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On the nature of addiction

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

Perhaps uncharacteristically, this post will consist mostly of citations of other articles about the nature of addiction. I have relatively little contact with addiction, but the truth of what these ex-users write is evident to anyone of a rational bent who is reasonably informed about the world.

The article Philip Seymour Hoffman is another victim of extremely stupid drug laws by Russell Brand (Guardian) writes,

“People are going to use drugs; no self-respecting drug addict is even remotely deterred by prohibition.”

This seems non-debatable as the truth of it is borne out by decades, if not centuries, of empirical evidence. The truism extends to many other crimes, especially those born of desperation: a punitive judicial system has very little prohibitive effect.

“What prohibition achieves is an unregulated, criminal-controlled, sprawling, global mob-economy, where drug users, their families and society at large are all exposed to the worst conceivable version of this regrettably unavoidable problem.”

Check. Legalization reduces crime. Duh.

“Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death is a reminder, though, that addiction is indiscriminate. That it is sad, irrational and hard to understand. What it also clearly demonstrates is that we are a culture that does not know how to treat its addicts. Would Hoffman have died if this disease were not so enmeshed in stigma? If we weren’t invited to believe that people who suffer from addiction deserve to suffer? Would he have OD’d if drugs were regulated, controlled and professionally administered? (Emphasis added.)”

The emphasized portion is especially interesting in light of how many of the same people who think of themselves as good Christians also condemn and fail to forgive those who succumb to addiction.

The older article, my life without drugs by Russell Brand on March 2013 (Guardian) included some more insights into the mind of an addict.

“Recently for the purposes of a documentary on this subject I reviewed some footage of myself smoking heroin that my friend had shot […] When I saw the tape a month or so ago, what is surprising is that my reaction is not one of gratitude for the positive changes I’ve experienced but envy at witnessing an earlier version of myself unencumbered by the burden of abstinence. I sat in a suite at the Savoy hotel, in privilege, resenting the woeful ratbag I once was, who, for all his problems, had drugs. That is obviously irrational. (Emphasis added.)”

I think that this is the main take-away: we pity those with cancer and shower them with love and affection, upending personal lives and donating scads of money to trying to cure it or at least ameliorate its effects. But drug users, who science has long since shown suffer from a disease, get none of this. This, despite such a large part of the population being users themselves (alcohol and nicotine are also drugs that just happen to be legal in most countries).

Brand goes on to distinguish between users and addicts.

“Without these fellowships I would take drugs. Because, even now, the condition persists. Drugs and alcohol are not my problem, reality is my problem, drugs and alcohol are my solution. […] If this seems odd to you it is because you are not an alcoholic or a drug addict. You are likely one of the 90% of people who can drink and use drugs safely. (Emphasis added.)”

Those of us who judge drug addicts so harshly are usually just the kind of people who don’t have the kind of horrible lives that must be washed away by chemically induced euphoria or calm. And even if we do, there are good odds that we won’t get addicted.[1] The admonition and recrimination is similar to the phenomenon of those in the upper classes telling the poor that they should just get jobs and stop mooching. Even were the already-rich to make the same mistakes the poor make, they would not suffer the same punishments. Mme. Antoinette has yet to be to be improved upon; what’s old is new again.

“It is difficult to feel sympathy for these people. It is difficult to regard some bawdy drunk and see them as sick and powerless. It is difficult to suffer the selfishness of a drug addict who will lie to you and steal from you and forgive them and offer them help. Can there be any other disease that renders its victims so unappealing?”
“Peter Hitchens is a vocal adversary of mine on this matter. He sees this condition as a matter of choice and the culprits as criminals who should go to prison. I know how he feels. I bet I have to deal with a lot more drug addicts than he does, let’s face it. I share my brain with one, and I can tell you firsthand, they are total fucking wankers. Where I differ from Peter is in my belief that if you regard alcoholics and drug addicts not as bad people but as sick people then we can help them to get better. (Emphasis added.)”

Peter Hitchens is Christopher Hitchens’s brother. He is even more right-wing, obnoxious and tiresome than even Chris had managed to become before succumbing to cancer. Where Hitchens argues for ever longer and more inventive punishments, Brand issues a plea for a rehabilitative system. Science and evidence is on Brand’s side. While a rehabilitative system does not satisfy the cultural need for revenge, it is the most effective at addressing the core problem: preventing the most harm for the most people.

And, finally, the article Strength and compassion: a note to drug abuse concern trolls, concerning Philip Seymour Hoffman by Matt Zoller Seitz (RogerEbert.com) also included some good advice for those with an itchy trigger finger vis à vis telling drug addicts what horrible people they are[2]:

“Addiction is a beast. It’s powerful. Sometimes it overwhelms even those who fight hard against it for decades. […] When I see people saying, of Hoffman’s death, “What a waste” or “Pity he was so selfish” or “Why would anybody do that to their children?” or “While we’re praising him, let’s not forget the man was a junkie” or other such hateful blather, I wonder if they know what addiction is, or have chosen, for reasons of anger or preening self-regard, to pretend that they do not.”

It’s much more likely that these people are just like most of the unwashed masses: even were they capable of anything but the most superficial introspection or rational thought mechanisms, they still wouldn’t consider denying the world their pithy, unconsidered insight for five minutes in order to use said mechanisms first. Because where’s the fun in that? Right when there’s such a grand opportunity for displaying your superiority—now, thanks to the Internet—to the entire world?[3]

“There’s a reason why, when you’re in any kind of Twelve-Step Program and you ritually state your name and name your addiction, you use present tense, not past. […] This is not a linguistic affectation. All addicts remain, forever, in some fundamental sense, addicts—but hopefully some of them get to a place where they’re non-practicing.”

Hoffman was, apparently, on the wagon for about two decades, before he so spectacularly capitulated. He jumped off with gusto, with both feet. They found lots of drugs in the apartment he made his final resting place. Is there anyone who could reasonably assume that he’d thought of his family at that time and said to himself: “fuck it, I’m going to kill myself with drugs instead”. Clearly, that smacks of illness.

“We all have destructive habits. If we’re lucky, it’s watching too much TV when it’s inhibiting our productivity, or looking at porn when we think it’s a sin, or lying, cheating, overeating. If we’re lucky, our addictions won’t kill us.”

We all have this illness, this need for pattern and consistency. We need to while away the luxurious lengths of time afforded to us by modern civilization within the constraints of the social isolation often engendered by same. You can be even luckier if you become addicted to exercise, I guess. But don’t let’s pretend that someone who runs 100 miles a week isn’t suffering from an illness mentally similar to that of a heroin fiend.

“But for an unfortunate group, the need to keep going becomes as pervasive as the need to eat or sleep. And we call them selfish, as if they would prefer to be a slave to the thing that’s ruining everything good in their lives.”


[1] I wonder how accurate that 90% is, though, once all drugs—legal, prescription and illegal—are factored in.
[2] As if convincing them of that is going to make them do drugs less. It’s a moot point in Hoffman’s case, of course.
[3] In case you were wondering, the irony is not lost on me. In my defense, the audience for earthli News can be considered under none but the shoddiest metric to be “the entire world”.