Tuesday, January 18, 2005

 

Drugs are Good

Hi. My name is Mike, and I'm an alcoholic.

With just over 13 years clean and sober to my credit, I've said those words hundreds if not thousands of times over the past 13+ years. I know what addicition to drugs and alcohol is like from direct experience, unfortunately.

Now I have a young son, Zander, who is eleven going on seventeen. Although he is not quite twelve, he's got the beginnings of a peach-fuzz mustache, and two days ago he got his first-ever call from a girl (an older woman of twelve and a half; that's my boy). So for at least the past few years I've had to begin thinking of drugs and addiction from a new perspective--that of a parent.

There's a lot that worries me about it, naturally. When I was a kid, I wanted to be like my Dad. My Dad had quit smoking cold turkey. Eventually, I also quit smoking cold turkey, and I've always wondered if I wasn't at least partly emulating him--not only by quitting, but by starting to smoke in the first place. So I never make a big deal of my alcoholism to Zander. I try not to glorify myself for quitting drinking. I don't want him to think that is one of the things men do.

For this reason, it annoys me that celebrities in recent years have treated addiction-and-recovery cycles almost as rites of passage. Yes, we know celebrities are self-absorbed; why else would they seek out--and think they deserve to receive--so much attention? And yes, we know that they don't have a lot of serious difficulties to overcome in their real lives, so that feuds with producers, breakups with agents, and divorces or even separations from the celebrity spouse take on the status of grandiose life-trials. Perhaps, in lives with limited real troubles, addiction is one of the toughest challenges they'll ever face. So when some sitcom geek or pop star or someone similar finally gives up on his cocaine binge, we have to listen to them endlessly rehearsing their titanic struggles on television chat shows. They write a book, and break their arms patting themselves on the back.

Well, I've got a message for them: shut up, get over yourself. We don't care. Please stop celebrating your glorious, heroic recovery in such a public fashion, as if you want our children to admire you for it. It's not a badge of honor. It's no big trick to get addicted to something, and you're not the only ones ever to quit. I've sat in rooms for thirteen years now with many others who've done the same thing--some of them, believe it or not, without the support of piles of cash, thousands of adoring fans, or the Betty Ford Clinic.

Another thing that bugs me is the prestige hierarchy of drugs. Only some ten percent of people who drink heavily get addicted to alcohol, so it's a very low-prestige addiction. Seventy percent of repeat heroin users get addicited, so it's considerably more dangerous, and hence, imparts higher status. All repeat users of crack cocaine get addicted, so it's dangerous--and prestigious--indeed.

I hate that. An addiction is an addiction. Rush Limbaugh's legion of brainless fans have evidently forgiven him for his narcotic addiction, apparently because he was only addicted to medicine, not something evil like morphine or heroin like some hippie would get hooked on. What crap--smack is smack is smack! It's all the same, not that they'd know. Valium addiction is one of the toughest withdrawals of all, and guess what the most addictive substance known to man is? Nicotine. That's right. The only reason people can stop smoking at all is because smokers ingest such minute quantities of nicotine (if you took all the nicotine contained in just one cigarette and mainlined it into your bloodstream with a needle and a syringe, it would probably kill you). And nothing people routinely get addicted to is as destructive to the body as alcohol. There's no hierarchy of addictions: An addiction is bad if you're addicted.

But there are two areas in which we really err when we try to teach our kids about drugs. The first is that we insist on telling them that drugs are really, really bad. Which is true, but it isn't the problem--the problem is that drugs are really, really good. That's why people get hooked. They like being drunk or high or stoned. They try it and think, whoo, this is fantastic. I like this. I'm coming back for more, for sure.

This is what we need to warn our kids about, it seems to me. Not only how bad drugs are, but how good they seem--how good they can make you feel at first and hence, how insidiously seductive they can be. They need to be prepared, just in case they do try something they like some day. If your kid, being reckless and experimental as young 'uns will be, smokes a rock some day, you don't want her thinking, "Gee, I've been hearing for years how bad this stuff is, but strangely enough, I like it!" You want them to think instead, "So this is why people get hooked on this stuff. No wonder. I've got to be really careful and not get fooled."

Another thing we need to prepare them for is that they're going to think they can handle it, because everybody does--and yet nobody can. There has never in the history of the world been a single addict who has said, "Well, I knew from the start I was going to end up losing my job and my money and my wife and my kids and getting AIDS from a dirty needle and sleeping in shelters and being filthy all the time, but I went ahead anyway." No. What they say is, "Other people can't handle this because they're weak. I'm strong. I can handle it."

Newbie drug users have something in common with drunk drivers. I don't know what you'd call it, although somebody smarter than me has probably given it a name already. I'll call it the "So Far" Fallacy. The crux of the So Far Fallacy is, "I've gotten away with it so far, therefore I'll continue to get away with it." When I was a carpenter, in another life, I worked with a bunch of older guys, some of whom were heavy drinkers. These guys would actually brag on their drunk-driving exploits. One guy told a story of driving home from a bar so drunk that when he got home, he couldn't get himself out of his car. He opened the door, fell halfway to the pavement, passed out, and stayed that way till morning. They all laughed at this.

Even though I was a punk kid at the time, I knew enough to call them on this kind of crap. Accidents waiting to happen, statistically inevitable, menace to society, etc.--I made a pain in the butt of myself, I'm sure. But they'd jump all over me for it. "Man, I've driven home drunk hundreds of times and I've never gotten in an accident." "Maybe other people can't handle a car when they're drunk, but I can." You know. Just the sorts of attitudes that kill innocent people every day.

The So Far Fallacy always gets to beginning druggies, too. They all think they can handle it. They've used five times and they still don't absolutely have to use again. Therefore they're immune from addiction.

Yeah, right.

Balanced against the So Far Fallacy is the Inevitability Absolute: Sooner or later it's gonna gitcha. Play with fire, and you're gonna get burned. Because the trouble with drugs, of course, is that by the time it begins to dawn on you that you might--just might--have a problem, you will already have had a problem for a long, long time. By the time you think you might be going, you're already gone.

Kids need to be warned about this. They need to know that they can't "handle it" simply because nobody can, and that everybody thinks they can in the beginning; and they need to know that even though drugs are bad, they can feel good, so they shouldn't be fooled.

I talk to Zander about drugs. A lot. I hope it helps, but I know it doesn't make him immune. So to me and all the other parents out there, and to all our kids, good luck.


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