Addiction in Society

Addiction—the thematic malady for our society—entails every type of psychological and societal problem

Self-Labeling Addiction as Disease: The Process in the Media

Watch how drug use is turned into a scare, then a disease.

Peter Shumlin, governor of Vermont, recently devoted his entire State of the State Message to what he said was "a full-blown heroin crisis" gripping Vermont. We are in the midst of our latest in a never-ending series of drug scares. They crop up, recede for a time, only to be replaced by the next scare.

But, always, at the heart of drug scares is heroin, the drug that defined addiction for Americans, as I described with Archie Brodsky in Love and Addiction in 1975. Our argument there, of course, was that:

Nobody has ever been able to show how and why "physical dependence" occurs when people take narcotics regularly. Lately it has become clear that there is no way to measure physical dependence. In fact, nothing like it occurs with a surprising number of narcotics users. We know that there is no universal or exclusive connection between addiction and the opiates.

The smart MSNBC show The Cycle has four attractive young hosts who bat current issues and news stories around. They often take off-center points of view, and penetrate beyond the surface story.

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But not when it comes to addiction.

On February 25th, The Cycle, in a segment "Rx for Addiction," tackled addiction by reviewing the film "The Hungry Heart," a documentary about drug use in Vermont seen from the eyes of a 72-year-old physician.

Time and again the physician, the documentary director, Bess O'Brien, and the hosts of The Cycle emphasized that "Addiction can hit anyone. It hits at any age."

However, the specific individual it hit that The Cycle chose to interview was Raina Lowell, who was introduced as being sober for three years.

She was introduced with the mantra that addiction can "spiral" very quickly, and was asked, "How bad did it have to get before you sought help?"

Here is the story Raina told:

I was actually thirty years old before I started taking pain pills. I took Vicodin. It felt like it was a gift from God. Everything fell apart. I felt like I couldn't handle any more stress. I closed my business. My marriage fell apart.

So it turns out that Raina relied on painkillers for a few years before she sought help.

But before we get to that, the interviewers switched to director O'Brien, who indicated "I think that prescription drug addiction is everywhere." Wait a second; I thought the State of the State address, the documentary, and The Cycle segment were about heroin. It turns out the focus was on medications prescribed for pain, which virtually all of us have used. Making them the focus of concern is understandable, since even only their illicit use is 20 times as frequent as heroin use (as I pointed out in re Philip Seymour Hoffman).

But isn't this a case of bait and switch, from promoting what we think of as the most addictive thing there is to something nearly everyone uses? This story isn't really about a scary drug at all. It's about a human being who became dependent on a painkiller. That's certainly an important story, one I, among many others, have addressed for decades. But it's not at its heart a story about a drug.

Ms. O'Brien emphasized—as had the governor—how important it was to turn this from a criminal to a health issue, for the purpose of getting people into treatment.

In response to a comment by host Toure, "Addiction is a voice in your head that fights to stay alive," Raina told her story:

I used pain killers for a few years before I finally came out of the closet. [So it didn't "spiral" that quickly.] That was the first time that I got treatment. [Uh-oh, Raina was in treatment more than once, perhaps many times.]

I want to clarify the first time I got treatment I was a prescription pills addict. But by the time I finally managed to get sober this last time I was an IV heroin user and a crack addict.

Wait a second. You mean she only became a heroin and crack addict after undergoing treatment, and before that she simply used Vicodin? Is that really the documentary's, the governor's, and The Cycle segment's narrative? That addiction is so powerful that, even after you get treatment, it "spirals?" Doesn't that minimize the effectiveness of treatment?

Raina explained:

Addiction is incredibly powerful. It has a split personality. It was another part of me that took over and made choices I didn't really want to make. Addiction is so incredibly powerful that it is far beyond anything I can control.

After a moving confession like that, host Krystal Ball concluded, "It takes incredible courage to speak about your own addiction." But haven't nearly all of us taken Vicodin without having it spiral out of control, becoming another voice that took over our personality? Doesn't this story call for a special analysis of Raina, rather than a scare story about painkillers or heroin?

What did the show actually tell us about addiction? That it was due to treatment that Raina's drug use "spiraled" out of control. Why? Because treatment of the disease type makes clear that drug use is uncontrollable.

In fact, as I have pointed out, most people overcome drug addictions of all sorts (smoking being the longest-lasting and hardest to defeat—yes, longer than meth, crack, and heroin). They do so generally without treatment.

Unfortunately, we need to derive this understanding of Raina's case without help from the documentary or any of The Cycle's normally hard-hitting, critical-thinking hosts. Which of them, after all, would dare deconstruct the narrative of this poor woman, who has been a victim of something? But, in fact, the disease treatments they are flacking are more likely to be the cause of her addiction than its remedy. As Ilse Thompson and I write in Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict:

By reinforcing the myth that addiction is uncontrollable and permanent, neuroscientific models make it harder to overcome the problem, just as the 12-step disease model has all along. Telling yourself that you are "powerless" over addiction is self-defeating; it limits your capacity to change and grow. Isn't it better to start from the belief that you—or your spouse, or your child—can fully and finally break out of addictive habits by redirecting your life? It may not be quick and easy to accomplish, but it happens all the time. In this book I will show you how it happens and what it takes to do it.

Here is the mantra we write about and seek to disabuse addicts of, the narrative that Raina Lowell represented for The Cycle's hosts and audience:

I was out of control, but I was in denial. When some horrible thing happened, I asked for help. I continued to fight the truth, but finally "let go" and admitted that I have a disease that I am powerless over. So, I stopped trying to run my own life; I turned my life and will over to a Higher Power. I am now "grateful in recovery," counting every sober day as a gift, because my disease is always growing and I could relapse at any time and end up dead.

Our book Recover! details how this self-fulfilling prophecy manifests as addiction, and how it must be defeated to achieve recovery. Is this really the message the MSNBC hosts want to leave their viewers with?

Stanton Peele has been at the cutting edge of addiction theory and practice since writing, with Archie Brodsky, Love and Addiction in 1975. He has developed the on-line Life Process Program. His new book (with Ilse Thompson) is, Recover! Stop Thinking Like an Addict and Reclaim Your Life with The PERFECT Program. He can be found online on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter.

Stanton Peele, PhD, JD, is the author of Recover! He has been a pioneer in the addiction field since publication of Love and Addiction in 1975.

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