope and treat those suffering from and impacted by addiction with the same respect we treat others suffering from diseases such as cancer, epilepsy or diabetes.

We need to change our ideology and propagate the truth rather than the types of ineffective propaganda used in the past. We need to increase awareness, understanding, and dissemination of quality information. We can no longer pretend this is not happening in our homes, our schools, and our neighborhoods. These conversations have to begin at home. We all need to look at our relationships with chemicals and addiction, and we owe it to our children to talk to them from a very young age and help them understand the risks.  Above all else, they need to know that help is available and that addiction is not a disgrace. However, in order to educate their kids, parents first need to understand this as well. The more we share and talk about what is happening in our homes and the less stigma we attach to the disease of addiction, the less alone we are and the fewer people we lose to this epidemic. We must take these conversations into the community. Each of us needs to take responsibility in fighting this battle so that we can collectively win. We can be victims of our own history and complain about how unfair it is to be in this battle or we can fight for healing and change.

We need to stop locking our addicts up and offer effective and lasting treatment. We have made great strides in this arena through drug courts and alternative sentencing, but we can do so much more. Addicts and their loved ones deserve the opportunity to recover from this disease and free themselves from their hostage takers.

We know this is a treatable disease, and  this is call to action to put all that we know into play.

In short, we need to RESIST:

  • Be Respectful and treat persons suffering from this disease with dignity
  • Be Ethical
  • Break the stigma by continuing to Speak out about addiction and the havoc it is wreaking
  • Be Informed of this terrorist and educate about the risks of an attack
  • Support each other through this war.
  • Offer Treatment and expand resources instead of punishment

Let’s do this together!