“Both the right-wing and left-wing theories of addiction are wrong. So the right-wing theory is it’s a moral failing, you’re a hedonist, you party too hard. The left-wing theory is it takes you over, your brain is hijacked. Bruce says it’s not your morality, it’s not your brain; it’s your cage. Addiction is largely an adaptation to your environment.” – Johann Hari
We hate addicts. We may not like to admit it, but we do. Even if we have or have had an addict in our lives, even if we claim to understand them or sympathize with their plight, there is something about addiction we can’t fully grasp. In a society that values outward appearance, achievement and strength above all else, the addict is an ugly reminder of human fallibility and vulnerability. With addiction, there is always the huge, unasked question hanging in the air – why can’t they just stop?
“The biggest misconception about addiction is that it is about the ability or free will just to solve this issue,” says Shatterproof CEO Gary Mendell, who founded the organization after his son, Brian, committed suicide after a battle with drugs. “It’s not free will. When the structure of your brain changes when you’re addicted, you lose that ability.”
Try a thought experiment. What image does the word ‘addict’ conjure for you? In all likelihood, it is not a successful CEO, a loving mother, or a pretty, charming cheerleader bound for college. It is more likely a homeless, track-marked outcast, desperately craving drugs, single-mindedly and relentlessly in pursuit of their next fix. In our minds, addicts are falling apart, lacking in discipline, beauty or strength and complicit in their own self-destruction.
The addict’s capacity to destroy everything for the sake of drugs is painfully true. And the fact that they leave an indescribable trail of hurt, destruction and heartbreak in their wake, one that justifiably creates hatred and bitterness, is just as true. But the idea that an addicts’ problem is mainly one of a lack of willpower doesn’t hold water. Many of those who have fallen prey to addiction represent the most diligent, hardworking and selfless of our societies. War veterans, who undergo grueling training, are shipped abroad and expose themselves to great danger, often come back scarred and self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Many college students admittedly use drugs for the reasons suddenly-independent adolescents would; but there are also many who guzzle Ritalin and Adderall to live up to incredible pressure and unrealistic expectations. High powered executives or celebrities may abuse alcohol or prescription drugs to conquer their own anxieties and get through the demands of a life spent under intense scrutiny.
We’d like to think addiction is a character flaw, because that gives us permission to hate it.
But addiction, like Johann Hari says, is forced adaptation.
The modern world is hard on everyone. We live in an age of obsessive consumption and spend a disproportionate amount of our time and effort on amassing products and garnering acclaim. The modern world is too fast, too lonely, too demanding and too confusing for many of us. In many ways, we are ill-adapted to the breakneck speed at which our societies have progressed.
It is well-known that humans are, by and large, social creatures. Even introverts need a few close bonds. A sense of purpose, a sense of security, a sense of belonging – all of these contribute to a person’s mental well-being. Without it, something in us starves. Yet, we allocate little emphasis on friends, family or work that provides more than material reward. Culture lionizes the man who is making great strides in his lucrative career far above the man who is unfailingly there for those close to him, doing what he loves, however modest. Our ideal version of a person is, in many ways, an unhappy version of a person. And with the long hours we put in at our jobs, the additional time we dedicate to the gym or the hairdresser or shopping, or even just surfing the internet, who has time to cultivate more than a couple real relationships? Who has time for quiet moments?
Additionally, we spend little time speaking openly about the aspects of our lives that our imperfect. Increasingly, we’re showcasing our best bodies and our perfect relationships, constant socialization and upward mobility at work. We are setting impossible standards for ourselves, and self-recriminating when we don’t live up to them. We have created a society that breeds misery.
Patty Powers, a former alcoholic, has spent her career talking about her own experiences with addiction. Powers explains that this need to escape isn’t unique to drug addicts.
“People who aren’t addicts use things – shopping, sex, tv – to avoid feeling feelings that aren’t pleasurable,” says Powers. “But underneath everything, it’s really using stuff to avoid experiencing pain.”
Addiction is everywhere. The obesity epidemic exists entirely because of a subset of the population that cannot control their food intake, many of whom openly admit to using it as a manner of self-soothing. Videogame addiction is gaining traction as a real problem, as cases crop up where gamers are risking their health for a videogame, or mothers let their children starve while hooked up to a computer. (And of course, our ubiquitous addiction to our smartphones is immediately apartment while walking on any sidewalk or riding any form of public transportation).
Among the things we’re looking to cover up are boredom, loneliness, insecurity, fear or sadness. Addicts are no different than us in that their drug is not purely for a chemical high. For many of them, the drug is filling a gaping hole.
For some, drug addiction comes after a major loss. For some, it’s a brief escape from poverty or abuse. For some, it’s to deal with intense pressure. For others, it’s to self-medicate an emotionally crippling mental illness. In most cases, the addict is getting something from the drug they’re not finding outside.
“The drug war is based on the idea that the chemicals cause the addiction, and we need to physically eradicate these chemicals from the face of the Earth. If in fact it’s not the chemicals, if in fact it’s isolation and pain that cause the addiction, then it suddenly throws into sharp contrast the idea that we need to impose more isolation and pain on addicts in order to make them stop, which is what we currently do.” – Johann Hari
The ironic thing about our War on Drugs is that it has turned, in many ways, into a War on Addicts. From programs like ‘Intervention’ to imprisonment, we somehow think that screaming, scaring, shaming and punishing addicts will force them on the road to recovery.
It is a method that is bound to fail.
Take the other socially-sanctioned ostracizing against obesity as an example. It is treated much the same way. People who can’t control their intake of food, for whatever reason, are seen as weaker and lazier. It is generally accepted that they merit judgement. Their interventions come in the form of side-eyed glances at restaurants and minor comments. In popular culture, they’re blatantly humiliated on incredibly popular television shows where they are made to go undergo rigorous exercise programs and jump and lift weights and starve and cry on camera to earn their redemption in the eyes of the audience through regret and a slim figure.
Somewhat like addiction, while initial dramatic weight loss can be achieved, very few people end up keeping the weight off long-term. Shame as a single motivating force is not a sustainable solution. Indeed, shame as a motivating force may not even be all that motivating at all.
“If someone feels like an outcast, if society is basically labelling you an outcast, labelling as you as weak-willed, how does that make you feel? It creates self-hate,” explains Mendell. “About 6 million people in the United States – are not seeking treatment because they don’t want their friends to know, they don’t want their friends and family to know they have this disease, or they’re afraid to get fired on the job. So they’re not seeking treatment.”
“Because this disease is stigmatized and because it’s not viewed like the person lost their free will, we lack sympathy for those who have this disease. So because of that there’s less funding by the government for research, there’s less funding charitably as a cause, there’s discrimination in the workforce, and there’s discrimination in the healthcare industry and discrimination in the health insurance industry, all for getting the proper treatment for those who have this disease.”
With her own experience with addiction, Powers agrees.
“People won’t seek help because they judge themselves based on how they think others will judge them. Do you know what I mean? So it’s just this spiral, this little prison that happens,” says Powers. “Shame is why most addicts try to get clean on their own. This way if they fail they won’t fail in front of others,” says Powers. “It’s such a painful, painful life, because asking for help is the solution.”
“Twenty percent of American troops in Vietnam were using heroin a lot, right? And if you look at the reports from the time, they were really worried. They thought—because they believed the old theory of addiction. They were like, “My god, these guys are all going to come home, and we’re going to have loads of heroin addicts on the streets of the United States.” What happened? They came home, and virtually all of them just stopped, because if you’re taken out of a hellish, pestilential jungle, where you don’t want to be, you can die at any moment, and you go back to a nice life in Wichita, Kansas, you can bear to be present in your life. We could all be drunk now. Forget the drug laws. We could all be drunk now, right? None of you look very drunk. I’m guessing you’re not, right? That’s because we’ve got something we want to do. We’ve got things we want to be present for in our lives.” – Johann Hari
The rock bottom theory has seized the public imagination. The idea that addicts must reach the lowest of lows in their life before they’ll be spurred to recovery, be that jail, homelessness, destitution or worse. However, it doesn’t seem to be a one-size-fits-all theory. Some addicts get clean when they have no other choice. Some, it exacerbates the problem. Some others decide to quit entirely on their own.
“There’s this assumption that people have to hit rock bottom before they get clean,” says Powers. “But there are people who have stopped using who are really not in that bottom, and they’re not using a lot, and their life isn’t falling apart.”
Our current failure to successfully rehabilitate the majority of addicts, or even reach them to start helping them, suggests that our approach is flawed. This isn’t to say that there exists an alternate, simple fix for addiction, or that coordinated outside help is a magic bullet. Anyone who has cared about an addict will tell you that you cannot love an addict into health. Any recovered addict will tell you all the treatment in the world is futile unless you’re ready to quit. Yet, a key component in any successful recovery is support and strong relationships. A key to recovery is active participation in other activities. A key to recovery is the development of self-worth through work, through study, through exercise. A key to recovery is full engagement with a life worth living.
Many men live lives of quiet desperation. Addicts live lives of loud desperation. Both are suffering, and the remedy to both is an escape from the cages in which they’re trapped.
Appeared in The Real Edition, 7/18/2015
Cover photo by epSos.de, licenced under Creative Commons