Addiction. It’s a disease, a disease of the brain and its inability to resist the urge to drink or do drugs. And it’s ugly. It eats at your soul, it rips everything away from you all to chase the next high or next bottle. Addicts are not nice people to be around when they are in an altered state. You have different kinds of addicts, the happy drunk, the loud drunk, the belligerent drunk, the abusive drunk but they are all drunk and drunks are no fun. At worst they are dangerous, at best they are unreliable, unreachable, gone, drowned into the depths of their addictions. They are there but it’s only a shell of their former glorious self. Their true selves, the perfect being that God created has been obscured by their addictions.

Drug addicts in my opinion have it worse, at least alcohol is a legal substance that anyone over the age of 21 can buy at it their local supermarket or liquor store. There’s no shame or criminality in procuring alcohol. Unless you show up stinking drunk and stumbling into your local liquor store, no one thinks they are selling alcohol to an alcoholic. Street drugs however, are a totally different story. To get drugs, you must contact dealers and they are usually seedy dangerous characters who you don’t want to mess with or owe money to, and with addictions, what follows next is money problems, money to pay for the addictions, if they don’t have it, they will rob, steal, sell family heirlooms to feed that addiction. Like I said, it’s ugly. It’s not something anyone in their right mind would do. And that’s just it, they aren’t in their right mind. People prior to becoming hopeless addicts were sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, soldiers, nurses, doctors, athletes, student, people with potential until addiction took hold of them.

Mother Teresa wrote in her book ‘A Simple Path’:

“The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

She didn’t specifically refer to addicts, but the sentiment is the same, there is a hopelessness and despair that addicts feel, though we can’t just ‘love’ an addict out of his or her addiction, but love being combined with understanding, empathy, along with effective medical treatment without any stigma attached can go a long way to heal addicts. One of the leading causes of death among addicts (besides the overdose) is suicide, the combination of shame at one’s inability to control one’s addiction can be too much to bear for some. Nora Volkow, the director National Institute on Drug Abuse says that the patients she encounters ” [the] addicted does not choose to be addicted; it’s no longer a choice to take the drug. Addicted people in my laboratory often say it’s not even pleasurable. “I just cannot control it.” Or they’ll say, “I have to take the drug because the distress of not taking the drug is too difficult to bear.”

For the longest time, drug addicts and alcoholics were viewed as people who had weak will power and poor self control. While all the boys can wake up from a night of hard drinking with a hangover the next day but still go about their days unimpeded, only the weak can’t handle his drinking. Only the weak get sloppy, mean, blackout and not remember where he’s been and what he’d done the night before, without realizing that some people’s bodies do not process the alcohol the same way as others. From my own family history, my paternal grandfather was man who was known for being a drunk and he was mean and abusive when he was drunk but he didn’t start out that way. He was a West Point graduate just like his father and grandfather before him, he begun an army career and married my grandmother. But the army drinking culture got the best of him and he became an out of control, raging, cannot stop drinking kind of alcoholic until the end of his life where his liver basically turned to stone (so my dad tells me). My grandmother made the difficult decision to kick him out and divorce him though it was very tough to be a single woman with three small children in the early 1940’s, she risked penury and social ostracism but there was no choice as my grandfather was an abusive drunk. He didn’t just get drunk and go to sleep and wake up the next day, he was abusive and dangerous. And my grandmother did live in relative poverty for many years, she was forced to remarry several times just to keep her family out of total poverty (long story for another time). It was near impossible for a woman to head a household without a man in her days and it is my guess that she remarried not for love but more for necessity.

Needless to say my father and his siblings resented and at times hated their father for putting them in that position. My father and his siblings could have gone on to prep schools and then each to their college of choice or perhaps even continued the tradition of West Point, but my father’s education ended at the 9th grade, he said he had to drop out to work on the family farm, my aunt got married at 18 to a lovely man but I think  given the opportunity she’d like to have furthered her education and my uncle joined the army at 18, neither of them were able to progress beyond high school. My grandparents had a promising life ahead of them, my grandfather could have served in the army during World War II and be an officer in the army, but that never materialized because of his alcoholism. His was a life wasted in various government paper pushing jobs (he was a highly functional and disciplined alcoholic who only begun drinking at 7 PM) because that’s all he could manage. I never got to know him as he died when I was very little and my father has totally cut off any contact with my grandfather since he was 21 years old. Several of my cousins who got to know him told me that I didn’t miss much, he was just as everyone said, a mean old bullying drunk who hated everyone, who terrorized everyone and was just sad act. Though all that was true, I knew there was more to the story, I didn’t want to pry or make it appear that I was ‘defending’ a nasty person I never knew.

In an unguarded moment, my grandmother talked to me about my grandfather, how he was one of the smartest people she’d ever known, the most resourceful and was brilliant in business if only he would just stay off the bottle. Her final words about the subject was, ‘it’s truly an illness, he was sick.’ Given her age and the era she was born, I was surprised that she was able to view it from the lense of it was an illness and not a personal failure. She was 92 years old when she told me this, she knew him before he was the drunk that he became, she knew him at his finest, in military school, sailing through with top marks. They got married the day after he graduated from West Point and they were supposed to conquer the world together. They were both from well heeled New England families, they met at a dance ball in the White House and had my grandfather kept off the bottle and had his career as an army officer continued until his retirement, they would have led a comfortable life complete with the prestige that came with his position. She was surprisingly unembittered about her marriage to my grandfather and was able to remember him fondly, for the man he was, not what he became.

My grandparents on their wedding day, the day after his graduation from West Point. My grandma’s dress is on fleek.

From what little I know of my grandfather, he probably silently acknowledged that he was an impossible and abusive drunk and the shame must be unbearable for him. He was, after all, a graduate of West Point, the foremost army academy in the country, perhaps the world. He was a student of discipline, he ate, lived and breathed discipline but he had no control over his disease. And the fact that his personal life was often in shambles and most of his children were either terrified of him or hated him, it couldn’t have been pleasurable for him. Being the tough army man that he was, I cannot see him attending AA meetings or going to ‘drying out’ clinics either, so he suffered and his family suffered. Coming from a long line of men who served their country during war and peace in the armed forces but he wasted his life on alcoholism, that shame must have been unbearable, which probably drove him to drink more.

As a result of this family history, my dearly departed dad, who rarely gave me advice about anything told me to watch out for the bottle. Don’t overindulge, have some fun, but set limits, overindulgence of alcohol is a dangerous thing for us . Of course the genetic legacy of my grandfather’s alcoholism is several of my family members have alcohol related issues, I will not call people alcoholics if they don’t acknowledge it, but let’s just say they are highly functional drinkers.

I’ve always considered myself an alcoholic that never materialized, and this is all due to Divine guidance. I indulged myself in college as a rite of passage, the partying got out of hand certain times but it never got to a point where it became a problem for me. Like many people, intermittently throughout my life, I’ve suffered from depression, anxiety and self-crippling feelings of shame. Of all the emotions, shame and guilt are the most corrosive to the human psyche and it drives one to do many things one wouldn’t do otherwise. I can easily identify with the shameful feelings that most people with substance abuse problems carry around with them and it is also because of the shame begets shame vicious cycle when it comes to substance abuse has deterred me from developing an addictive habit. I don’t need any more of feelings of shame. I am by no means a teetotal, I love my occasional glasses of wine and cocktails, but that’s the extent of it.

Medical science and research have come a long way in studying the addicted brain and how is that different from people who aren’t addicted. Substance abuse has been labeled a ‘disease’, which by definition would mean that it’s a medical condition caused by a physical deficiency, no longer considered a character weakness or character flaw. But society and the criminal justice system have yet to catch up with the medical community yet in terms of labeling and treating addicts. The courts still use a punitive method to deal with repeat drug and alcohol offenders, most courts do not offer rehab as an alternative to jail time, most inmates with substance abuse problems do not get the assistance they need while incarcerated, they don’t receive counseling, no detox treatment, and so when they leave prison, they are right back to where they started with their addictions.

Substance abuse treatment requires highly skilled doctors, counselors and therapists to get to the root cause of why a person is abusing an addictive substance, the current model of 28 or 30 rehab program is less than adequate and the medical community is waking up to that fact now. Substance abuse treatment is expensive and needs to be ongoing, long after the patient has left in-patient treatment. Most addiction specialists will tell you that it’s a lifetime process to manage an addict’s sobriety. It requires total vigilance on the part of the patient and any slip up in that vigilance can cause an addict to relapse.

Addiction is ugly, there is nothing glamorous or pretty about it, and it does not discriminate between rich and poor. A case in point is the death of Eva Rausing, the American wife of the billionaire Hans Kristian Rausing (heir to Tetra Pak, the Swedish industrialist who invented the modern milk carton), both husband and wife were hopelessly addicted to heroin, they met while they were in rehab in their twenties, they both beat their respective addictions, got married and started a family, and was sober for a long time, then on New Year’s Eve of the new millennium, they decided to share a glass of champagne (which was not the substance they were in rehab for) and thus was the beginning of their long and ugly relapse and decline back into drug addiction, during which they quietly gave up custody of their 4 children to Hans Kristian Rausing’s sister, and finally Eva Rausing died in their Belgravia home in May of 2012. She died of an overdose but her husband, being drugged out of his mind too, didn’t alert the authorities that his wife had died and just left her body under a pile of clothes and bin bags in their bedroom and he went about his drug addled days for another 2 months until he was pulled over for erratic driving which led the police to discover the gruesome scene in his otherwise pristine home. He even lied to his housekeepers about the state of his wife. Their respective families tried to contact them in vain for months, Eva Rausing’s sister even flew from America to see her sister, but she’d already died and was under that pile of clothes and bin bags and no one told her. Hans Kristian Rausing’s sister Sigrid Rausing wrote a moving account of her brother’s addiction and how pointless it was to criminalize addiction, they need treatment not jail. Even the judge involved realized that jailing Hans Kristian Rausing for drugs violations was pointless, he was charged for improper burial of a body and as a condition of his freedom, he was sent to long term psychiatric and drug rehabilitation, where he was required to stay for as long as he needed to. For all their billions, the result of drug addiction is the same, squalor, hopelessness (albeit in a mansion) and eventual death for Eva Rausing. Sigrid Rausing made an astute observation that not all drug users are addicts:

“But it’s important to remember that most drug-takers are not addicts, and that the human cost of the war on drugs globally is enormous. If addiction was more securely defined as an emotional illness, and more separated from the activity of taking drugs, it should be possible to decriminalise drugs. But at the same time it must be made easier to commit addicts at risk of dying into care.”

Hans Kristian and Eva Rausing, being the billionaires that they were, lived a very low key life, albeit in one of the most desirable addresses in Central London. They were not loud flashy people with their wealth. During their life together and until her death, they contributed huge sums of money to drug rehabilitation clinics, hostels and halfway homes, and they weren’t the kind of people that wanted their names on the building, they paid for the everyday administrative costs of keeping the doors open and Eva Rausing in particular was very open in sharing her journey of addiction with other recovering addicts. They were patrons of many of the Prince’s Trust foundations and Prince Charles could always call on them to make emergency donations so that much needed rehabilitation clinics, hostels and halfway houses for addicts would remain open if there was a sudden shortage of funding. As a couple, they understood the deep pain of drug addiction and used their wealth to that effect. For many that knew Eva Rausing, a wealthy woman from cradle to grave, who never had to earn a living, she wanted to make a contribution to the world and this was her way.

It is well and good to redefine addiction and addicts as a disease where they are ill as opposed to people who are just weak willed and cannot control their addiction. But one cannot run away from the simple fact that addicts are just not very nice people to be around. They lie, cheat, steal, deny, deflect and are willing cause untold sadness, damage and harm to themselves and their families just for the purpose of satisfying their addiction. That is why many addicts end up alone with no one to call on when things go from bad to worse and are found dead with a needle sticking out of their arm. And it’s not that the addicts’ families and friends have abandoned them or stopped caring about them, but that they get tired and fed up and those families and friends have lives of their own too and after so many lies, disappointments and promises, people can only take so much:

For us, their family, the sadness of their relapse was overwhelming. Their addiction became our project, a project of endless emails, phone calls, experts, meetings, strategies, agreements, disagreements. Every week brought a new crisis, new information, and new developments. But most of all I remember the sadness. – Sigrid Rausing

Another inescapable fact about addiction, though a disease, is mostly one of self-infliction. People have to pick up that bottle to drink, people have to go out and get drugs to use and I suppose this is where addicts lose the sympathy of some people. But as Nora Volkow explains: “Once people understand the underlying pathology of addiction, people with the disease will not have to go through obstacles to obtain evidence-based treatments (such as buprenorphine or methadone for opioid addiction) but will simply, nonjudgmentally, receive the help they need, like a child with diabetes or a person with heart disease or cancer. They won’t have to feel that shame, or feel inferior, because people understand that they are suffering from a disease that should be treated like any other.”

Another problem with addiction is that the non-addict cannot understand what it’s like to be an addict. To the non-addicted, if something isn’t good for us, we just put it down and don’t use it. After one too many bad hangovers or stomach pains, we learn to not drink too much at once. But addicts don’t know that, they can’t discern too much and just enough, for them there is only too much.As Sigrid Rausing describes her brother in his younger days: “After one stay in rehab (there were so many), he came to live with me for several months. He immediately relapsed; I didn’t know. I thought the way he lived – the plates with rotten food under his bed, the dirt under his fingernails – was just him. The dirt was heroin. I didn’t get it. Eventually – still not getting it – I gently asked him to find his own place. He stayed for several more months, but remained in his room – a second bedroom, a small room – accepting, or choosing, exile. When he left, finally, he disappeared.”

The War on Drugs is officially a colossal waste of money, resources and  lives. All that money that went into catching drug dealers, distributors and cartel leaders could have gone to treat drug addicts instead of punishing them with criminal charges and jail time. Without addicts, the cartels and dealers would have no one to sell drugs to. An addict will get their fix any way they can, no matter the cost or personal danger to themselves, so trying to get rid of the cartels in hopes that they won’t peddle drugs into the United States is convoluted to say the least. The so-called ‘War on Drugs’ can never be won if it’s not treated at the root level, which are the addicts themselves. The logic and belief that if there are no drugs to be bought then there will not be any addicts is a false premise, as evidenced by the Prohibition era. The United States for a short time banned the sale of alcohol, it didn’t decrease the number of alcoholics, people bought illegal alcohol made with dubious substances and more illness and deaths resulted from that than when alcohol was sold legally.

6 thoughts on “Addiction – It’s an emotional disease, fueled by shame.

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