We Are All Addicts

I recently finished a book called, “Clean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy” by David Sheff, and in spite of the many ways in which it succeeds, its title is not one of them: The notion that we can overcome or end addiction is absurd. In fact, I can’t think of anything more fundamental to human existence and the lives of mammals than our addictions — first and foremost to those behaviors which ensure the survival of our species. Our brains are structured to reward our consumptive and procreative efforts with satisfying jolts of dopamine that we innately crave. Without our addictions — to food (is it any surprise that one in three Americans is obese, or that 30 million Americans suffer from clinically significant eating disorders?) — to sex, and to power — humans would have died out long ago. Our dependencies define who we are as a species and explain why our societies look as they do. Therefore, to stigmatize addiction is to condemn every human being on earth simply for having stayed in the gene pool.

The “war on drugs” in particular illuminates how we have attempted to draw imaginary lines between ‘addicts’ and those of us who are supposedly ‘normal;’ this exercise becomes possible simply because addicts’ dependencies, sooner or later, bubble to the surface and become visible for all to see, shame, and label. We reel from the addict who can no longer conceal his suffering because in doing so he holds up a mirror and shows us a part of ourselves we often would like to do away with. We watch a homeless man swilling Popov at 7am and think, “wow, that guys really lost it.” Then we wait in line for 15 minutes at Starbucks for a triple shot caramel macchiato that we hold while running in circles and pinching our fat before ducking into a cubicle for ten hours so that we can keep buying more — more Iphones, more jewelry, more food, more alcohol, more sex — more ephemeral jolts of dopamine. We judge the addict so harshly because his use and consumption is ugly, in your face, and uncompromising.

Many of us are also addicted to our real or imagined social networks and the sense of acceptance and identity that comes with being ‘liked.’ We are hardwired to crave the approval of our parents, our peers, our co-workers, spouses, and children. The sociality of our nature, furthermore, means that we rely on others to steer us toward a clearer concept of ourselves. So when a heroin addict shoots up in an alleyway and nods down Main Street, we are repulsed because we see a part of ourselves reflected in him.

We’ve even become addicted to intangible ideals and states of being like Happiness. We try to achieve this mysterious state by purchasing another this or another that. We give gifts each holiday season hoping to see the smile on a loved one’s face that is sure to disappear the following week when he breaks his New Years resolution to stop smoking, quit drinking, work less, eat better, and stop sleeping around with his neighbor’s wife. But when he does, at least he’ll be able to look at the neighbor who just got his third DUI and chain spokes spliffs all day and say, “Hey, at least *I’m* not an addict like him!”

Granted, some addictions cost society and inflict more damage than others. I can only point to this differential as a reason why it makes any sense to separately categorize addictions. While there are no ‘non-addicts,’ there are certainly high-level, high-cost addictions and lower-level, less damaging addictions; the latter of which might simply look like the sort of passion for life and work which most societies revere. Due to such drastic juxtapositions, it’s easy for us to judge the meth addict who beats his wife and sells his children’s savings for crystal, then take it easy on the mother who stuffs her face with donuts every morning and feeds her children Sphagetti-O’s before tucking them in at night.

Of course, some people manage their addictive tendencies extremely well. Such folks subscribe to the holy writ of temperance and never seem off kilter our out of whack. They shun television, consume little, and go on nature walks with their families to feel good. But let’s be clear: these highly adapted humans are the exception, not the rule. By good fortune, their nature and nurture have conspired to allow them to function in modern society with very few, mild addictions. Nevertheless, they are addicts: their addictions are simply tougher to see and thus harder to judge than many others.

Once we are able to accept the fact that we are all addicts of some shape and size, we will finally be able to move forward and help those whose addictions — often by no fault of their own — have escalated to the point of being harmful for themselves and for society. When Nixon declared a ‘War on Drugs,’ he was indeed declaring a war on all Americans and — by extension — all of humanity. America’s prisons are overflowing. Eight out 10 of those incarcerated have substance abuse issues, and three out of ten of them are black (while only one in ten Americans is black). The war on drugs has failed miserably, and perhaps the worst damage has been done in non-quantifiable ways that we are only beginning to see.

In a world where people are fearful and frustrated, increasingly populist and willing to point fingers, it’s imperative that we harness commonalities and turn them towards Unity. These days, seeing the similarities and the non-discriminatory nature of addiction is easier than ever. More Americans are dying from drug overdoses than from automobiles or guns. The most devout parts of this country that would usually be quickest to condemn addicts as sinful heathens can’t even point fingers, for by sheer bad luck of a legal loophole which allowed doctors to prescribe medications without oversight, the oxycontin expressway started in Florida and has decimated towns, cities, and states along its path north (Kentucky and West Virginia have been particularly battered).

Although high-level drug addiction is tragic indeed, its pervasiveness might in the long run hold the key to America’s salvation. Addiction does not draw lines politically, racially, or socioeconomically as we do — It scorches earth and leaves devastation in its wake wherever it goes, and thanks to a conspiracy of politicians, lobbyists, businessmen, and doctors — which preyed on the most human and American impulses toward quick fixes and feel goodness — America’s prescription drug epidemic has now ravaged every corner of this country. It has become nearly impossible to condemn drug addicts the way we used to, simply because most of us know an addict or have dealt with some form of addiction ourselves; it would be doubly tragic not to leverage this silver lining to unify nation which, in the words of Hillary Clinton, is “more deeply divided than we thought.”