There is an enormous media focus on Hoffman's heroin addiction and the growing number of heroin users in the U.S. Open the pages of the NY Times, turn to articles and blogs on Huffington Post, or tune your television channel to CNN and you won't be able to avoid a story, an expert, or opinionator. This issue of individual substance abuse is not to be minimized; the collateral damage to addicts' psyches and bodies, families and communities, and beyond is immense. But left in the shadow of the focus on Hoffman, heroin, and individuals addicted to substances, is the fact that we live in a culture of addiction.
For example, our culture is addicted to market values. This is not just a figure of speech: We "use" buying, selling, consuming, hustling, saving, stealing, and earning in ways that literally alter our states of mind and how we feel about ourselves, just like the way we use substances. Some folks profoundly depend on these feelings and states, need "more" to maintain them, and go through a hellish withdrawal when the patterns are threatened or removed. People with millions of dollars can be afraid to lose a thousand dollars; financial consultants regularly appeal to our fears about insecurity. For many, their feelings about themselves and their lives are totally dependent on whether the stock market goes up or down that day. And, while some may say that the collateral damage of heroin or other substances is worse, in the wake of our addiction to market values are destroyed relationships (as a result of painful conflict), children neglected or otherwise harmed, abandoned poor folks who suffer and die, a used and abused Earth and her resources, and a belittlement of so-called third world nations, not to mention indigenous people who often hold non-market values.
We are also addicted to gender stereotypes and harmful myths about what it means to be male and female which ripple out in a variety of ways: harming girls and boys in the form of sexual assault, fueling deadly eating disorders primarily among girls and women, and propagating homophobic violence. How is this an addiction? Many men (as well as women) depend on gender stereotypes to give them a sense of security and power as well as to protect them from feelings of weakness. If this cloak of power gets disturbed or threatened, men can become depressed or violent—just the way people do when they try to abstain from addictive substances. And many women are hooked on shaping their behaviors and bodies into a culturally appealing form evidenced by the 60 billion dollar diet industry and the seven million women with eating disorders. In fact, I have seen as many women addicted to dieting and weight loss efforts as those addicted to patterns of eating.
I haven't met a person who is not struggling with addiction at some level. People are addicted to money, relationship dynamics, salt, sugar, coffee, exercise, even things like carrot juice (which seems healthy on the face of it, but can be used and held onto in a way that is powerful and violent) and more. I'm not saying that all of these are always used in an addictive manner, but they certainly can be when the use of these substances and behavioral patterns are a specific way to access feelings that can't be accessed almost any other way and when their removal would be met with symptoms of withdrawal.
Why do I bring this up? Because I am protesting the idea that addiction is only an individual problem or disease carried by certain people. Because when we don't include this shadow of individual addiction—our culture of addiction—we suffer from a malignant projection onto "those addicts" while we remain unconsciously ignorant, contemptuous, condescending, or simply full of pity.
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