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Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Oprah On Crack and Other Addictions

What do Ernest Hemingway, Mary Tyler Moore, John Steinbeck, Mickey Mantle, Steven King, Drew Barrymore, Florence Nightingale, Jack London, Elvis Presley, William Faulkner, Sigmund Freud, Janis Joplin, Tennessee Williams, Eric Clapton, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning share?

It has been alleged that all of these people have had problems with drug dependency or drug addiction. Some were severely addicted; some had less serious dependencies; some kicked their addictions and dependencies; and some died due to their escalating dependencies and addictions.

To what were these famous people dependent or addicted? Of course, alcohol leads the list of abused substances; however, the list of names above also includes those who abused cocaine, opium, heroin, amphetamines, barbiturates, and various other prescription medications.

Now, I understand most of you will not be surprised to see people who held certain occupations such as writers and musicians on a list of people with drug problems. After all, you all know "artistic" fields attract personalities that lend themselves to heavy drug use, right?  And, of course, celebrity is demanding, conducive to using and abusing substances for reasons like having to deal with overbearing stress and having to be in the public arena.

Still, many actors, writers, musicians, and other people in the public eye manage to excel without flirting with dependency. You understand that those who developed good coping skills while growing up in a good family environment full of positive influences seldom abuse drugs, correct? As you see more and more addicted souls, you have become pretty good judges of the type of individuals who might become addicted. Or have you?

Would it surprise you that Oprah Winfrey revealed during one of her television shows that she had smoked crack cocaine while in her 20s. Then, in 1995, she called it "one of the hardest things I've ever said" as she admitted her dependency. She said the drug use occurred while she was an anchorwoman on a television news show. And, Oprah confided, "I always felt that the drug itself is not the problem but that I was addicted to the man (she was involved with a man who had introduced her to the drug)." She admitted, "I can't think of anything I wouldn't have done for that man." In essence, Oprah, even as an adult, blamed her illegal drug use on an old boyfriend. Does that, too, surprise you?

You probably continue to think of addiction -- particularly to illicit drugs -- as primarily a moral or character problem. In other words, a person becomes an addict because of something caused by immorality or lack of willpower.

But, addicts are not necessarily people with poor character. People of all ages take drugs (and please remember, alcohol is a drug), either for medical purposes or for recreation, so there is a benefit or a reward that they are trying to achieve.

In any addiction, the little "goody" reward reinforces the behavior that produces it. And, don't you all love your self-chosen goodies? Most of you would try to move heaven and earth to obtain them. The beginning stages of addiction cause the dependents to crave more drugs and to use more. The unintended consequences of that behavior is that a drug addict needs to take more and more of whatever produces the reward to get the same "feel good" result.

"When you get into an addicted state, it's a disease of the brain," says Alan Leshner, Ph.D., director of the federal government's National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Leshner says the stigma associated with alcohol and drug addiction is one of the biggest problems experts continually face in dealing with it. Leshner says that the public has little sympathy for addicts, but he adds that "whether you like the person or not, you've got to deal with [their problem] as an illness." (Janet Firshein, "Introduction: Addiction As a Disease," Moyers On Addiction, PBS Online)

Steven Hyman, M.D., who directs the National Institute of Mental Health, compares the disease of addiction to heart disease, which may also necessitate major lifestyle changes. "Take heart patients. We don't blame them for having heart disease," he says, but we ask them to follow a certain diet, to exercise, to comply with medication regimes. So it is with the addicted person -- we shouldn't blame them for the disease, but we should treat them as having responsibility for their recovery. " (Janet Firshein, "Introduction: Addiction As a Disease," Moyers On Addiction, PBS Online)

What Has Made You Dependent?

This may be splitting hairs a little, but in terms of describing a person's need for drugs, dependence and addiction actually have slightly different meanings. Dependence is a physical state that occurs when the lack of a drug causes the body to react. Physical dependence indicates that the body has grown so adapted to having a drug present that sudden removal of it will lead to withdrawal reactions. This can happen with almost any drug. Addiction, however, is a biological and psychological condition that compels a person to satisfy the need for a particular stimulus and keep satisfying it, no matter what the cost.

You don't become addicted the first time you try a drug. Although there are some cases where a person's reaction to first use is so positive that he immediately begins to abuse a drug, Most addiction has a subtler start. It usually doesn't take place until you have been using chronically and develop dependency. You become an addict when his or her brain has literally been changed by this chronic use of the drug.

So, you aren't drug dependent. (I hope.) But, you can develop a dependency or an addiction to darn near anything. Some unintended consequences can result even in the most simple of dependencies. Think of a typical high school boyfriend/girlfriend relationship -- many psychological and physical dependencies often develop during first courtships. Some of these dependencies result in lifetime scars and tragedy (Such as marriage -- sorry, I couldn't resist.).

And so, you aren't drug addicted. (I sincerely hope you are clean.) I wonder who has developed a severe addiction to some other stimulus? An addiction to sex can produce whorish behaviors. An addiction to food can produce gluttony. An addiction to the love of money can produce insatiable greed. An addiction to sports can produce a fearsome fanaticism. An addiction to beauty can produce hateful jealousy and vanity. On and on... I venture to say that all of you are overly dependent on something in your life to the point that that thing causes you a certain degree of character loss. (I own up to that statement BIG TIME.)

"If It Feels Good, Do It"

Dependency and addiction and rewards -- does this begin to make sense? Not yet? Well, let me take you way back to the days of my youth. Remember the expression that summed up the emerging values of the 1960s and 1970s? "If it feels good, do it"?

In Psychology Today (February 6, 2011) Dr. David D. Nowell recounts a dinner and a dessert he shared with some fellow students that deals with that old expression. Here is what he remembers:

"With a mouth full of my second helping of something that looked like peach cobbler, I asked one of my dinner companions why she wasn't eating dessert. "It's free," I encouraged her. This was not one of my fellow clinical psychology students, but someone from one of the other programs on campus. Film History, or American Studies, or Urban Planning and Resource Allocation, something like that.

"I don't remember her name now, but I recall that she dressed in gauzy clothing, a la Stevie Nicks.  And that she'd grown up in a family of Carnival entertainers, traveling around the country.  She was offbeat and interesting, and had perspectives that were different from those of the more practical psychology students.

"And what she said to me at dinner that evening was something I carry with me even now. In the sing-song cadence of the Valley Girl speech still fairly common on campus at the time, she chirped 'Oh, I decided a couple of years ago not to eat food that makes me feel bad.'

"I stopped, spoon in my hand gripped tight like a microphone, with a warm gooey mouthful of peach flavored crust. I just stared at her.

"She'd decided not to eat food that makes her feel bad! What an incredibly sensible and basic (here I took another bite of cobbler) way to approach (another bite) life! I should totally live my life (and another bite) like that!

"So that's how I like to think about the 'if it feels good' half of this very difficult maxim. Determining what really feels good is some of the important and serious work of any adult." ("What Would Happen If We Did What Actually Feels Good"

Many things make you feel good. But what makes you really feel good? Nowell believes you discover this with some simple soul searching. He says more about this discovery: "I'm talking here about the one thing that will make the biggest improvement in your life, and in the lives of those around you - the thing you've been putting off. For lack of social support, or lack of resources, or lack of courage, for whatever reason that action step you have not -- yet -- done." According to Nowell, when you find that thing, you know full well what really feels good.

Yet Nowell contends it's the "doing it" that is the real challenge of this axiom. He points to fairly meaningless pursuits you typically "feel good" about such as watching television. What else might you do with unstructured time that "really feels good"? So, what is real pleasure.

He says:

"When I'm enjoying better health, when I'm sleeping better, and when I'm enjoying more honest and true relationships, and when I'm engaging in exactly the right work/life balance, then I'm a better brother, student, clinician, and teammate."

Nowell suggests:

"As you think about your next meal, your next conversation with your partner, your next bit of unstructured free time, what choices will you make? What would feel good?"

Many people who are drug dependent and drug addicted have, unfortunately, bought into that old "If it feels good, do it" philosophy. After the drug culture of the '60s and '70s waned and people discovered LSD, cocaine, heroin, and other popular drugs were not the part of the solution but part of the problem, you would think drug abuse would be a lesson already learned. But, it's not.

All the old drugs are still around and are still abused, and now the world has new designer drugs and powerful prescription drugs that create terrible consequences. And, hey, by the way, alcohol is still the number one social lubricant and number one drug of abuse, isn't it. But, have you ever heard someone say, "Yeah, that guy is an alcohol addict"?

You say, "It's not the drugs, but the person who's to blame for abuse." In the respect of ultimate control and ultimate responsibility, I believe you are right. Still, how about the progression from the curious and vogue experimentation, the slide into dependency and the ultimate fall into addiction? As drug addiction takes tenacious hold, the brain of the addict literally becomes diseased. The addict knows this but is usually unable to self-manipulate the complicated process of diagnosis and full treatment.

Why is the addict considered a pariah rejected by the mainstream of society? I think you know the answer:  he is perceived as a weak-willed individual who has done irreparable damage to himself and who has chemically metamorphosed into the most monstrous and dangerous threat to his fellow human beings. To the public, he has become wasted human flesh, not by disease but by choice.

It may be surprising to you that I agree -- some drug addicts are criminals and killers that fit this nasty description. These people should be punished. I'm sure some of them are actually psychopathic addicts. But, all I ask you to do is to consider three things before you flip the Over the Rainbow Switch or ostracize all of those who suffer from the disease of drug addiction.

1. Reread the list of the drug dependent and drug addicted at the top of this entry.

2. Consider what you might yet become if your own "little speck" of negative dependency turns into dreadful addiction.

3. Think about who you might be today if you had not been mentally and spiritually able to determine the difference between "what feels good" and "what really feels good," but you "did it" anyway.

Moyers On Addiction article:
Psychology Today article:


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