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Gratifying delusions (like that we're in touch with "reality") are so addictive, we tend to hang onto them no matter what they cost us.

Rehab in Rewrite

The addict of yore meets the addict-next-door

The addiction myths I grew up on were flame-out stories. In them, a twisted freak threatened to destroy society or else an addict of brilliance (or breeding) torched everything (talent, family, self, future), but not before producing something powerfully true (searing, visionary, revelatory). Nevertheless, I'm now capable of watching endless hours of what I call the six-step saga:

Dr. Gregory House

Step 1. We learn that the addict is a passive malcontent, much like you or me, more disgruntled than rebellious, alienated but ordinary...

Step 2. Only, unlike you or me, the addict's only remarkable trait is a compulsion to do something self-destructive.

Step 3. Addict wants to stop, or everyone close to the addict wants that to happen, but, Addiction, like a dragon guarding treasure, prevents it.

Step 4. Obscurely credentialed drug counselors are summoned to help. Magical helpers, they get the addict onto cable television and, with family help, into rehab.

Step 5. In rehab, there's new hope, but defeating Addiction is even harder than slaying Leviathan, and results are always inconclusive.

Step 6. The addict, now "in recovery" is delighted with his-her new life, which sounds as uninspiring as the old one, or else the addict relapses, and we learn that it may take many attacks to vanquish Addiction. In either case, we wish the addict well but are no longer interested his or her fate.

So, why am I --along with millions of others -- willing to forego the Gnostic model, a story of dangerous knowledge (hard won and at great personal cost), take up with a tool-kit model, a story of something broken that can be cobbled back together (only with great personal effort and community support) but never fully restored?

Many converging roads seem to lead us here.

Rte 1: Weltgeist: The hobbled addict-hero of the six-step story, a person fighting to regain a toehold in the worlds of work and family, does seem to express the reduced ambitions of this recessionary period better than the addict-anti-heroes who sought to illuminate or defy us from beyond respectability's bounds.

Rte. 2: Technology: From the DIY knitting clubs of hipster Brooklyn to the outer reaches of Tea Party rabble, Digital media have spawned a participatory populism in which a spirit of anyone-can-do-it is trumping the cruel (and often bogus) romance of the genius -- as well as our healthy respect for expertise.

Rte. 3: Story structure: Given the current surge of populism, the six-step saga is a natural, because making Addiction the villain in a narrative eliminates social distinctions. In anti-elitist dramas like Upstairs Downstairs or Gosford Park we discover that the lady and her maid, though the class system steers their stories in different directions, are equally interesting people; but in took-kit addiction stories, both lady and maid -- and minstrel and minister -- have the very same story to tell, but none of them are particularly interesting people.

Rte 4: Spirituality: AA's success in framing the fight against addiction as a spiritual journey, and their integration of faith into the rehab process lends even the most innocuous tale of recovery an appealing soulfulness.

Rte 5: Media economics: Given today's tighter ad budgets, middling addicts make cheaper stars than top-talent, so six-step shows, given popular demand and narrative convenience, can proliferate. Because social animals like to follow the herd, the popularity of six step shows, in turn, drives demand.

Rte. 6: Scientific research: But the fastest road from Gnostic to tool-kit portraits of addiction is neuroscience. First, by "medicalizing" addiction, neuroscientists have undermined the assumption that addicts choose their poison. Re-defining addiction as a medical condition, genetic proclivity, or pattern of bad neural wiring makes the aristo-addict seem less willful and powerful, more like a victim.
Second, in recent years neuroscience has discovered that distinctive patterns of wiring and firing associated with the addict's brain accompany many other forms of behavior, allowing many more variations on the six step story. As new addictions, semi-addictions and pseudo-addictions go narrative, they replace the old criminal and Gnostic edginess with a kind of heart-stirring pathos.

  • ---Aristocrats addicted to hoarding don't strike us as seekers or seers. We see them as Grey Garden ladies, sentinels of Paradise Lost.
  • ---Cat ladies may violate animal rights laws, but they won't get assassinated by Columbian cat-smuggling rings; instead of hedonists gone wild they're do-gooders gone wrong.
  • ---Orson Wells and Marlon Brando were great artists before becoming great tubs of lard, their gain a confession of loss. Today's TV losers are aspiration-driven, not mired in defeat: if they can lose enough to fit into a size 14 dress, they can win.

So, if you, like I, find yourself engaged by accounts of people you care nothing about as they struggle with compulsions they can't comprehend, you can thank, among other things, science.


Lynn Phillips is the author of Self-Loathing for Beginners. She has written (sometimes as "Maggie Cutler") for a variety of publications, from The Nation to T Magazine. more...

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