The Hardest Part

“PROVIDENCE, R.I. — In April, Debra Harris took her 15-year-old son along for what she thought was a final visit to her parole officer. Instead, because of a “dirty urine” test two weeks before, proof of her relapse to crack use, state troopers led her straight back to prison for three more months.

Troopers then drove Ms. Harris’s son to the rented home on the south side of Providence where her boyfriend was suddenly left to tend to three of her children. Ms. Harris had forgotten to pay the gas bill, so service was cut and they lived through her sentence without a stove, surviving on fast food and microwave items.

Such jolting events are part of the fabric of life in South Providence, as some women and many more men cycle repeatedly through the state’s prisons. As the country confronts record and recurring incarcerations, the search for solutions is focusing increasingly on neighborhoods like it, fragile places in nearly every city where the churning of people through prison is intensely concentrated….”

Staying Out – New York Times
We must get over this idea that punitive measures are the answer to addiction. Too long have we taken the attitude that addiction is a matter of choice — or, even if it isn’t, “those people” chose to use drugs, so society shouldn’t have to deal with it. Let them suffer the effects of their own mistakes. (Subtext: they sinned; God is punishing them.)

Well, God is punishing us all. Addiction (including alcoholism) costs the US hundreds of billions of dollars a year, when you consider the medical costs, the lost productivity, the cost to businesses, the cost of law enforcement, the cost of incarceration, the cost of the ridiculous “War on Drugs, and the cost to families, friends, neighborhoods, reduced property value and the myriad other issues surrounding drug and alcohol use.

There are realities that we must face.

First is the fact — not opinion, fact — that addiction is not voluntary. While initial drug or alcohol use is, in most cases, the addiction is a result of changes brought about in the brain, over time, because of the presence of the chemicals. When those changes occur, the urge to have the drugs surpasses the urge for sex, the pangs of hunger, and all the other things that we humans consider primal drives. True or not, the addict believes in her deepest soul that if she can’t keep the drug in her body, she will die.

It has been said that the only difference between a civilized man and a savage is three good meals. That may or may not be true, but it is true that the only difference between an addict and a savage is the presence of the drug in his system — whether it be heroin, cocaine, speed, meth or alcohol.

Beyond a certain point, the addict has no choice. It is a do or die situation. This is the salient point that so-called “normal” people are unable to grasp. The hunger analogy falls down, here, for the simple reason that most people have never been and will never be starving, and have no way to measure the feeling against their well-fed complacency. It is, nonetheless, accurate, and the drive to more alcohol or drugs is amplified by the misery of withdrawal.

Addicts and alcoholics are not capable of making the life decisions necessary to remain clean and sober until the effects of the drugs, both physical and emotional, have subsided. THIS TAKES MONTHS. In the case of the emotional and frequently chronic mental aspects, it may take years — or forever.

The answer is not in self-righteous moralizing, nor incarceration (simply an extension of the moralizing), nor other forms of punishment. It is in helping alcoholics and addicts, who together make up roughly 10% of the US population, to overcome their addictions and return to normal productivity.

There are obstacles to be overcome. Among them are the self-righteousness, the economic interests of the beverage industry (20% of the drinkers buy 80% of the booze), the interests of the multi-billion-dollar prison industry and the bureaucracy that supports it, the hundreds of other interests that support the legislative candidates who see things their way or (like a certain Southern governor) know better, but lack the cojones to come out and tell it like it is, and the denial of individuals who are afraid for personal reasons to look at the truth and recognize it.

Jerry McGuire said, “Show me the money!” As usual, the money is where it’s at. Why do we not have effective drug education? Because alcohol is a drug. Can you imagine what would happen to the careers of politicians who did more than give lip service to addiction and alcoholism treatment and education? The beverage companies spend billions of dollars annually on advertising. The money that they invest to support their supporters in Congress is chump change.

We have to remember the total cost, and who ultimately pays: you, and you, and you, and me. We pay with our taxes, our serenity, our loved ones, our wellbeing, our souls. The only thing that will have any effect is for the voters to see the truth and put their votes in the right place. In this country, with the media controlled by the same folks as the other huge corpporations, that ain’t likely. Too many would lose too much in vested interests. The outlook for alcoholics and other addicts is grim. At least we can try to show them some compassion — those of us who understand because we’ve been there, or seen it happen to others.

On the grassroots level, we can at least help some of them.

The way I was helped.

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