Addiction is complex, and isn’t just about illegal drugs, as problematic as that issue is. It’s not just a metaphor, but literally encompasses a great deal of human behavior.
Illegal drug use has spread and become more persistent. Heroin used to be an urban problem. It’s part of the rural landscape now too.
The War on Drugs has been going on for more than forty years, and we’re losing. One big reason for that is that illegal drugs intersect with something very American: capitalism. There’s an immense demand for illegal drugs, and as long as that’s true there will be people to supply them. Illegal drugs are among the most valuable substances there are, and the behavior around the others is comparable.
This was true of alcohol during Prohibition. One might think lawmakers might have learned from that, but maybe they learned the wrong lesson. A business that profitable probably supports legislators, as well as others. Prohibition only lasted long enough to give us organized crime. The War on Drugs has given us organized crime on steroids.
But illegal drugs are only a small part of addiction. Alcohol is legal again, tobacco always has been, but both are very destructive. Alcohol can destroy families as thoroughly as drugs (it may or may not take longer), and tobacco is good for destroying health.
But these are still only part of the story. Sugar and salt are the two substances that sell most processed foods, even though we know too much of them is bad for us.
I used to drink like an alcoholic, but had increasing trouble tolerating it. I haven’t taken a drink for at least a couple of years, but it took a very long time to quit entirely.
It’s been almost a year since I last smoked. I don’t feel the desire too strongly, but know that if I started again I probably wouldn’t stop. I’ve smoked most of my life.
I like sugar in particular about as much as anyone, though I also like salt. But those aren’t my only addictive behaviors.
I’ve read more than most people all my life, which takes us out of the realm of substance abuse as ordinarily understood. In this sort of category are TV, movies, computers, and video games. I’ve probably been less addictive about TV and movies than most, and I’ve hardly played video games at all. Computers are another matter.
Computers are an immense resource in the sense of available knowledge, as well as a great way for merchants to advertise and sell. I’d be willing to guess a major part of computer use is to interact with others, though. That was the initial attraction for me, as it seemed easier than trying to meet people in bars, for instance. That can be positive. but trolling is a familiar word now.
In any case, other forms of behavior can also be addictive. Sex is probably as addictive as anything else people do, since it’s intensely pleasurable, as well as being a fundamental drive.
Nor does it stop there. Few of us are entirely authentic. We identify with whatever we say “I” to, and identification is a form of “sleep”, which is a way of not being conscious, and addiction is a way to avoid consciousness, because consciousness can be painful.
How did narcotics come to be abused? They kill pain, and not just physical pain. There are plenty of people with chronic physical pain, but arguably even more with chronic emotional pain. Illegal drugs will numb both. So will legal drugs, like alcohol and tobacco, to say nothing of tranquilizers. You can add coffee, sugar, and chocolate to that list too. And money.
In this country, and much of the rest of the world, we are convinced that buying things will make us happy. There’s evidence to suggest there are limits to this happiness, but few of us are willing to give up all we own, as Jesus recommended. We make the people who sell things very happy, and many of them happily cut corners to make themselves even happier.
A lot of what is sold can be called convenience. Central heating, cars, computers, and cellphones are all convenient. We’d rather not have to do the intense physical work our ancestors did even a hundred years ago when technology had already begun to make a real impact on our lives. Nor do we care that the convenient products tend not to be biodegradable, or to pollute in other ways. Our desire to be less conscious masks the natural world for us, and how our behavior harms it, and ultimately ourselves. Ideology about individuality has as much to do with the right to pollute and mistreat one’s employees as anything else, it seems.
It seems obvious that the way to be happy is to do pleasurable things, but the great religions contradict that picture. Jesus talked about it being more difficult for a rich man to enter heaven than pass through the eye of a needle (the eye of the needle was a very narrow gate into Jerusalem, which a camel could enter only if its baggage was removed). Capitalism seems largely to be about selling us pleasures, if not entirely. It does pretty much reduce the world to buying and selling, and strongly implies that these are the means to happiness.
William S. Burroughs observed of his experience with narcotics that the perfect customer was an addict “who will crawl through a sewer to buy”. Look at advertising anywhere and ask yourself how much of it is to sell anything people really NEED. In very many cases, perhaps most, it’s trying to stimulate a desire to be satisfied by buying something, and an awful lot of the time it’s not something really NEEDED.
Anytime we say “I” to any of our desires, whether it’s to buy something, or to behave in a certain way, that can be called identification. Or attachment. Either can be seen as a form of addiction. And addiction is essentially lack of balance.
George Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher of the last century, said that non-desires should predominate over desires. Another way to say that is that we should discipline ourselves and refuse to indulge. How many of us actually do that, no matter what we tell ourselves?
It is the constant temptation of manufacturers and merchandisers to amass more profits than they really need by selling products to people THEY really don’t need. What is the consequence?
On the production side, the person has more wealth and possessions than they know what to do with, which makes little sense on an individual level, since they know (but may not believe) they’re going to die, and can’t take their money or possessions with them. If they have family or friends to leave them to it makes slightly more sense, but it’s questionable how much good the money does their descendants. It keeps them out of poverty, but suppose all that is taken away. Like any other addiction, once it’s withdrawn, the former possessor may go into withdrawal. But keeping the bequest may lead to arrogance. Rich children sometimes are able to earn their own money–especially if their inheritances give them a great advantage–and sometimes not. But they tend to see themselves as better than others, and others do too. I doubt that’s good for them.
For those of us not wealthy, are the consequences much better? If we amass money and possessions that leave us below the wealthy level, are we better off than the really rich? We still can’t take our possessions with us. Our children need to learn how to make their own livings too, and without the advantage wealthy children have.
Perhaps the worst thing is living in the money universe and believing it’s all there is. Actually, we live in worlds within worlds. The natural world, which is what keeps us alive, is seen as a bank we can withdraw from without depositing. It’s also seen as a place we can dump our trash without consequence. That’s a dangerous way for us to live.
Addiction also makes us self-centered, no matter the substance, behavior, or anything else. Addiction makes us desperate too, willing to do almost anything to anybody for our own satisfaction. We as a nation are addicted to oil to power our buildings and vehicles, which has led us into destructive behavior in the Middle East, not least to ourselves.
It’s not like we have no idea about this. The ostensible reason for the War on Drugs, as well as Prohibition, was to protect people from addiction. It was never the real, or at least only reason, though. It was used to feed other addictions, not only to money, but to power as well.
Power may be the worst of the addictions. It promises us the ability to change the world. Our motives may be good or not so good, but if we’re drawn to power, we may well be corruptible.
Of course power is a reality in human life. Some individuals and classes will be inevitably more powerful than others. Some will also be more responsible with power than others. Plato thought in an ideal society those who were to be trusted with power should not be allowed other pleasures, like sex and family. They should also not DESIRE power. Is this humanly possible? Not to a very large extent.
We see in our own country that power has corrupted our political and economic leaders to greater or lesser extent. The power of being able to possess has also corrupted the rest of us. Few of us want to have less. We almost always want to have more, and given how many of us there are in the world, this is not sustainable. That’s not hard to see, but we prefer not to see it.
Suppose we have a catastrophe that destroys our capacity to produce electric power or fuel our buildings and vehicles. How will we survive? It would be nice to dismiss that as impossible, but it isn’t. If it happens, a great many people will not only struggle to survive (quite possibly in not very nice ways), but will enter more than one kind of withdrawal.
That’s the kind of change we live in fear of, and which explains at least some of the hateful rhetoric and actions many of us indulge in. We fear to lose what we have, with which we (more often than not) have an addictive relationship. Look at drug and alcohol addicts who have quit. Often they simply exchange one addictive habit for another: coffee for alcohol, for instance. Reality is still too fearsome to experience “naked”. What will happen when we lose things that seem even more necessary than drugs, with which we also have an addictive relationship?
I’m not better in this area than most people. I too want to live comfortably. I hope not to see social collapse in this country, or anywhere else. We’ve already seen it in Asia and Africa, and it’s not pretty. It would be nice to believe it can’t happen here, but that would be stupid. And unless we begin to be willing to change our behavior in very fundamental ways, it’s almost inevitable.


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