Addiction is a Social and Psychological Symptom

How did the American psyche become so overmedicated?

Posted Dec 18, 2017

Pixabay/used with permission
Source: Pixabay/used with permission

If America was a patient in therapy, how would we diagnosis its problems? America on the Couch by depth journalist Pythia Peay is an insightful, far-reaching collection of interviews with internationally renowned experts on mental health. One section of the book delves into the subject of addiction in America and examines many of the factors contributing to it as a social problem.

Alcohol is at the top of the list of our nation’s most abused substance, attributed to 17.7 million or 6.8 percent of the nation’s population, followed by marijuana at 4.3 million, and then prescription drugs at 2.1 million. Peay draws on her interviews with on eight mental health professionals to shed light on why we are such an overmedicated nation. A. Thomas McLellan, who is a pioneer in addiction research and treatment, says our awareness of addiction as a social problem entered mainstream consciousness with veterans returning in the 1960s-70s from Vietnam where smoking or injecting heroin was habitual among many soldiers. Opioid addiction and overdose have since become a problem for mainstream American society. Legally prescribed opiates are today our nation’s fastest spreading drug epidemic. With only 5 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. consumes 80 percent of the opiate painkillers worldwide. Approximately 240 million opioid prescriptions are being written by physicians for Americans every year. Sleep disorders and physical pain are the biggest symptoms receiving opioid prescriptions. Yet while this family of medications soothes pain and floods the brain with dopamine sometimes providing intense feelings of euphoria, it is also highly addictive. According to Peay, “Overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, killing 91 people every day.” More people overdose from prescription drugs than from cocaine or heroine, or than the number of people who die in car accidents. Peay asks, how did America get to be a nation so overmedicated?

Psychotherapist Karen B. Walant argues that the word dependency is a big clue to workings of addiction. She proclaims that underlying struggles with addiction is often an attachment disorder, a condition in which an individual has problems forming and maintaining long-lasting relationships. This kind of behavioral and emotional difficulty typically stems from early childhood experiences of neglect or abuse. It can also come from a lack of responsiveness from the primary caregiver or sudden separation of a child from the caregiver usually between six months and three years of age. As clinical psychologist Peter Fonagy describes, this kind of dysfunctional early relationship results in the child’s weakened capacity for basic trust in another. Psychology often assumes that human problems come from personal history and familial relations. Yet what part of our internal suffering derives from our culture and its values? Walant suggests that American culture, with its emphasis on autonomy and self-reliance, “fosters addiction by devaluing dependency and social connection.”

Author and psychoanalyst Linda Schierse Leonard claims that addiction points to a distorted sense of time, an imbalance in the individual’s relationship to temporality. Living in our highly industrialized society with the Protestant work pressing on us in the back of our minds, Americans succumb to the demands for productivity and tend to overwork, often ignoring the impact of stress and the body’s need for rest and relaxation. We prioritize the needs of industry over the needs of individual wellbeing. Jungian analyst Ernest Rossi agrees, “We’re still reeling from the abuses of living in a highly industrialized society. The American psyche is hypnotized by performance demands from the outside world, with little or no awareness of the body’s needs, or feelings and emotions.” Rossi declares that Americans are misguided in the way they view work with a “religious fervor” and being tired as “a moral failure.” Social media accelerates and further distorts our sense of time.

Leonard along with clinical psychologist Stephen Aizenstat claims a skewed relationship to time shows our disconnection from nature and its cyclical phases. We are misattuned to the cyclical rhythms of our bodies much like what we witness in the seasons, the phases of the moon, the tides: “We always want to be up. We don’t want to go through the ‘down-cycle’ or the ‘dark night of the soul’ stages of growth.” This is part of what Peay describes as the American Icarus complex, that part of our culture that pursues the heights and wants the quick fix for any problems.

In chronobiology, an ultradian rhythm is an innate rhythm of the body that is repeated throughout a 24-hour day. (In contrast, circadian rhythms complete one cycle daily, while infradian rhythms such as a woman’s menstrual cycle are longer than a day.) These authors describe how we are out-of-sync with the biochemistry of these various rhythms. One of the most obvious ways this shows up is in sleep disorders. Regarding our relationship to time, America thinking prioritizing a linear, rational approach aimed at an ideal “end-point” or “final destination.” Sometimes achieving goals becomes the focus at the expense of valuing the journey. Leonard outs it this way, “We mistake the external physical thing for the energy behind it.” This prevents us from accessing our deeper experiences of inner emotional wealth and creative potential. Author of Pagan Grace, Ginette Paris advises that we need to lean how to “dip in and out of different kinds of time.”

The word addiction comes from the Latin addictus, and originally had a spiritual meaning, Leonard remarks, as in devotion to the gods or surrendering oneself and one’s voice to a Divinity. Psychiatrist Charles Grob who has treated 1000s of patients for drug and alcohol abuse suggests that addiction can be seen as a failed attempt at spiritual transcendence, a way of trying commune with the sacred. He reminds us that the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome had socially sanctioned ways for people to experience ecstatic states and conditions of altered consciousness. One example was the rites of Eleusis when Greek citizens underwent a period of seclusion and fasting to prepare for the celebration of the Mother Goddess Demeter, one of their holiest rituals, which involved ingesting hallucinogens akin to LSD. 

Wikipedia/used with permission
The Carnival King at Trinidad Carnival, by Idobi
Source: Wikipedia/used with permission

Several of the authors in these interviews propose that widespread addiction in a culture as with America says something about what that culture represses. Paris, too, argues that addiction calls attention to our repudiation of Dionysus, the god of wine. In other words, America has no safe and socially sanctioned Dionysian element in the culture, not since the counterculture of the 1960s. Paris argues America has lost this ecstatic component that we also see historically in medieval pageants, the festivals of Corpus Christi and the Renaissance Carnival; our Halloween is merely a “candy orgy” in her mind. 

Wikipedia/used with permission
Ecstasy monogram, tablets containing MDMA
Source: Wikipedia/used with permission

The authors note that psychoactive drug has been one means of achieving these extremes states and has been used in all human societies since the beginning of time from the peyote of the Tarahumaran people to the shamanic use of the iconic white-spotted toadstool mushroom, the amanita muscaria, in Lithuania. They reason that since America has no rituals of ecstasy as other cultures have (another is Brazilian Carnival) the desire for intense emotional experiences comes out in dysfunctional and destructive ways such as in drug addictions, drinking binges, and eating disorders

Paris points to the need for balance between the ancient Apollonian world of rationality, order and the Dionysian world of intoxication, madness, and emotional intensity. She adds, “The Greeks imagined mental health as a balancing act, harmony as between two notes, or as Jung would say, a tension between the opposites.” This kind of self-regulation that provides a delicate balance was at the heart of Jung’s theories of psychological growth.


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Peay, Pythia. (2015). America On the Couch: Psychological Perspectives on American Politics and Culture. New York, NY: Lantern Books.