What the People You Pity Can Teach You

Illaria Dana

Education Major


Addiction has been theorized to be a moral issue, a disease, and a phenomenon that occurs when people do not have a supportive community. Theories are important, because thinking determines action. How we conceive of addicts culturally affects how we treat addicts and where they end up. When addiction is thought of as a moral issue, addicts are incarcerated.

The War on Drugs has historical roots throughout the 20th century.  In 1971, President Richard Nixon said, “America’s public enemy number one in the United States is drug abuse. In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.” By offensive, Nixon indicated that addicts should be placed in prison.

Governor Paul Lepage has said that, “I tell ya, everybody in Maine, we have constitutional carry. Load up and get rid of the drug dealers. Because, folks, they’re killing our kids.” He took President Nixon’s strategy a step further, implying that addicts should be slaughtered by Maine citizens.

On August 9, 1974, President Nixon resigned from office. It was almost certain that he would be impeached. Governor LePage has been criticized by local and national media for his general belligerence. But the effects of their intolerance are still felt.

The War on Drugs has been criticized as institutional racism. In, “The Drug War as Race War”, Kenneth Nunn states, “Another way to measure the extent of mass incarceration is to examine the proportion of the African American population that is serving time in prison. In some jurisdictions, as many as one third of the adult African American male population may be incarcerated at any given time.”

Dunn explains that. “A person sentenced for possession with intent to distribute a given amount of crack cocaine receives the same sentence as someone who possessed one hundred times as much powder cocaine.” The disparity between punishment for possession and distribution between cocaine and crack cocaine are an obvious example of racism in the War on Drugs. While no substances affect only one demographic, the way laws address specific drugs can target certain communities more than others.

When addiction is thought of as a disease, treatment facilities and detox centers are of the utmost importance. This is valid, because withdrawal from substances, even alcohol, can cause seizures and death.

Along with the physical implications, the mental turmoil of addiction mirrors mental diseases. Addicts are often as incapable of extracting themselves from their behavior patterns as depressed people are from their thoughts and emotions. This has a biological foundation, because both depression and addiction affect neurochemistry, the physical act of thinking.

When addiction as morality and addiction as disease conflict with each other, addicts are judged, and treatment centers close down. Mercy Detox, formerly located in Westbrook, had to close in May 2015 due to lack of funding. This could have been avoided if Mercy received funding from the state government and if more rehabilitation centers accepted insurance for their services. The relationships between law enforcers, doctors, and addicts would be greatly altered if addicts were treated with empathy instead of disdain.

This leads to the third idea of an addict: as a person suffering from a lack of connection. This idea has been championed to the world at large by the Huffington Post and Psychology Today. It is also a tenet of 12 Step Programs the connection between addicts is invaluable to recovery from addiction.

Addiction as a consequence of disconnection can reduce public scorn for addicts. However, it has larger implications. Society, as it is constructed in the U.S., does not serve people who do not fit a certain prototype. This can be seen throughout history with slavery, lynching, segregation, laws that favor corporations, poverty rates, disdain for ideologies that do not coincide with the U.S. ideal (see the Red Scare), and lack of funding for education.

If addicts are ignored, it is because they do not appeal to systems of power. According to The Borgen Project, a nonprofit that researches poverty and hunger, “It is common knowledge that poverty and substance abuse tend to exist in tandem. The direction of causation is unclear, but the link between addiction and poverty is certainly to be considered.” Despite not knowing the direction of causation, whether addiction or poverty come first and the other follows, this relationship ensures that people who are affected by poverty and addiction are not in the position to advocate for their needs.

In fact, community is largely valued in the U.S. as a means for gaining power. Political, economical, and civil powers come to groups that continually protest their oppression. It is the duty of the self-created majority to listen to those who cannot thrive in the current arrangement of society.

No one is better than anyone else because of some quality inherent to him or her. People who succeed are capable of aligning themselves with the majority. This is obvious with racism. Slaves were brought to the U.S. as free laborers. Their inability to conform to white supremacists’ ideals was due to the color of their skin. What is inherent in us determines whether or not we can conform to the ideals of the society we are born in. It is what makes us acceptable, and if we are not acceptable, a new meaning must be created.

In a way, this is a gift. Despair forces an individual to determine what is really important. When the minutiae of life are stripped away, only what is elemental remains. From this vantage, those who have suffered have the potential to say what is true and what is good.

While people continue to suffer, it is in the best interest of the greater community to advocate and support them. The returns will be more than economical (a nation with a large incarceration rate is a nation wasting money that could be spent on education). It will mean more than a self-congratulatory pat on the back. Supporting addicts and ending oppression gives voices to people who have more wisdom, for they have seen more of life. These are our survivors.

Could addiction, then, be a spiritual issue? How can we serve addicts, and in turn, how can addicts serve our community?

The U.S. is an amalgamation of cultures. With disparities between classes, a historical precedence of racism, and a huge issue with people who are addicted to drugs, there are certainly many conflicts that need to be addressed. But on a individual level, those who survive are made stronger, more compassionate, and have perspectives honed by the wisdom of experience.

Viktor Frankl, the neurologist and psychiatrist who survived Nazi concentration camps, wrote, “Is this to say that suffering is indispensable to the discovery of meaning? In no way. I only insist that meaning is available in spite of- nay, even through- suffering.” Frankl was adamant about the necessity for individuals to find meaning for their own lives and to act to bring about this meaning. No one understands this more than addicts in recovery, those whose desperation has made them search out a new meaning for their lives and to adhere to this meaning with every decision that they make.

Perhaps these perspectives are needed to strengthen society and to make it livable not just for the wealthy white people. Empathy is not just an asset for its recipients. Perhaps by listening we can be made whole.



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