This post is going to talk about a group of people in our society that we have chosen to not talk about. To not see. To not talk to. It’s a group of people that we may see everyday, or we may know someone that belongs to this group. Or it could be about you. It is about me. I am an addict.
During my short time on this planet, I have consumed caffeine, cigarettes, alcohol and drugs. My vices of choice were cigarettes, caffeine and alcohol (some argue that technically I wasn’t an alcoholic because I was a student, and due to the role alcohol plays in student life, students can’t be alcoholic. I disagree).
This post is not to gain some sort of sympathy for myself. This post, using myself as an example, will try to explain to you why my addiction was a little (a lot) more complicated that just “I knew it was unhealthy, but I do it anyways”.
I was 14 when my mother died in front of me. 13 years later, I have PTSD, ADHD and a few other alphabetical soup from the DSM-V manual that I have not been officially diagnosed with, or may even be aware of.
I picked up my first cigarette when I was 14. It was not the peer pressure or a case of curiosity killing the cat. I picked it up because I felt all alone. While everyone else around me was dealing with the aftermath of my mother’s death and focusing on themselves, I was left completely by myself by everyone around me. So I picked it up to make myself less alone.
Did I make a choice to pick up a cigarette knowing that it would harm my health? Yes, I did. Did I choose to be completely left alone dealing with my mother’s death, and was picking up the cigarette my first instinct? No. I tried to get the others around me to help me, and no one responded.
When your circumstances drive you to such an inhumane state of mind, can we say that you had a choice?
Beyond my own personal experience with smoking, it is well known that culture and peer pressure play a heavy role in smoking. However, one main thing that I want to bring attention to is the marketing of cigarettes. When millions of people buy the newer version of Apple products that is more or less similar to its predecessors, we pat the back of their marketing team. They are so effective, that they drive up sales for a product similar to its previous version at half the price. They are so effective they make people buy products they don’t need. Yet when cigarette companies use similar marketing tactics to drive up their sales, why are we blaming the consumers? Why do we not consider that their marketing tactics are so effective? That they are so good in using people’s emotional, socio-economic and mental background to influence people to consume their products?
When someone is being manipulated, would you say that they had a choice?
Let’s talk about drugs. United States is undergoing an opioid epidemic, due to overprescription of painkillers. This is a well-documented fact. A lot of people got addicted to painkillers under doctor’s prescription. And the mechanism of addiction is biological, something the mind has no control over. A lot of them, when the doctors no longer prescribe them, need to get it somehow. Why? Because the body needs it. They go to heroin. And they get addicted.
Heroin is known as one of the drugs popular among people who self-medicate. Most people who use it, do not use it for recreational purpose. Poverty, depression, sexual abuse, PTSD are all things they want to escape from. When people don’t get the the help they need and deserve, they do drugs.
Did they make a choice to insert the chemical? Yes, they did. Did they choose to get addicted to the painkillers prescribed by trustworthy doctors, or choose to relive their sexual abuse trauma they had? No. They have no control over those.
When someone’s mind and body has been broken by someone else, would you say that they have a choice in the way they could get some relief in any way available to them?
Alcohol. My dearest old friend. I consumed a lot of alcohol, and so did my friends. Yet none of them got addicted to it the way I was. I was in a bad place. And I was trying to cope. Depression, suicidal thoughts, external pressure were my daily bedmates. So I picked up a bottle. And went to bed. The next night, another bottle. And went to bed. Alcohol helped my undiagnosed ADHD and depression. It made the voices in my head quiet, so I could fall asleep.
Did I know drinking that much alcohol was bad for my liver? Yes. Did I also know that if I don’t sleep, that was also bad for my health? Yes. I had no access to sleeping pills, or any kind of mental health help at the time. So I chose to get some sleep, any way I could.
Did I choose to pick up the bottle and drink? Yes, absolutely. Did I choose to have undiagnosed mental issues that did not allow me to function and sleep, and no access to any kind of help? No.
Is it a choice when the only “help” available to you is the thing that can harm your health?
When someone’s work pressure is so high that they have to abuse cocaine just to not get fired, would you say they have a choice?
When someone who wants to escape the voices in their heads that is telling them to kill themselves, would you say they have a choice?
When a kid is neglected by their parents, that they feel unwanted and they turn to unhealthy habits just to get some form of acceptance from their peers, would you say they have a choice?
Science describes addiction as loss of control, loss of choice. It is not only a social issue, but a biological one. A genetic one. So why do we still think that they had a choice in making those unhealthy decisions? Why is the assumption “they won’t get healthy”, not that “they can’t get healthy”?
Trauma, undiagnosed mental issues and structural social problems do not necessarily result in drug use. But drug use, is quite heavily influenced by the presence of these factors. So why do we ignore addicts and demonize them, instead of helping them?
“Study hard, so you don’t become a useless drug abuser”. “Don’t try drugs, you’ll end up in a bad place”. “Smart people don’t do drugs”. These were the things I heard growing up. Today, I have three degrees, two cum laudes, acceptance to Cambridge, all with undiagnosed and unmedicated ADHD. And I still am an addict.
I had help that got me through all these. I finally had access to mental health help that guided me through all the things I needed to break the habits. I don’t smoke anymore, or abuse alcohol or any kind of drug. My caffeine intake is that of a normal person’s. But guess what, not everyone has access to the kind of help I had.
So while I made the choice of getting help and to stop, is it a choice to not be able to stop doing unhealthy things to yourself when you have no access to help?
Funny thing is, we don’t talk enough about sugar addiction, orthorexia (addiction to healthy eating), or exercise addiction. Is it because the only addicts are the ones destroying their health, not the ones who are obsessive about going to the gym or cooking healthy food? Not the ones eating candies and ice cream to the point that their body craves obscene amount of sugar?
Those are the “beautiful” addiction, or the invisible ones. They are the ones where you become “healthy” and post photos on instagram, not the kinds where you overdose in a motel. They are the addiction that do not make others uncomfortable.
Addicts are a reflection of who we are as a society. They are not demons or ills of society, or people to make example out of on your health posts and your health talks. They are real humans, real victims with real issues.
Addicts are a reflection of our failures as a society. Maybe that’s why we are so uncomfortable by them.
This post is not to demonise people who don’t help addicts. I understand not everyone can help. Just remember that they aren’t things that you can use as cautionary tales. Addiction is something that cuts across races, social class, genders, religion and culture. One day, it could be your kid. Or your spouse. It could be you one day. And what you’re going to need, is help and understanding. Not a post about how you “chose” to be an addict.
Instead of focusing on people “choosing to be addicts”, let’s focus on marketing tactics that targets vulnerable members of society, on eliminating structural issues such as poverty, lack of mental health help or overprescription of painkillers, and protection of our kids and adults so that they are not vulnerable to assault. Maybe that will work better than all your cautionary tales and social media posts.
A lot of us are out there. Some of us, managed to get out of it with help. A lot of us weren’t so fortunate.
When the mind that makes choices isn’t functioning properly, how can we expect the same mind to make the proper choices?