Editor’s Note: This opinion piece was written by a contributor. It examines substance addiction, a controversial topic. No endorsement is implied by its publication. The Disinformation Company encourages you to speak with your medical provider(s) regarding this or any other health-related topic.
An old drinking buddy of mine overdosed on heroin recently. He moved out to the Pacific Northwest to skate or die, and wound up doing both, joining a hundred other Americans who go out that way every day. I hadn’t seen or thought about him in years, but by coincidence, I was in town when he passed. A mutual friend told me there would be a memorial at a local skate park. I stopped by to pay my respects.
I found a bundle of droopy balloons hovering over beer can tabs, a condom wrapper, and a melted candle. Mourners had written dedications all over the squeaky balloon skins. One was signed in Runes. It read (with no corrections):
They will except
you in the Hall of Valla
you died during battle
I shal try to avenge you!
I can only assume that by “Hall of Valla,” this grammatically challenged Viking meant Valhalla: the otherworldly Nordic kingdom reserved for warriors who die fighting. As my sadness subsided, the irony hit me like a dwarf wielding a war-hammer. No misspelled romanticism could change the fact that the deceased—like so many other people in my life—had died on the battlefield of the soul, where he surrendered to his own weakness.
Addiction is not a disease; it’s a symptom of a faltering will. Waning willpower stems from a lack of purpose and self-discipline. Pop psychiatrists say otherwise, but to blame an individual’s choice on faulty genes or warped neural pathways is to say the car drove itself off the bridge. Some vehicles are easier to steer than others, but responsibility is on the one behind the wheel.
Incidentally, it was an addict who taught me how to drive. At fourteen I was chauffeuring my best friend’s mother into housing projects to score arm-dope. She wound up living with Hep C for nearly two decades, only to die from sepsis last year. Her funeral had me in tears, mostly for her son, who lives as a prisoner to methadone. The key is within his grasp, but he refuses to unlock the cell door his mother slammed in his face.
So goes the mythos of the American underbelly. Lou Reed fizzles out to great fanfare. Reporters find Philip Seymour Hoffman buried under seventy bags of heroin. Musicians celebrate Kurt Cobain’s induction into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame after the 20th Anniversary of his smacked out suicide. Segue into depressing statistics.
When SAMSHA pulled its thermometer from our collective bung in 2012, it showed that out of 2 million Americans hooked on opiates, about 335,000 are actively using heroin—twice as many as in 2007. Pain pills have surged in popularity since OxyContin’s debut, and the recent uptick in heroin use is likely due to the inflated street prices of these prescription opiates. With more than 38,000 overdose deaths every year, you’d think that the problem would work itself out, but the overall number of users holds strong.
Why should anyone care if a tiny fraction of America curls up inside the opioid womb and waits to be aborted? If empathy is not sufficient, then perhaps because this is a microcosm of our medicated nation.
Nearly five million Americans swallow prescription pain killers in the shadows, not to mention the tens of millions who gobble them legally. At least 10% of American adults conquer fear and depression with psychotic amounts of psychotropic pills. Some need medication, no doubt, but how many are simply killing the pain of existence? For every junkie swirling around the hole at breakneck speeds, a thousand others are cruising along the toilet bowl’s edge.
It’s been a long time coming.
Along with trowels and temples, opiates go back at least five millennia to the “joy plant” of Sumer’s god-kings. Egyptians loved the blood red poppy, as did the Greeks. Who wouldn’t? But the action really got going when the Chinese started smoking it in the 1700s.
German chemist Freidrich Sertürner first synthesized morphine in 1806. The Scotsman Alexander Wood developed the hypodermic syringe in the 1850s, which is how he became addicted to morphine. His wife died of the first intravenous overdose. In 1898 Bayer began marketing heroin as a treatment for morphine addiction like donuts for diabetics.
The U.S. Congress tried to close Pandora’s stash box in 1922, but that’s not how drug crazes end. As the collective temper tantrum known as “The Love Generation” took off, American soldiers mailed China White back from Vietnam. My uncle’s buddy tells stories of driving across enemy lines to pick up shipments from the Viet Cong.
American kids refused to let The Man control their bodies, then became slaves to their own bodies. Talk about flower power.
For three generations now, millions of our would-be warriors have waged war upon themselves. Strong young men lay down their lives to destroy God and country rather than defend them. Their sense of honor has decayed to the point that even love of family isn’t worth persevering for. It’s as though they’ve been taught to see themselves as the enemy.
I’ve been close to so many drug-users, there is an archetypal addict nodding out against my hippocampus. Every now and then this Jungian junkie wakes up to ask me for a favor. Again and again, I’ve carried my drug-addled comrades up the steep incline, only to watch them lay down and roll back to the bottom. It’s like being stabbed with a thousand dirty needles and having all the sympathy sucked out of me.
None of these guys were idiots or weaklings. It was well within their power to stand up and climb with me. They simply chose not to. I am no saint—no one lets me forget that—but faded track marks aside, coffee and wine don’t leave me glued to the floor. Life is a gauntlet of sadistic bastards slapping you in the face, but goddamnit, you hit back and press onward. There is no vindication in playing the victim.
Biological determinists give explanations that sound suspiciously close to excuses. Psychiatrists call hard drug addiction a “disease” that cannot be cured, only “managed.” Neurologists point to alterations in the mesolimbic reward pathway which shape the addict’s behavior. Geneticists cite twin studies that suggest addictive behavior runs in a family’s blood. Therapists and social workers are right behind them, providing expensive rehabilitation, a lifetime of therapy, or at the very least, a steady supply of opiate replacement meds. This must appeal to people who refuse to pull themselves together, but “genes” and “neurons” are convenient scapegoats. The only “disease” is creeping nihilism.
The tar pit snares those who will not believe in themselves.
If neuroplasticity lets you deform your brain’s pleasure centers, then it is possible to alter those reward pathways through further acts of will. If your hard-wired predisposition to addiction is 70% heritable, then nurture that precious 30% back to freedom.
If I’m wrong, then you are a biochemical automaton. Please report to the nearest corporate-operated, government-funded, purely benevolent methadone clinic and let them push your buttons for you. Relax. Swallow the pill. Drink the Kool-Aid. Seriously, you don’t have a choice.
© Joseph Allen
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