Compulsion is brutal.
But the last decade has seen a huge cultural effort to remove spiritual death from the tragedy of addiction. Alcoholics Anonymous was, and largely still is, the model for treatment, but a Higher Power does not play well in the wave of commercial exploitation of “recovery services.”
Squeaky clean, dead serious ads put coifed “addicts” and similarly serious “therapists” in front of us. With all the sincerity of “ethical” car sales shills, the very worst in any of us has the same cure as a dirty floor: buy me. There is a new, aggressive PR explosion everywhere, which loudly declares addiction to be a treatable epidemic.
In this New Age of Cold Clarity things have zero ethical consistency. Grass is getting legalized but the second drink of “buzzed” driving is in complete disfavor. Cocktails have never been cooler. Genetics might find reason in every way we fall short. This is not easy.
On every platform fresh, new, edgy dramas of addiction are offered up and shills the same filthy lucre off the schadenfreude to the rest of us non-addicts. Cable reality shows like “Intervention” have all of the grim fascination of NASCAR accident-waiting. Before that, “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew” or “Addicted” made the misery of the addicted ratings-getting. And it’s not just drugs, it’s food. “My 600 Pound Life” parades distressed coping ingestion-addicts to us feel-good dark-side revelers.
It is a different time. There are 4 times as many overdoses today as there were a generation ago. Opioid use (Oxycodone, Vicodin, Percocet) is up 343% in this generation — Ritalin and other drugs are seen as necessary in defeating child brain issues. Alcohol deaths are now at a generation high.
Things seem out of control. Monetizing addiction recovery makes sense with new Obamacare funding, but this wave of national marketing is just the result of much longer, deeper change in our social values. As a subset, American humans are not adjusting well to the 21st century. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency estimates that over 23 million Americans (age 12 and older) are addicted. Only 11% (2.5 million) received care at an addiction treatment facility in 2012 — there is $35 billion to be made annually.
There are now federal mandates for payment parity with other chronic or acute health conditions like cancer or diabetes. The AMA first defined alcoholism as an illness (1956) and then a disease (1966), but Forbes notes that there’s little scientific evidence to support a disease diagnosis. Morality, belief, faith seem trite and inconsequential — or at least an impediment to the profit motive.
But these economic engines are riding on a huge contemporary cultural shift — redefining the deeply destructive realities of addiction. Addiction was once shame-filled — the worst of personal failure — the bottoming out of a character that simply could not cope without illicit dependency. But we seem to have outgrown that perspective.
My Dad was a great Wall Street lawyer. All was hard-driving until the Harlem Hudson Line train pulled into his suburban hometown. Every weekday night, in the 1950s thru ’70s, around 6-something PM he changed. Perhaps it was just history, the culture, his DNA, but he imbibed 13 ounces of Vat 69 scotch in the next hour or so, every day. The weekends were similar. He lost many friends, but this reality was never recognized to anyone but his intimates.
But that was a hidden, excused, rationalized reality. Socially normalized, personally devastating. Mad Men had a profitable run up-close-and-personalizing this addiction and its effects in a smart, subtle and devastating drama. Alcohol for the Greatest Generation was a mass balm against the overwhelming post-wartime PTSD carnage.
Way before that national denial, the undeniable addiction to booze forced a Constitutional Amendment after 70 years of struggle with the obvious — that booze kills. That 21st Amendment was passed by a 2/3 vote of congress and states. But the sequestration of alcohol was not enough to make illegalization a way to change the essence of our human need to live the dangerous, fun, and just-a-little evil life.
I love a drink — or 3. But never alone. Never a pattern. But it tastes great, and its invigoration seems fully reasonable once This World is taken care of in any given day. But I have never done any drugs other than alcohol — not even one drag on any type of cigarette. Does that make me “better,” in any way, than anybody? Are you kidding?
In response to my Mad Men upbringing, one of my siblings has never even touched a drop of alcohol let alone anything intoxicating. The other has been far more exploratory than that. Are they worse? Better? Than what? Our shared humanity makes these choices and circumstances just part of the human rap sheet we all carry around since birth.
For this awkward moment of economic opportunity and moral evolution, we are left with deadpan pandering to our best and worst selves. We love those who cannot cope, but the soul death of so many will not be helped in the brittle clinical clarity of a new generation’s faith in guilt-free disease — versus dealing with our collective hopeless despair in a secular time. I think the new millions in addiction suffer more in this season where, for an increasing number, God is dead.
When God is present, these ads become hilariously stilted. Addiction victimizes everyone it touches, but it is slow-motion suicide for most. Life is full of bad things — but a Greater Good makes addiction just less of an option. As that Greater Good is discredited, “uncool” or just irrelevant, it’s pretty easy to justify a high. The ease for self-loathing in myself and everyone else makes a temporary euphoria pretty compelling — but it’s not like efforting a stomach virus or praying for infection has ever had any appeal. It’s just not easy being flawed — getting high seems viable to more people than ever.
I would love to actually be a Puritan — but it’s impossible. Perfection seems pretty great, but ultimately alien to all of us. It is harder, in fact the hardest, to believe in your hopes.
It seems to me that it’s simply stupid to have faith in a world that cannot fulfill the insane hopes we all have — because there is very little in our lives that lives up to any expectations. But this stupidity is just vanity — unless perfection is expected. Somehow in this mad desensitizing technological rush to Mass Perfection everything becomes defined by Infinite Selfies, Perfect Vacations, THE BEST COLLEGE EVER, Amazing Food. As a culture, we are losing the happiness of imperfect goodness found in Grace — but Grace, despite this infinite losing on our end, never loses us.
This new wave of desperate addiction for so many wrecks hope. Our culture runs to fix the problem — but, in the absence of hope in this secular marketplace of ideas, hopelessness seems more effect than cause. Cold calculation sez we can excise this deeply sad state with one useful diagnosis. But, to me, this is not just a soulless disease that blindly infects. There is a faithlessness that causes addiction in so many I have known.
Humans want to end pain and feel good. God helps with that, but God is becoming harder to find in this new age of technological distortion.
The rush of superficiality in Facebook Moments cannot overcome the addiction alternative. Amid the flood of social media imagery we are losing a very simple truth — God in our lives. The incidental, temporal, “show me the money” ephemera turns out to be uncompetitive with addiction.
And the ads rush to cash in.