Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Why We Can't Say No: Addictions in Modern Culture

I'm no stranger to addicts as I lived in Vancouver's down town east side for a couple of years. For those who don't know, it's Canada's poorest neighbourhood and it swarming with alcoholics and drug addicts, many literally outside of my front doorstep. These people have been down in the gutters for so long that they've just come to accept the conditions that they remain in, even if it is the death of them. And even I, with my exposure to this problem, have an amount of disconnect from the situation and these people. After all, they are drug addicts and alcoholics and I'm not. And the people who I spend time with and perceive as 'normal' are not. But that illusion was shattered... a number of times actually. I suppose it has to be shattered more than once because it is far too comfortable to keep these people at a distance. Comfort, unfortunately, is the enemy of progress.

One time, my illusion was disrupted when, one evening, I saw a loud drunk person walking across the busy street around the DTES neighbourhood. This is common practice in the area. No one really has any concern for the heavy traffic because the street is essentially their living room and they can cross it whenever they please, in their point of view anyway. Yes, this has lead to many deaths, but that's another story. This time, however, this wasn't the usual down town drunk, but I realized that, upon closer inspection, it was just a twenty-something kid (or maybe a teen with a fake ID?) who had too much to drink in the club. I was shocked because from a distance, there was no difference at all between his behaviour that night and the drunken stumble of the neighbourhood regulars. Of course, one could argue that the difference is that, the drunks are regulars and the kid had a single night of over drinking. Well, give him time; he's still young. No one is born with a bottle in their hand. And please understand, I'm not saying that everyone who goes out drinking from time to time is an alcoholic. I just want to show that what separates people isn't always as big a gap as we'd like to believe.

The second time my perception was shattered was far more affecting to me because addiction became something so much more difficult to define and identify. It also became something uncomfortably close to home. Out of respect for him I won’t specify who it is, but someone in my family is a hoarder. What that essentially means, for those who aren't familiar with the term, is it a person who keeps everything. Their addiction is literally for stuff. Now there are varying degrees of this condition, and I've heard of people who are much worse than my family member, but it is clearly a very big problem nevertheless. A couple of Summers ago we had to visit him because of health problems and when we entered his home there was no place to get comfortable and sit. Between walls of stuff there was a narrow pathway that lead from the front door to the kitchen and living room. It's a growing problem and is a horrible fire hazard and health risk, especially for someone who is getting into their older years. But the saddest part of it all is that it is a major separator between him, his friends and his family. He can't have people over to visit because there is simply no room for them. And because of the amount of stuff, and his attachment to it, he can’t move to the city to be with his family. It is a barrier in his life, not unlike the secret shame of a drug user.

This challenged my perspective on drug users and addictions in general. My family member is addicted to objects, no doubt about it. And while society thinks very black and white about one's usage of heavy drugs, it might not occur to most that having too much stuff is as bad a problem. And while with drugs there is an obvious chemical aspect to the addiction, there is a strong psychological side to it that often gets ignored. I don't believe there is anything nefarious about a drug users motives, just like there isn't anything vindictive about my family member's need for stuff. He is a very kind and generous man who comes to something for comfort. And with many drug users, it's not about the idea of doing something wrong or even getting high, but it becomes the only way to maintain any normalcy in their lives because if they spend too much time away from their drug, the discomfort it causes is too unbearable.

This also challenges my solution for the problem. When I was younger, it seemed pretty clear that the best way to avoid getting hooked into drugs was to never start. So, in high school I was very straight edged and avoided smoking, drinking, and any sort of drug usage. I've maintained this in my adult life, but I don't look down on people who engage in these things like I used to. I basically thought that if anyone were to try these things and get hooked in it, it was their own fault for being stupid enough to start in the first place. Of course, this means that I thought a lot of people were stupid. But upon further reflection, it's really not that simple. The problem is that everything can be addictive. Video games, sex, the internet, food... anything. I can't expect everyone to do absolutely nothing fun ever out of fear that they may take it too far; that's unreasonable. And I've known many people that drink casually and aren't on the brink of alcoholism and I don't look down on them. While in cases the problem is the substance, like with the heavier drugs and cigarettes, for the most part I think the issue is in the people who use the substances, engage in the activities, or whatever the case may be.

Now, this isn't me pointing a finger at anyone. I've had my fair share of vices over the years and am still struggling with some of them. I can't really blame anyone for falling under the spell of an addiction. The problem is that our North American culture is a breeding ground for it and there is no one cause for it. One idea I had was that we're too comfortable here. Our basic provisions are taken care of without a worry so without the struggle of just trying to live, excess becomes a part of life. We no longer just get what we need to survive, we get more and more stuff, or fill in that time with video games or the internet. Then we fall into that pattern and after some time the pattern is reinforced and becomes something that one desires.

Not to mention that our culture is consumer based. The economy requires us to buy things to maintain normalcy or get stronger. Large corporations rarely care if you've had “too much” of their product because if you keep coming back to it, they will keep making money off of you. Or course there are extremes; I'm sure Coca-Cola doesn't want you to die from drinking too much of their stuff because of the bad PR and loss of a customer. But for the most part, they're fine with you being addicted. In fact, ad campaigns count on it. I saw the film The Greatest Movie Ever Sold recently, and while it wasn't a remarkable movie, it had some highlights. One of them was showing that many companies will do a brain scan on people who are watching their commercials to see how the brain reacts. If the ad triggers the part of the brain that makes you crave something, it is an effective ad. It's underhanded and a bit evil, but it's getting harder and harder to reach consumers because we are inundated with advertisements constantly, and they're rarely for necessities. As we grow more and more resistant, the harder they push.

And while I'm sure that this is the reason for some, it can't be the reason for all addictions. After all, with my family member, the love of things is not something that was advertised to him. And if it was just due to being too comfortable, then many poor people wouldn't have addictions. There are people and families that struggle and fall victim to many of the same things as comfortably wealthy people do, so social status isn't the determining factor. The poor homeless person and the wealthy businessman can both fall under the influence of alcohol. You can blame it on generations of hurt or a cycle passed from parent to child, or you can blame it on a series of bad choices you made in life. But what is the root of that? Why does one make destructive choices or not take the right paths to heal from their past?

With culture evolving at the pace it is, I don't think we've had enough time to really look at the ramifications of this age of information. We live in a time of instant gratification and as such, not many of us are used to really working for an outcome. We can barely wait for a package in the mail now. I think that patience and self control are being lost from instant downloads and express lanes for everything. And of course, what brings more instant gratification than drugs? And what takes more patience and self control than anything? Probably fighting a drug addiction. We're just not being trained for taking care of ourselves this way. Of course, this still isn't tackling the root of the issue.

I think part of the problem is that we are losing our identity as a culture. We don't know who we are because to really know yourself takes time. I think that for the most part we identify ourselves with the things that we do and like, so we take comfort in those things. But what you like shouldn't define who you are. But when pop media is telling you that your life isn't complete without the latest fashion, game, movie, etc, then we, of course, are going to turn to these things for comfort or even for a sense of identity. Why would you take a long spiritual journey where you question life and everything that happens around you when that takes so long and you could just buy something that is shiny and makes you smile for a little while instead? Or watch some porn? Or beat the next level of Zelda? Or buy those new fuzzy boots that everyone at school is wearing? These things in and of themselves can be okay, some more than others, but when it becomes a defining aspect of ourselves or a priority in our life, there is a problem. And it can be difficult to know where that line is because having a consistent hobby isn't a bad thing. I think it becomes dangerous when you compromise yours, or someone else's, values to have it.

But why don't we know ourselves? It can't all be over-saturation of marketing, can it? It can't be just a rush of stuff coming our way, faster than ever, is it? I think that these just contribute to the issue. There is a strong attitude that whatever you do to get happy is okay as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else. Of course, this goes by the flawed logic that you can do something and it won't affect anyone else, and that really isn't true most of the time. Nevertheless, that's what we believe. We don't like people interfering with what we do because it isn't their business, even if it is destroying us. This wasn't the case even a couple of generations ago when we were an agriculturally based society and families heavily relied on one another and required everyone to be healthy and able to contribute. There was accountability and spirituality passed on from generation to generation. Parents weren't afraid to teach their children morals and discipline them when they over stepped their bounds and it wasn't just the parents job to keep children in line. I think we've forgotten that teachers used to be able to use corporal punishment on their students, again, not even that many generations ago. Things have radically changed. Spirituality is being dismissed as archaic thinking and our families are becoming divided. And even if husbands and wives stay together, life tends to force them both to work to afford our expensive city lifestyles. Communities aren't really connected. Neighbours don't know one another. Now, the internet is our moral compass and it has no idea which way is north. And I'm not saying that everything on the internet is garbage, after all, I'm writing an article for it, but it clearly has become something so significant in our lives that it has redefined our way of having relationships. There are so many voices in it that it's no wonder that one walks away confused with very little understanding of themselves.

We are susceptible to our addictions because we allow ourselves to be alone with them. But I'm not trying to announce the doom of our nation. Just like science fiction writers, I don't try and tell the future, I try and prevent it. I simply want to urge people to really ask themselves who they are and what they want from life because once you do that, you can see what in your life is a potential obstacle. And if you find that and are unable to remove it, you may have an addiction. But that doesn't mean that it has to stay that way because no one has to feel alone. With honesty, companionship, and accountability, addictions can be defeated. If people can walk away from heroin and pick their lives back up, why can't someone take a break from Facebook? Or delete all of their pornography? Or just send their stuff to thrift stores? Just don't let yourself crumble from the weight of your own desires.


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