Archives for posts with tag: addiction

I am a drug and alcohol counselor. I am at least okay at my job; clients will occasionally tell me they feel better after having spoken to me, which is as good a metric as any, and the odd client might even stop using drugs and/or alcohol if the stars are aligned just so. It’s a complicated career in which the measures of success are vague, yet regardless of whether or not I’m successful (whatever that means), a new client will always come in. This new client with their new idiosyncrasies are, more often than not, fundamentally similar to the old one. The tide comes in, the tide comes out, then, as per the pull of the moon, the tide comes back in again.

There will always be drug addicts, right? One must imagine Sisyphus happy in order to avoid the soul-crushing burnout of facing off against the boulder of the opioid crisis. And yet, even in the name, its immutability is questioned. It is called the opioid ‘crisis’, not the opioid ‘way of life’. A crisis is temporary. Solutions are possible. Causes can be identified.

Of course, a crisis can simply be an act of God or a natural disaster. There might be those who argue that nothing can be done about this crisis since its causes are out of our hands. Fentanyl is a thing now, so people will just die more because of it. There is some merit to this argument: Fentanyl is certainly deadly and more prevalent which is going to inevitably lead to more deaths. As any consumer advocate would tell you, the solution to a deadly product is of course a well-regulated market, but this ignores why people might seek out Fentanyl in the first place. Even if people take healthy doses of untainted heroin (or meth, or crack, or all the other drugs now laced with Fentanyl), this still doesn’t change the tide.

There are several theories about the causes of addiction. Trauma is a big one, and yet trauma is not preordained. The trauma of neglect is often predicated on poverty which can be alleviated through wealth redistribution (consider that there is more than enough housing for everyone, despite large numbers of homelessness. Similarly, we have enough food to feed the planet. Supply is not the issue, distribution is), livable minimum work standards (since many of those in poverty do indeed work), and so on. Trauma based on domestic abuse can also be curtailed if we shift masculine culture away from domination and violence.

There is also the lack of connection that drives addictive behaviour. This connection has been driven out of society by the cultural forces of individualism and competitiveness, and can just as easily be reduced by the imposition of their opposites. Solidarity with coworkers and neighbours, an emphasis on community values, respect for nature, and a reignition of hope; these too will reduce the need for the synthetic connections induced by narcotics.

Of course, there is also simple education. Not the education that tells us that drugs are bad. Drugs are actually amazing. Drugs offer solutions to problems when nothing else seems to have worked before. An individual, often having gone through trauma or who is suffering from mental illness, does not know how to cope with that trauma or illness. Along comes drugs, and all of a sudden the baggage associated with those things don’t seem so awful now! What needs to be taught are healthy coping skills as well as information on mental health that will help identify and then deal with these developmental dangers before addictive alternatives become the norm.

You may note that none of these things involve cognitive behavioural therapy, nor harm reduction, not even admitting you are powerless over your addiction and that your life has become unmanageable! The methods of dealing with those in addiction (with their varying degrees of effect) are only ever reactive, and ignore the systemic issues that produce drug addiction in the first place. Social fixes ought to attack the root of the problem rather than focus on managing its aftermath.

One of the stories I tell myself to endure the Sisyphean drudgery of endless addiction is the story of the curmudgeonly old man and the beach full of starfish:

Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.

Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching.  As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea.  The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning!  May I ask what it is that you are doing?”

The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”

The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”

The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”

This metaphor does help me feel better about the work I do, because ultimately helping one person live a better life is a worthwhile goal. It matters. However, the metaphor fails because a tide is by definition unstoppable, and drug addiction is not. The starfish have not been washed up onto the beach by some immutable fact of nature, they have been pushed by cultural ideologies, economic oppression, and brutish stigma.

Why bother with drug counselling? It does help, but it will never stop the tide.

In my life I have worked with those who suffer from addiction, and I have also worked in retail. From these experiences, I have noticed something about the way these two demographics, addicts and customers, interact with those paid to deal with them. Anyone who has worked in retail can tell you that customers are the absolute worst, and addicts notoriously bear the not entirely unearned stigma of being untrustworthy and catastrophically self-centred. There are always outliers and exceptions, but working within the generalities for now will help identify the trend that I’m hoping to produce here, so bear with me.

Addicts lie. Not just to people who work with them, obviously, but to family members, friends, anyone. The fundamental motive behind these lies is shame. The addict is fully aware of their behaviour and lifestyle, and the guilt and shame is often overwhelming. They know stealing from their parents is wrong; they lie because they can’t bear being judged for it. They know that leaving a detox facility to go use defeats their deep, powerful desire for sobriety and normalcy, but they lie about their ultimate destination because they’re ashamed of their weakness. The reason that the Anonymous program demands honesty is so that the addict can uncover their shame, lay it bare, and witness a community that accepts them regardless. This is the process of recovery.

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Just say no

The addict lies because they fear the human capacity for judgement. Even the more malicious lies, such as the ones for personal gain, recognize the victim’s critical thinking skills that need to be overcome. Every lie, every betrayal, the mask of the addict, is made entirely in reaction to the human.

Contrast this behaviour to the untruths of the customer. The customer doesn’t necessarily lie, but the traditional pleasantries of, “I’m fine; how are you?” “Have a good day!” are the superficial banalities that reveal nothing of authentic value. Hence, an untruth. These untruths do not exist as a recognition of the human, but as an attempt to supersede it. They gloss over the human to expedite the exchange of the product. The honest addict reveals their shame; the honest customer makes curt demands and doesn’t bother to look you in the eye. The consumer’s untruths are made in reaction to the employee as only a facet of the product being sold.

Participation within capitalism, the act of consumerism, requires a dullness in our humanity unseen in any other form of addiction. The dealers and corporate pimps of the consumer marketplace have a greater understanding of predation than those in the Downtown Eastside. Addicts are looking to fill a void, and filling that void with honest, human recovery might alleviate the drive to consume. Customer service must therefore be performed with a plastic sincerity lest the consumer have a genuine interaction that makes them realize their purchase gives them nothing of real worth.

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It is not even the product that delivers the endorphins, but the act of purchasing itself. At that point we are still blind to its irrelevance to our lives

The customer, driven by advertising that manufactures an internal void and delivers only an empty promise to fill it back up again, has no time anyway for things beyond pleasantries. They must commute, work, consume, and then obliterate anything else that remains with distractions. Busyness is a virtue. Distractions are our culture. Humanity is evaporating from one blowout sale to the next, and there is no time to even notice. It’s myopic self-destruction on a global scale, and all that is left to do is wait anxiously for the overdose.

I guess that’s why I’m happier being lied to by drug addicts.

It seems almost unconscionable to ascribe a moral quality to ill health. It’s absurd to think that someone who has caught the common cold is some kind of sinister deviant, but as far back as the lepers being shunned and shuttered out of society, humanity has pointed at the unwell and called them devils.

Europe blamed the Black Death on the wrath of God, who was furious over the alleged impiety of His people. The mentally ill used to be incarcerated alongside criminals, their characters indistinguishable. Even lately, the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s seemed only to punish those considered perverse. Consider how we inquire after cancer: did they smoke? Did they eat processed foods? Did they stay too long in the sun? What was their lifestyle like that earned them a terminal illness?

Disease is an unquestionable evil, but why are we so quick to point to its host as having responsibility for it? When disease becomes a moral choice, the pure among us become immortal. The myth that bad things only happen to bad people convinces us that if only we maintain our righteousness, we will be spared. Righteousness only as a veneer, of course, as compassion for the ill could only ever be a supererogatory act. Far simpler to pillory the sick and use the blind luck of our good health as evidence of our sanctity.

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A meritocracy of health. God, I hate memes.

Where this demonization of illness is most prevalent is the disease that seems to be built on a long series of choices: addiction. It’s so immoral that it is literally a crime. Mitch Hedberg satirizes this mentality with his quip:

Alcoholism is a disease, but it’s the only one you can get yelled at for having. “Goddamn it, Otto, you’re an alcoholic!” “Goddamn it, Otto, you have lupus!”

One of those two doesn’t sound right.

Addiction is a reaction to trauma, neglect, and mental illness. Addiction is what happens when reality is so brutal that the body seeks any kind of escape from it. Addiction isn’t so much of an illness as it is the medication for when life is a sickness, and then through the obsession of escape it becomes a part of that sickness. Any sense of “choice” in the matter is illusory, any kind of “morality” illegitimate.

But people continue to yell at those whose lives have become diseased. Consider the top rated comment on a CBC article saying that in the first 8 months of 2017, the number of overdose deaths in BC had reached 1,013, compared to the entirety of 2016 which was 922:

I have a real hard time feeling sympathy for these people who have died. They knew fentanyl was out there. They knew that over doses were on the rise and out of control. There’s absolutely no way they didn’t know the risk that they were taking! Yet, they chose to anyways. So no. Finding sympathy is very hard for me.

1,013 human lives extinguished. That’s 1,013 families that have to deal with the grief and guilt of a loved one they will always wonder if they could have done more to save. Of course addicts know that there is Fentanyl in the streets. Some of them ask for it directly. The “risk” isn’t the point. The cure may be worse than the disease, but for many of them it’s the only option available, and some might see the risk of overdose as a potential escape from their sickness altogether. Can we truly judge those adrift at sea who drink saltwater rather than endure the agony of thirst?

But it’s fine. Sympathy is for the bleeding hearts. That could never happen to me because I am morally righteous. I am pure. I am better than them because I wasn’t raped, or abandoned, or abused, nor do I have voices in my head that only shut up when I shoot heroin into my veins. I get to tell myself that it’s my choices that make me noble. My fear of death, a bold reminder in the face of an addict, is well hidden behind the vitriol I espouse. But death cannot come for me. I am pristine. I am immortal.