Anybody who knows me understands that I have traveled a long and tortured road when it comes to substance abuse. The drugs I abused were completely legal – tobacco and alcohol – but at the height of my abuse I was up to two packs a day and well… consumed embarrassing amounts of liquor. On January 28, 1996 I stubbed out my last cigarette in a neighborhood noodle shop in north Kyoto Japan. In the early hours of December 1, 2000 I set down my last drink in Wilmington Delaware. I have been Straight Edge ever since, but the years of sobriety haven’t made me complacent. I realize that the hell I left behind is only a drink away and one is as close as the refrigerator in the kitchen (the Wife keeps beer and wine in the house).
I know what it feels like to crave something so badly that one’s world becomes focused on a single glass or tobacco-filled paper tube. I have trudged a mile through foot deep snow to buy cigarettes and lost my mind from nicotine withdrawal the dozens of times I tried – and failed – to quit. But in the end something more powerful than me pulled me out of my own private addiction hell and left me dumbfounded and humble towards addiction in the real world.
That humility has shown me that I have gotten off much more lightly than most. Search this journal for essays about my old drinking buddy, my sister-in-law, for an example of someone with both feet firmly planted in the pit of hell. Over the years I have seen others ruined by alcohol, tobacco and illicit drug abuse of seemingly a thousand different varieties and come to one conclusion: we as a people have yet to understand and treat addiction effectively.
Even as a recovering addict myself I can’t tell you what the solution is for addiction. What helped me was a swift and hard kick in the pants by the Wife combined with an iron will forged in my childhood by my mother. But I don’t claim to know what works for others.
What I can say beyond a reasonable doubt however is that jailing addicts does not help addiction. If anything it makes the addict’s situation worse while doing nothing to protect Society.
An addict’s first priority feeding the addiction by securing his or her drug. Everything else pales in comparison to this fundamental need. While I was in the African bush I never fell below a carton of Tanzanian Sportsmans and a bottle of scotch. Every six weeks I would take a long trip up Lake Tanganyika to get supplies for the research camp, and rebuild my stash. I ran out of coffee but I never once ran out of cigarettes over the course of an entire year in the isolated outpost.
Since my drugs were legal, they were easily obtained and therefore relatively cheap. I doubt that my annual bar tab and smokes budget ever consumed more than 5% of my income. Some – I’d hazard a guess and suggest that most addicts spend more on their dope than they take in. To make up the difference they lie, cheat and steal – often from their loved ones. Some also deal to make enough money to feed their addiction. These particular sad-sacks usually end up in shallow graves as their addiction forces them to steal from their suppliers.
Outsiders ask how they could do this – yet forget that the addicts first priority is securing her drug. Nothing else matters. It’s hard for non-addicts to understand this, but as Al-Anon teaches you have to accept it nevertheless.
As an addict to legalized drugs I live in a world awash with them. A clove cigarette smells so sweet on the Spring air, and nothing seems to get a man laid faster than a can of beer - if the commercials are to be believed that I see on television. But my personal history has taught me that sweet smelling cloves eventually lead to fetid Marlboros, and nothing gets a man arrested faster than drinking a 12 pack of beer and smarting-off to a cop.
Addicts can’t live in a protected bubble forever. Eventually they have to leave rehab or the safety of their family to get on with their own lives and become responsible for themselves. Some will fail and die. Others will succeed in living a relatively decent life in spite of their addiction. Still more will bounce between addiction and sobriety, leading uneasy and restless lives.
Of all the things I can blame for my addiction – my upbringing, my genetics – Society isn’t one of them. Sure I live in a permissive society where alcohol and tobacco are legal, yet the fact that heroin and meth aren’t permissible in our Society hasn’t stopped people from getting addicted to them. Similarly there are drunks in Riyadh and Tehran – nations where alcohol is banned. The legality of a substance has little impact on its addiction, and to believe otherwise is to fail to understand the nature of addiction and underestimate its power.
Besides, it’s my disease – not Society’s. I own it, and I will not let anyone take away that tiny bit of power from me.
Legalizing illicit drugs is no panacea. It isn’t going to stop addiction, but at the same time it isn’t going to turn normal people into coke whores and junkies. The drugs don’t have that kind of power to the non-addict. It’s only those of us who are open to addiction that can become addicts. One can even take opiates and not become an addict, as soldiers proved in Vietnam where over half of enlisted men in 1971 had tried opiates and half of those did not become addicted. Similarly there are even some who manage to smoke cigarettes without becoming addicted – something that I personally don’t get after my 17 year smoking “career”. And most people who have a beer or glass of wine do not become alcoholics. In fact according to the US Dept. of Health and Human Services, approximately 7.4% of the US population meet the criteria for alcohol abuse. That means that at least the Government believes that 92.6% of Americans – around 280,000,000 – aren’t alcoholics.
For forty years America has waged a war on drugs, and all it has to show for it are casualties. But I’m arguing that these casualties exist whether we declare war on drugs or not. People are going to continue to die. Lives will continue to be ruined – whether we declare a war or not, whether we throw addicts into prison or not. The only way forward out of this mess is to take the first step and recognize that the problem of addiction is not a law and order problem, nor solely a medical or mental problem. It is all of these yet more – a spiritual problem that we have yet begun to understand let alone solve.
I’ve been sober for over 8 years now, but I still am terrified of losing the sobriety I have worked so long and hard for. All I can do is continue onward in the hope that someday Society will mature enough to begin to provide solutions for what has to be one of the most insidious problems anyone can face in his or her life.