People

Addiction as Archetype

“People are willing to go to war and even give up their lives for a cause,
But they cannot give up the causes of their own suffering.”
Tarthang Tulku, Gesture of Balance, p.3

“I don’t understand how people can act that way.”

From the whimsical office-party faux pas to the incarnate evil of Nine-Eleven, people are consistently shocked by the behavior of other people. Our dismay finds legitimacy because we assume that people do what they intend to do. Freedom of choice means that no matter what we have done, we always could have chosen otherwise, and it is in that choice that we find our moral compass. Regardless of how much we complain about the constraints of circumstance, the psychological feeling of being able to choose remains one of our most powerful allies in daily living. For over two thousand years western philosophers have twisted this common sensibility into a mind-bending battle pitting free will against determinism. Many introductory philosophy courses begin with this topic, retracing some fairly arcane reasoning that purports to awaken the student’s critical faculties. But any argument that undermines what we perceive to be a psychological fact of our existence remains unconvincing. For the pragmatic person, the deterministic argument against our freedom to choose helps relegate philosophy to the educational wastebasket, along with other subjects prematurely deemed to be of little practicality.
The 20th century changed all that.

More and more of us are reporting that the innate sense of psychological freedom is being replaced by the feeling of being compelled against our will. The opposite of free will is no longer determinism: the opposite of free will is compulsion. Without warning or fanfare, the modern phenomenon of compulsion, relabeled as addiction, has retrieved the free will debate from its philosophical dustbin. Certainly, compulsively destructive behavior has been with us since antiquity; however, elevating practically every form of self-indulgence to disease status has redrawn the volitional landscape. The challenge of finding a solution to the ever-increasing social problems caused by addiction forces us to respond, and that response boomerangs back to us in the form of the society that we are creating. If we treat the addict as out of control, are we showing our enlightened compassion as a community, or creating real points of escape from individual responsibility? The battle lines are drawn once again.

And America finds itself in the middle of a conflict it never asked for. Presently, there is no country that talks about freedom more than the United States. We have elevated life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness to the status of sacrosanct ideals that need to be protected at any price, including the sacrifice of human life. While we appoint ourselves the global defenders of freedom, there is also no country whose citizens have been more willing to give that freedom away without visible threat or coercion. The mantra of personal powerlessness began just over 60 years ago as the singular experience of 100 drunks who affirmed their salvation in Alcoholics Anonymous. Visionary writer Aldous Huxley called Bill Wilson “the greatest social architect of the 20th century”, predicting that his 1935 meeting with Dr. Bob Smith would ignite historical forces having an impact reaching far past the formation of AA. Almost seven decades later, it is no “Brave New World”, but we do see a numerous proliferation of AA clones and a world-wide addiction recovery business with 93 percent of all drug and alcohol programs following AA’s original Twelve Steps.

But the alcoholic’s catharsis of personal powerlessness was never meant to be a philosophy, but instead the age-old paradox of psychological liberation – the very act of submission brings victory. Straight-jacketed by a mandate of media anonymity and “no opinions on outside issues”, the progenitors of radical self-help have stood by helplessly as their message has been twisted and distorted into a universal philosophy that rescues us any time we find our behavior careening out of control. As an historical adolescent without the comfort of experience or tradition, perhaps the pressure of America’s fledgling freedom is too much for us and we have quickly embraced powerlessness as our way out responsibility. Or perhaps living with the spiritual paradox of “surrender to win” is not a natural fit with our boisterous national character. Whatever the reason, Huxley’s prophetic vision probably never anticipated the strange manner in which the historical forces have unfolded.

Once medical ethnocentrists grouped heroin, cocaine, alcohol, nicotine and other substance addictions together, we were ready for our next big step in disseminating the philosophy of powerlessness, and our co-conspirator came from an unexpected place. As Al-Anon family groups formed to help the friends and family of alcoholics, another good idea was co-opted. Soon it became an “illness” just to be closely associated with someone who had an “illness”, and the whole codependency movement had arrived. Once powerlessness was associated with behavior without any attending physical disorder, the door was opened wide for any behavior to become an “illness” – love, sex, food, dieting, television, even religion. Chocoholics and workaholics join the list of the afflicted. With this success, ideas never dreamed of by AA veterans found expression in our vocabulary. Phrases like “he’s in denial”, once intended as clinical descriptor, entered the public lexicon as a metaphor for any self-deception, while “recovery” now describes any redemption from self-catalyzed problems. And in a culminating act of intellectual perversion, when the “Washington Sniper” went on a killing spree in fall of 2002, broadcasters found psychiatrists who were willing to go on national television and announce with authority that John Muhammed was addicted to the feeling of killing, just as an alcoholic was addicted to the feeling of getting intoxicated.

Enough is enough.
The baffling behavior of the addict challenges each of us to make some sense of our own contradictions, and this is why we react along such a continuum of emotional extremes when we are forced to deal directly with the addict. In certain areas of our life, we at least think and act as if we had lost the ability to make certain choices. Is it possible for any human being to inadvertently lose the freedom to choose? Or is the delusion of powerlessness so strong that it makes the distinction between “having to” and “thinking you have to” meaningless? As we move the platform of debate away from external constraints and towards internal sanctions, we have looked to science for some guidance. The advent of neurobiology over the last 30 years has encouraged some to recast old arguments in not so subtle reductionist terminology: “Neurological states determine all our actions”. On this issue we seem all too willing to embrace the icon of Science that has given us so many creature comforts. Our response to the challenge that the addict presents to us demonstrates how our attitudes about addiction, even as formalized theories, tells us as much about ourselves as it does about the addict.

Indeed, our attitudes toward the addict expose the confusion we all have over our ability to regulate our own behavior. Why do so many people have such difficulty making a decision and sticking to it? Too many of us overeat, overwork and indulge in limitless numbers of self-destructive behaviors that eventually end up curtailing the very freedom that allowed us to get that way. Others are minimal offenders, breaking New Years resolutions or buying the latest exercise equipment only to see it metamorphose into an expensive coat-rack. And rightfully so: part of freedom is the right to engage in self-destructive behavior – within certain contextual limits, of course. But in a bizarre articulation of “If thine eye offend thee, cut it out”, it has become increasingly trendy for morbidly obese humans to have surgeons invade their body and bypass portions of their stomach because they find themselves unable to control their food intake or their physical activity. We intuitively know that sometimes we are our own worst enemy and engage in many forms of self-sabotage. Even though we have outgrown and rejected Freud’s sexual peccadilloes, we have embraced his unsettling idea that our conscious actions are strongly motivated by subconscious forces continues to persist. But how do we decide where an uncontrollable urge comes from? In moments of occasional honesty, we often have to admit to ourselves that most of what we do is just stumbling in the dark.

Advertisers, employers, teachers and even parents depend on their charges feeling free simply because they have choices. The perception of choice attenuates the desire to rebel. But how many choices is enough? A few decades ago a trip to the pharmacy for some analgesic would have been a simple task; today there are a staggering number of choices. Do the extra choices make your task easier, or harder? Do the extra choices increase your freedom, or just your indecision? Or consider a closed religious community where each and every detail of life is decided by spiritual mandate. Looking in from the outside one might say that they have no freedom to choose what they want. Looking out from the inside, the true believer would certainly say that rigid obedience to a single, higher law gives them more freedom – they are not slaves to indecision. Our innate sense of psychological freedom may not be such a powerful ally after all.

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