Thursday, April 27, 2017

Junkie Thinking -- From Addiction to Recovery

This article fist appeared in Veer Magazine in September 2015. It remains timely to the nature of our system and to the broken state of our country.

A recent letter in the Virginian-Pilot about the causes and nature of addiction got me thinking about the broader characteristics of addictive thinking and the psychology of the process. I have a familiarity with the subject having worked for years at Norfolk's detox center, long closed, as well as in local substance abuse treatment and psychiatric facilities.

David Allen Deans of California State University, Northridge in describing the classic 12 step recovery view of addiction writes, “Addicts are people who have lost all control of their lives, as well as their substance use and abuse. These people have tried many different times to stop using these substances, and yet they couldn't. Addiction is a progressive disease. Most addicts will not stop using until they hit bottom. Grateful alcoholics and addicts are those lucky enough to survive long enough to have a sudden, radical, change in orientation, a kind of spiritual awakening. Here the individual comes to believe that he can no longer trust his conscious ability to direct his own behavior. He finally does what he could never do before, he admits defeat asking god (or a higher power) for help, (even if he thought himself an atheist, or agnostic,) and finally turns to others."

This recovery process has saved countless lives. The support of a group acts as a power greater than the will of the individual which has already succumbed to addiction. People struggling with addiction must, as some report, “choose their own bottom,” or how much personal destruction and loss it will take to reach a realization of needed change. Sometimes a family or community intervention is needed.

Though I personally separate physical chemical addiction from behavioral obsession, there is much overlap and they involve similar mental constructs. A psychological relationship and identification with the substance or behavior develops, taking over one's thinking. This shapes and interferes with the life of the addicted individual.

A person can become addicted to something physical, like cigarettes, pharmaceutical medications, drugs, relationships, sex, food or any behavior. Addiction is marked by craving for the substance or behavior but craving is just that, not so much “got to have” as a feeling that can pass if not fulfilled. What marks the dark side of addiction is being stuck in a behavior that does one harm. Denial and justification play big roles in this. Even hardcore smokers or alcoholics will stick with what is killing them as long as it works for them in the short term. It often takes a crisis of disfunctionality to inspire a painful break from this behavior.

In many ways we all have a degree of addictive thinking, becoming stuck in a behavior that may not be good for us in the longer term because it serves our immediate needs. Many of us keep jobs that make us sick. I know I've done this and I continue to pay the price long after losing the benefits. Some of us have jobs that make others sick or that do damage to our environment. Many of us stay in bad or abusive relationships or continue poor eating habits in spite of illness. Hoarding is another addictive behavior. Some are hooked on the gratification of buying things and the attachment to items not really needed even as they fill up homes and cars.

Part of this reflects what Marx referred to as commodity fetishism where the actual object, say a cell phone or a piece of clothing or a house, changes from a simple object made of combined raw materials and human labor into a commodity. Use value is converted to market value but even more significantly, into something with which we identify our own personal value and characteristics. What we wear, our neighborhood, our possessions or our job become who we are -- what sub-cultural identity we assume. Our social position and possessions become what our actual value is; not so much what we've done but, how much we're worth.

A more dangerous form of hoarding, beyond things, is the hoarding of wealth and the concurrent illusions of power. The addiction to wealth and power can truly obscure one's vision and more dangerously, one's empathy for others. In inflating the ego and warping perceptions it becomes a destructive sociopathology that has resulted in crimes of historic proportions including dictatorships, slavery, war and genocides. This level of addiction requires a system that is supportive of such concepts and behavior.

On a larger level, our culture, society and political system can be seen as being stuck in destructive behaviors. We have become dependent on technology and conveniences that often originate with or exacerbate the destruction of our climate and health. We require electricity often produced in polluting ways. Plastic and toxic rare earth elements fill our smart-phones and computers and wind up discarded. Pesticides, toxic chemicals and endocrine disruptors are everywhere in our food and environment. You probably drive a car. If you're economically stressed, it might be a real oil burner adding not only to traffic problems but to increased pollution. We are dependent on the need to get around, yet in our area, public transportation is poor and improvements face strong opposition. We as individuals are stuck within the system we have – at least for now. But there are industries and corporations that created this system and are driven by strong desires to maintain it blocking any efforts at healthier ways of living that conflict with profits.

Large corporate interests are also caught up in an addictive dependency, bound to a sick and destructive system. They are dependent on stock values, competitive profit and growth. It is a systemic cycle of dependency beyond the control of individual wills. Because wealth is power in our corrupt political system, those addictive agendas are supported by politicians hooked on corporate backing. Just as my city, Norfolk, Virginia prioritizes the interests of the coal, rail and real-estate industries over the health and welfare of its citizens, the federal government has prioritized the interests of the fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, agricultural and military related industries over public safety.

As with any addiction, denial and justification play prominent roles. The climate denial industry funded largely by the Kochs and Exxon-Mobil through fronts like the Heartland Institute, and others has been well documented. The rationally undeniable reality of climate change has, through purposeful misinformation, been made into a partisan opinion. Being hooked in this way of life, many find comfort in denial.

Beyond denial, justifying our deadly addiction to wealth hoarding and climate destruction is accomplished through the promotion of right-wing corporate ideology via Libertarianism. Most of us realize that we are getting the short end of the stick in a system stacked against us. The invention and promotion of Libertarian ideology lets you feel rebellious and independent while promoting and supporting the diseased model itself. Let's take a closer look at this. Libertarianism started in the so-called Austrian school of economics, founded by Ludwig von Mises, Freidrich Von Hayek and Murray Rothbard who, as Stephan Metcalf wrote in Slate Magazine, never seem to have held a single academic appointment that didn't involve a corporate sponsor. The “Austrian school” in its aversion to fact, it's twisting and denial of history and its preference for a short-sighted but clever defense of individual and corporate greed is more a religion than a science. Like Fascism, it was initially created to counter the influence of socialism with corporatist authoritarianism. Libertarianism is a variety of anarchy preferring the power of business over that of the State. Its rejection of “collectivism” is in reality a rejection of our interdependence, our cooperative nature and the and basic social contract of mutual security and responsibility on which civilization is based.

In the U.S., Libertarianism was a project of the corporate world. It was launched as a big business “ideology” in 1946 by The US Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers. They established a new lobbying front called the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) that focused on promoting a new pro-business ideology which it labeled Libertarianism. The FEE’s board included Robert Welch who, along with Fred Koch founded the John Birch Society, J. Reuben Clark, a racist, anti-Semite after whom Brigham Young University named its law school; and United Fruit president Herb Cornuelle.

The purpose of this front, and of Libertarianism as it was originally created, was to supplement big business lobbying with a pseudo-intellectual, pseudo-economics rationale and to back legal attacks on labor and government regulations. It later became a way to confuse and mislead working class folks to support corporate agendas.

The author Ayn Rand is considered a central figure in modern Libertarian dogma for her self-centered vision of personal greed and social irresponsibility and her rejection of morality and the social contract. Though Rand herself rejected Libertarianism, her philosophy is very useful as a justification for the blind egotism and greed on which corporate authority and the addiction to exploitation and wealth-hoarding depend. As Gore Vidal stated, “Ayn Rand’s “philosophy” is nearly perfect in its immorality, which makes the size of her audience all the more ominous and symptomatic as we enter a curious new phase in our society….To justify and extol human greed and egotism is to my mind not only immoral, but evil.”

Libertarianism, sounds good – after all, who doesn't like liberty? The reality is that it is an anti-social, anti-business regulation ideology of greed leading to corporate dictatorship. It acts as a safety valve for built up public anger while strengthening the very things about which you might be justifiably mad. I could write much more on this but it would be a separate article probably too long for this magazine. For those interested in exploring the issue, I recommend reading “Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement” by Brian Doherty.

Beyond the process of maintaining and justifying addictions is the realization of the harmful death spiral of continued abusive behavior – the “Aha!” moment of realization that change is necessary for survival. This is the beginning of recovery.

As individuals, we can, though sheer determination, changes of attitude, or with the help of others make significant changes in our way of living to overcome harmful addictions. As a society, it is much more complicated and difficult. It requires a cultural paradigm shift and at very least, a movement. Those who are dependent on destructive behaviors for their economic positions inevitably see change as a threat to their security and will fight against it.

As the planet increasingly lets us know that our way of living is getting to a critical point of dysfunction, we might hope and work for this to be our moment of awakening. More likely, it's time for an intervention. Just as a community of awakened and recovering addicts can provide needed support to each other becoming a greater power than any individual, all of us together realizing our interdependent community need for recovery are more powerful than this diseased system and the wills of those forces driving us to destruction. If I have faith in anything, it is in the power of unity in making needed change.

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