A Reading of The Urge: Our History of Addiction, Part V
When I was growing up, some people in my life drank, but there was only one instance when someone’s drinking resulted in scary behavior. I grew up in the sixties and early seventies and considered myself a hippie, but drug culture passed me and my friends by. Addiction was not even on my radar the first time I attended an AA meeting, but that meeting changed my life.
It was early in my college career. I didn’t know what I was going to be, but I thought I might become a minister. Someone suggested I attend an open AA meeting, not because they thought I had a drinking problem, but because they thought I might be interested in how they did things there.
The meeting occurred in a dingy church basement, and the people there seemed right at home. They were the kind of people one would expect to stay out of sight, in basements. They were friendly, but not intrusive. One by one, they proceeded through some readings they all seemed to know well: the Twelve Steps, the Twelve Traditions, and other materials from their Big Book. Then someone spoke and had some inspirational things to say. The meeting was very much like a church service, except God was barely mentioned. But it was a service unlike any other I’d ever seen. The people were real.
I’m not saying people aren’t real when they’re not at AA meetings, or that AA meetings are the only places to get real. I’m also not saying every AA meeting is real like that one was. I’m just saying the people there wore their reality on the outside. People usually keep their reality covered up, especially in church services. These people not only wore their reality; they loved it. They didn’t seek it out or revel in it, but when it was there, they accepted it as the thing that made them who they are and what brought them together.
I, meanwhile, had my own reality, which wasn’t just like theirs, but close. There were and still are parts of me I’d rather keep covered up and hide in a basement. I imagine you do, too. Wouldn’t it be great if we all had a place where my reality could be accepted and loved?
I knew at that moment I was destined. Either I had to become an alcoholic, or a counselor. I wanted to create a place where reality was welcome.
Reading The Urge: Our History of Addiction, by addiction psychiatrist, bioethicist, and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia, Carl Erik Fisher, reminded me of that moment. In some ways, this is a deeply unsatisfying book because our history of addiction has been deeply unsatisfying. As a society, we are like the addict who keeps going back to his drug, thinking all the while it’s going to be the thing that saves him, ignoring the evidence that it’s killing him. Society keeps getting drunk on reductionism, prohibitionism, and intolerance. We’re a long way from creating that place I envisioned.
We know how to create that place, though. Fisher said it better than I can. He writes:
When we accept that addiction is a part of life, and that there is no single solution, we give those who are suffering a better chance for relief. We need more quality treatment, but we also need to be wary of quick fixes and simplistic stories, and especially wary of the potential of medicine to be co-opted as a tool of control. We need to let go of the oppressive prohibitionist policies that cause harm and despair, but we still need some small dose of regulation, at least in the form of commonsense oversight of harmful products, especially when they are pushed on us by asymmetrical forces. We need science to help us better understand the phenomenon, but we also need the humility to see that the chief lesson of science is so often the crucial importance of everything beyond the brain. And no matter what technocratic aims we pursue, we will always need the grassroots wisdom of mutual help, in all the forms it takes, from a sponsor passing along what she has learned through the twelve steps of AA to harm reduction activists banding together to save lives in their own way.
I have hope that we can unite around an inclusive definition of recovery as being any kind of positive change. But in order to do so, we will need to turn to the pain of our shared past, because, as in the case of individual addictions, pain and purpose are so often intertwined, and our pain comes from somewhere. The suffering of addiction is not an individual malady – it also comes from deep, ancestral wounds. We need to face that fact too, in order to full recover together.