The “Addiction” Myth
Society perpetuates a pervasive myth about drug and alcohol addiction. The myth goes as follows: Certain people, whether because of biological or psychological reasons, are prone to drug problems and addiction. They are unable to control themselves in the presence of drugs or alcohol, and given the opportunity, will take the drugs to the point that they become inebriated. After this point, they behave irresponsibly, are unable to take care of themselves, cause trouble (disruption and crime), and sometimes threaten the safety of others. They may black out and not even remember what they did. They are unable to perform their daily activities, hold down a job, etc. They become dependent on others. They are miserable when they are not high or drunk, and they must obtain the drug at any cost. The withdrawal from the drugs (particularly opioids) is extremely painful. They lose the ability to think rationally and become dangerous to themselves and others. Because of the power of drugs over these people, drugs must be kept illegal, otherwise many of those who had not yet tried drugs will try them and become addicted, and those already addicted will have greater access and will cause greater harm to themselves and others. Our society and economy will suffer due to the effects of increased drug use.
The truth is quite the opposite of the myth, and much simpler: Taking drugs is fun. It’s more fun than regular life (“high on life” commercials notwithstanding), including going to the movies and amusement parks. Most people who tried drugs enjoyed the experience and moved on. The ones who continued to take drugs do so in moderation (“recreational drug use”). Most of the people who become “addicted” are not really addicted. Instead, they are having too much fun enjoying drugs, and too little else of any import going on in their lives, to stop taking them. Furthermore, because of the convenient myth of addiction (the drug has taken control over them), they can avoid taking responsibility for their behavior without having to acknowledge a character flaw. In many cases, they are seeking attention or simply behaving childishly (as can be seen on any episode of “Celebrity Rehab”). In other cases they are exacting revenge on friends and family who they feel have injured or betrayed them in some way (many of the subjects in “Intervention”). For example, the husband who is frustrated in marriage can belittle the wife in a drunken rage, and the next day, blame it on the beer. Others simply see their life heading nowhere, and have nothing better to do. Regardless they are having a blast, and every ‘down’ simply reminds them of how much their regular life sucks. So why not take drugs?
If they do something they later regret, they can simply say, “Oh I blacked-out and I don’t remember doing/saying that.” Of course they remember it perfectly. In fact, it was probably why they got drunk in the first place: so that they could freely express themselves without being held accountable.
I came upon this realization a few years ago when a friend of several years told me that he was alcoholic. We had shared many drinks, so it was a surprise for me to learn later on that his drinking was actually a “problem,” as it was always seemed we had done so in moderation and he displayed no compulsive urges to drink. However, later I discovered the real reason for his deciding he was ‘alcoholic’: He was a lonely guy, having outgrown the bar and club scene (as happens to many of us). As an alcoholic, he could attend AA meetings and make an instant social connection. There were meetings and parties and sponsors and speeches and it was all so welcoming and meaningful. Best of all, he didn’t have to waste money on drinks anymore, and he didn’t really like drinking anyway. It was much better than going out and getting drunk and having meaningless sex with someone who looked passable only through beer goggles.
The point is, most alcoholics are not addicted to alcohol. They are just tired of drinking and are giving themselves a label so that they can belong. I attended a couple meetings and enjoyed them very much. It made me wish I was an alcoholic.
Why the myth is perpetuated:
There are several reasons that the addiction myth is perpetuated, and is so pervasive and entrenched. Historically, drugs had been demonized as a way to control ethnic minorities (e.g. Chinese laborers in the 1800’s), and this trend was morphed into “Reefer Madness” in the 50’s and “Just Say No” in the 80’s. The myth is taught as fact to children early on in our educational system. It’s the dramatic fodder for numerous movies, tv shows and books. The image of the strung-out drug addict is etched into our minds.
Of course, drugs really are dangerous if not handled responsibly. For example, smoking causes lung cancer. Drunk driving was a top killer until the awareness campaigns of the 1980’s. Some drugs, such as ecstasy, are neurotoxic. Public education successfully reduced the harm of drugs in some cases, and in other cases, little is known about the harm of drugs. The myth is a convenient way to reduce the harm of drugs given that most people are not well educated in the dangers of drugs (both illegal and prescription drugs).
For the past few decades, the myth has been perpetuated primarily because of the huge money flows. The healthcare industry makes many billions of dollars ever year treating “addiction”, albeit with a low success rate. The police spend a significant portion of their budgets trying to catch drug dealers, and the prison-industrial complex makes a handsome profit off an endless supply of criminals.
As previously described, many people benefit from the myth due to the social connection that it creates among ex-drug and alcohol users. Without the myth, they would just be guys who used to drink and act like jerks. We want to avoid hurting other people’s feelings at all costs. Thus it’s far better to say, “You have a drug problem, and your life would be much better if you could just overcome it” than “You are a loser with little to look forward to in life, so I can understand why you’d prefer to remain intoxicated.”
For families with drug-abusing children, the myth allows the parents to believe that underneath it all, their little angel still loves them like he did when he was 8 years old, and the hate spewing devil they see in front of them is the result of the drugs, and not of their own making. As well, it conveniently spares them of humiliation and guilt of having created such a monster. All kinds of manipulative, hurtful, and cruel behavior can be rationalized, when in fact the simple truth is that the child is having a blast using drugs, and fooling the parents into buying them for him is a fun game. Indeed, the child may no longer love the parents, and may even dislike them and harbor resentments. But this is not unusual among young adults, and does not in itself make a monster. The irony of the myth is that, while it protects the parent from being hurt by the child’s intentionally hurtful behavior, it encourages them to ‘help’ the child, and so the parent actually ends up nurturing the very monster that they loathe and fear.
Alternately, just as the drug provides the user with a reason for living, so the care of the ‘addict’ can give a caregiver a meaning and purpose to life. This is particularly common among older women, who may, for example, marry a drug user unknowingly late in life. The man may meet the woman over the internet, presenting a completely fictional life and hiding his addiction, only to reveal his true colors after the wedding. With wishful thinking as her guide, the woman abides by her vows resolutely, while the husband wreaks financial and emotional chaos in the pursuit of his favorite past-time. Much later the woman may discover that she’s only the last in line of a series of hapless victims, but even this may not be enough to break the spell. The myth of addiction is used to inculcate loyalty: “I really, truly love you though my addiction may make it seem like I hate you sometimes.” With blind loyalty surpassing all common sense, and with sometimes fatal consequences, some people are actually addicted to addicts!
Perhaps to some extent we prefer the myth to the reality, in that we can avoid the question of whether to take drugs – they are simply too dangerous, so don’t even bother to think about it. If they weren’t so dangerous, then the law-abiding among us would have to consider the possibility of trying them, and if so what could happen. And perhaps some of us who take drugs, or have experimented in the past, benefit narcissisticly from the myth in that it means we must have a super-human constitution that we did not become addicted.
Some of us prefer the myth because it gives us the freedom to behave irresponsibly – we can just blame the drug for our recklessness, hurtfulness, or anger. As well, the myth is used to justify the criminalization of drugs, and no doubt for some of us this makes the forbidden fruit even more fun and exciting. Here lies a great hypocrisy.
The harm the myth causes:
The myth is harmful in many ways. First of all, people don’t know true dangers of drugs. Some drugs are more dangerous than others, but they are all lumped into the same category. Secondly, as previously described, because drugs are forbidden, they are more enticing.
The myth allows people avoid responsibility for their behavior. The belligerent man can say “I got into a fight at the bar because I was drinking too much”, instead of “I like to pick fights and so I go to the bar and have a few drinks – and then look for someone to push around.” Or, “I got HIV because I was high on meth”, instead of “I smoke meth because I wanted to have sex and god knows I can’t do it sober with the fat, ugly people around here – I’ll just take my chances with HIV”. Or, “I blacked out on cocaine and went on a shop-lifting spree”, instead of “I wanted to get a new blouse and the cocaine gave me the courage I needed.”
Worst of all is the violence that is caused by the illegality of drugs. This includes turf wars on the drug trade on inner city streets, and the wars and terrorism in foreign countries such as Colombia and Afganistan, which are really drug wars by proxy, and spills endless amounts of innocent blood.
Once this myth is eradicated, people must take responsibility for their behavior, on or off drugs. They can no longer blame the drug. Their friends and family will stop coddling them in the mistaken belief that they are powerless under the drug and must ‘hit bottom’ or get professional help. They will realize that they are being manipulated by the drug user and will stop ‘enabling’. Addicts will no longer get the support they need to maintain the drug use, and must resume their daily, boring lives. The problem of drug addiction will evaporate.
Full legalization of drugs will follow soon after, as people realize that we are all adults able to make responsible choices about drug use given the scientific facts. We will no longer have to watch our hard-earned tax dollars going to persecute minorities and perpetuate violence, poverty and corruption in other countries.