Addiction As Particularized Process, Not Isolated Condition

In The Addiction Experience, Stanton Peele writes:

Addiction is not caused by a drug or its chemical properties. Addiction has to do with the effect a drug produces for a given person in given circumstances—a welcomed effect which relieves anxiety and which (paradoxically) decreases capability so that those things in life which cause anxiety grow more severe. We are addicted to the experience the drug creates for us.

Addiction is clearly a process rather than a condition….it cannot be viewed as an all-or-nothing state of being, one that is unambiguously present or absent….Addiction is an extension of ordinary behavior—a pathological habit, dependence, or compulsion. Just how pathological or addictive that behavior is depends on its impact on a person’s life.

We cannot say that a given drug is addictive, because addiction is not a peculiar characteristic of drugs. It is…a characteristic of the involvement that a person forms with a drug….addiction is not limited to drugs….any activity that can absorb a person in such a way as to detract from the ability to carry through other involvements is….addictive. [As cited in ‘Seven Things We Must Understand About Addiction to Undo the Mistakes of the Past 40 Years‘]

Addiction is the name given to a complex set of behaviors understood as pathological in context. The relevant context is the overall economy of the patient/user/agent’s life: what are their goals and ends in life? What is their scale of values? Does the behavior in question threaten these? These questions answered, the characterization can begin.

Put this way, addiction is not, for instance, an isolated, abstract, relationship between a ‘user’ and a drug; put the drug and the user together, and it pops into view. Rather, it is highly particularized. This user, when using this drug, in this circumstances and environment, given his or her expressed desires, ends, and values, is engaging in addictive behavior because those same desires, ends, and values have been compromised by these behaviors. The user does not have ‘an addictive personality’; the drug is not ‘addictive’. Change the circumstances and environment, you might obtain a different set of behaviors; freely–this is crucial–change your desires, ends, and values in such a way that these new ones are not compromised, and that same set of behaviors is not ‘addictive.’

As Peele notes, many activities and substances can be addictive–as the notions of ‘workaholic’ and ‘sex addict’ and the increasingly frantic calls to ‘unplug, disconnect, and get off the grid’ seem to confirm. Certainly the rise of social-media-blocking programs–the modern version of the addict locking himself into a room to prevent another visit to the dealer down the street–is ample confirmation that we find our world-denying relationships to social media pathological in at least one dimension. Perhaps our modern culture’s greatest sleight of hand in this regard has been to relegate the partaking of recreational drugs to the bin of addictive behavior while valorizing other forms of addiction–like working eighty-hour weeks.

In the meantime, we can continue to congratulate ourselves for having made ‘addictive’ drugs illegal and for locking up their users, all the while blithely ignoring circumstance and context. Pathology should be unsurprising.

The 1944 Mayor’s Committee on Marihuana Report

Today’s post continues a theme initiated yesterday: sensible views on drugs, expressed many, many years ago. Yesterday’s post referenced the New York Academy of Medicine’s 1955 report on opiate addiction. Today’s post goes back even further, to 1944. Then, as reefer madness swept the nation (WWII notwithstanding), New York City became the focus of a study on marihuana and its alleged effects. I’ll let Robert DeRopp take up the story in this excerpt from his Drugs and the Mind:

The cries of alarm continued nonetheless, particularly in the region of New York City, and so strident did the clamor become that some action seemed necessary. This action was taken by one of New York’s best-loved and most colorful mayors, Fiorello La Guardia, who sensibly concluded that his first duty was to discover the facts concerning the use of marihuana in the city, and on the basis of those facts, to take whatever steps seemed necessary. He accordingly requested assistance from the New York Academy of Medicine, which appointed a committee to obtain those facts of which the mayor was in need.

The report of the Mayor’s Committee on Marihuana, which was published in 1944, is a mine of valuable information, sociological, psychological, and pharmacological, concerning marihuana and its effects. The results are worthy of careful study because they place the whole phenomenon of marihuana smoking in the correct perspective and reveal the so-called “marihuana problem” as a minor nuisance rather than a major menace. In his foreword to the report, Mayor La Guardia himself remarked, “I am glad that the sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marihuana have been found to be exaggerated as far as New York City is concerned,” but observed that he would continue to enforce the laws prohibiting the use of marihuana “until and if complete findings may justify an amendment to existing laws.”

DeRopp describes these findings in some detail: the patterns of usage, the price of marihuana, the debunking of claims pertaining to its pernicious effects on crime, public morality, addiction and juvenile delinquency being the most prominent, and notes that the report concludes with the following words:

The publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marihuana smoking in New York City are unfounded.

Unfortunately, as DeRopp goes on to note:

Needless to say, this calm report was not at all welcome to sensation-hungry journalists who saw themselves deprived of a valuable source of material for headlines. So after the publication of the mayor’s report there was much stormy correspondence, some of which invaded the pages of the medical press. Even the austere Journal of the American Medical Association abandoned its customary restraint and voiced its editorial wrath in scolding tones. So fierce was the editorial that one might suppose the learned members of the mayor’s committee–appointed, incidentally, by the New York Academy of Medicine–had formed some unhallowed league with the ‘tea-pad’ proprietors to undermine the city’s health by deliberately misrepresenting the facts about marihuana. 

This sounds extremely familiar. And there matters have stood for some seventy years now, even as the war on drugs continues in its idiotic, racist, misguided ways.

Note: The citation for the Mayor’s Committee report is: Mayor’s Committee on Marihuana. The Marihuana Problem in New York City. Jacques Cattell Press, Philadelphia, 1944

Here’s Looking At You, Sherrybaby

The narrative lines of movies about addiction, substance abuse and recovery often follow a predictable arc: protagonist at the bottom of the pit, clambers up its steep sides, slips back again and again, a moment of truth, a new dawn. Sherrybaby (written and directed by Laurie Collyer and starring Maggie Gyllenhaal as Sherry) doesn’t work quite like that.

When the movie begins, Sherry is already clean and has been for years. She is now exploring the contours of the landscape exposed by the new dawn (on the outside of the prison from which she has been released on parole), and what she finds on the outside of the pit is that there are more steep sides to be traversed and more slipping to do: the drug-free world is dreary and stubbornly resistant to manipulation by fantasy if you are sober. Sherry knows one way to make it work better for her: she can still use her sexuality. Her seemingly indiscriminate bedding of strangers suggests, possibly, some deeper pathology, one revealed later in the movie in subtle yet creepy fashion and which serves to illustrate, perhaps, a great deal of her history.

Inevitably, the most difficult reconciliations for Sherry are with family. Sherry’s daughter is now in the custody of her uncle and aunt, and she has grown as accustomed to her foster parents as she has to the absence of her mother. Besides, Sherry doesn’t seem to know quite how to reckon with her girl anyway: Shower her with gifts? Make up for years of absence in a couple of visits? The foster parents who have been taking care of the little girl with love and affection and care are understandably suspicious. Drug addicts, even supposedly recovered ones, are difficult creatures to deal with; we are left to imagine a time when Sherry must have lied, stolen, and wheedled her way to the next fix. And even in this, her new clean state, Sherry’s persona shows traces of the devastation wrought on her psyche by her years of addiction and imprisonment: her temper is unpredictable, her temperament is prickly, hostility and suspicion come easily.

Sherrybaby‘s resolution of the mother-daughter relationship crisis is its most distinctive feature. There is no magic day in the sun, no childhood memory of a lullaby, or cooking of a favorite treat that produces a loving, teary, reconciliation. Instead, Sherry comes to realize–after an episode of falling off the wagon–that motherhood is a little harder than she might have thought. She acquires that painful knowledge that many parents possess: that parenting is not ‘natural’, that the biological bond with a child is a tenuous one and merely the preliminary deposit on a bond that needs considerable strengthening, that caring and nurturing a child is difficult and tedious even for those who might be sober, that no amount of extravagant, short-term affection can substitute for slow and steady caretaking.

The world of substance abuse and recovery remains relatively impenetrable to third-person descriptions; the precise contours of the inner maelstrom of the addict can perhaps only be mapped by the addict. But Sherrybaby is a brave and unconventional attempt to chart this strange land.