Whenever I stop posting my “Local View” posts you can be fairly certain that there is something going on in my life that I don’t want to talk about. I like Local View posts to have a Norman Rockwellian character, and to reflect my belief that God is in everything and everyone. Even when I gripe and grouch, I like to do so in a manner that makes people smile. I want to cheer people up, not bring people down. Unfortunately a wrench gets thrown into the machinery of cranking out optimism, from time to time, and then I go silent.
What stuffed a sock in my mouth most recently was an addiction in the family, involving a daughter’s ne’er-do-well boyfriend. He kept his distance from the family, and seemed to want my daughter to do the same, and while there were signs all wasn’t well, the family respected their right to live life as they chose.
Unlike the cartoon character Andy Capp, (which is an English, drop-the-“h”, play on “handycap”) the boyfriend couldn’t maintain a “working addiction”, and the family had to step in and help, especially after my daughter had a baby. Initially addiction was suspected, but vehemently denied. And…..so it began.
I don’t feel as much shame is attached to such misfortune as there used to be, but addiction certainly is not a problem people smile fondly at, or an event that Norman Rockwell portrayed on the covers of the old Saturday Evening Post. It is a level above boozing, and no laughing matter.
The only reason shame is not as involved as it once was is because addiction has become all too commonplace. In truth it is indeed shameful, because it involves the humiliation of the human spirit. Not only is the addict far less than they might be, but all those closely connected are dragged down as well. Vast amounts of time and money are frittered away on a sidetrack which produces nothing but grief, exasperation and rage.
The only true escape from the shame involves a compassion that feels unnatural, for it is not soft and mushy and sweet, but hard as iron. Call it “tough Love”, if you will. It seems ambiguous to us, for we equate understanding and mercy with gentle people, with the kind nurse who tucks us in and allows us to stay in bed. Escaping addiction is more like the snarling sergeant who boots us out.
The escape is also ambiguous because it involves accepting even while refusing to accept. In many cases the hardest part of dealing with a problem lies in admitting you have one.
In order to feel compassion towards addicts it is helpful to confess that we too have shortcomings. All but the greatest saints have things they don’t want to give up. People who feel they are well balanced, and who are too smug about it, run a risk of seeing fate come along and stagger them. We are well balanced until we are abruptly fired, or robbed, or the stock market crashes, or there is an earthquake or hurricane. All sorts of things can knock us off balance. Our kindly family doctor has to do it to people all the time, with the word, “cancer.”
It is hard to feel compassion towards an addict because they qualify as one of the things, (one of the earthquakes or hurricanes), that come into the pleasantness of life and disturbs the peace. We stroll into the living room to watch the TV, and discover they stole it. Then they lie, and claim they didn’t do it. Rather than compassion, we want to strangle.
It is hard to have pity, but the fact is that an addict is living in a state of constant earthquake. If they don’t get the next fix, the walls come crashing down. Even if they go to rehab, and get through the initial physical withdrawal, and are “clean”, the urge to backslide is constantly prowling around like a roaring lion living in their back yard. Is that not pitiable?
Many former addicts say they never truly escape addiction. They are still an addict even when they have gone without drugs for decades. That is not merely pitiable, but, in the case of those who escape the tyrant, it is heroic. Sadly, it is also unnecessary, and could have been avoided, by never starting in the first place.
One addiction I have personal experience with, which is less destructive in the short term than others, involves tobacco. One is able to be a so-called “working addict” in such cases, and one seldom steals TV’s for the next fix. However, when one runs out of cigarettes, I know, from personal experience, it is no problem at all to drive through a howling blizzard to buy the next pack. (Or to smoke the stubs of filthy butts from an ashtray.)
In the case of a “working addict” the dependency can even become part of ones ego, like a fancy hat one wears which all identify with being “you”. FDR had his long cigarette holder, and Winston Churchill his cigar. People (or most people) didn’t scowl at them and sneer, “addict.” However they were. I have wondered what efforts had to be made, in wartime situations, to get them their next fix. Were flights diverted to bring Churchill his cigars?
Churchill so identified with his cigar that one time, when 45 seconds were scheduled in his frantic wartime day for a propaganda photo, he made sure to have a cigar clamped in his bulldog mouth. The photographer was ushered into the room to take the picture, and felt an immediate dislike of the cigar, and had the audacity to snatch it from the great leader’s mouth. Churchill looked at the photographer with an expression of incredulous fury, and the photographer snapped the picture. What a great shot! “You don’t mess around with Jim.”
In essence, to confront an addict is to mess around with Jim. It is to snatch the cigar from Winston Churchill’s mouth. It is to cause an earthquake in the life of another, and when you do such a thing it is a declaration of war, and you are a fool if you do not expect an earthquake in return.
In such situations it pays to ask a simple question, “Is it worth it?” In the case of Winston Churchill, it paid to put up with the stink of his cigar, (except in the case of one photographer who got a great picture). Cigars made The Last Lion content, allowed him to not only concentrate on greatness, but pay all his bills and live to be over ninety years old . Importantly, he likely spent less than 0.1% of his time thinking about his next cigar. (Speaking for myself, I can say that when I was most busy writing I could smoke an entire carton of cigarettes without even thinking about smoking).
In the case of addictions like heroin the equation is very different. Few are able to maintain the precarious balance of a “working addict” for very long. The “monkey on their shoulder” gradually grows into a gorilla. It is not a very gentle giant, either. It demands feeding before all else. A crying baby comes second. To snatch the cigar from the mouth of such an ogre is downright dangerous.
Not that addiction shows its true face, at first. At first addiction gives you the smile a police officer sees, for whether you like it or not you are the “gestapo”, and the addict is of the “underground”. Your honesty makes you “oppressive”, while their deceit makes them “noble”. Just as there is honor among thieves there is a bizarre, back-stabbing brotherhood among addicts, wherein a person who tells the truth is a “rat”, “an informer”, or some other astonishingly unflattering term for “an honest person.”
An addict is largely a liar, and the person they fool most is themselves. I know all about such self-deception, because for forty-five years I promised I’d quit cigarettes “soon.” However it still came as something as a surprise to be lied to so sincerely, so frequently, and so fluently, as I was lied to this summer.
Fortunately I don’t expect much of my fellow man, after so many years, and rather than the lying making me irate, the lying just made me double down. This occurred because the lies were expressed in the form of excuses: “Why I can’t pay the rent”, “Why I can’t get a job”, “Why I can’t get up in the morning”. The answer to all such questions is, “Because I am a druggie”, but that is the last thing any addict wants to admit. It is far easier to blame society, and blather on and on about an unjust or perverted third grade teacher, than it is to face the fact you yourself are the slave of a lousy, little chemical.
What I did was to supply solutions, when I heard “catch 22” logic such as, “I can’t get a job because I don’t have a car, and can’t get a car because I don’t have job.” Faced with the comfortably convenient couch of such snug helplessness, I got the young man a job, and I supplied the ride to work. When he couldn’t get up in the morning, I could, and drove to his place at 4:45 AM, and rousted him out of bed like a drill sergeant. It took me a lot of time and effort, but had some slight benefits. Rather than pasty-skinned, he developed a tan; also he developed an appetite and put on some muscle. Rather than needing to wheedle for money he felt the self-esteem of a pay-check. So far, so good.
However an addict and his money are soon parted, ( I have heard it said that “cocaine is God’s way of telling you that you have too much money.”) Rather than a paycheck solving problems, it suddenly makes it harder to get out of bed, harder to get to work, and harder to keep the job. Also he couldn’t pay bills despite the paycheck. Explaining this strange twist of affairs drives an addict to concoct an entire new network of lies, in the form of new excuses, which tend to point the blame away from the self to others.
This strategy can only work if the “others” don’t compare notes. If you can keep them from talking to one another, or find a sole person you can trick and bully into being your “enabler”, such excuse-making can prolong your miserable deceit, but if you are dealing with a healthy, cheerful and honest family who all are out to help you, they do compare notes, and your deceit is doomed. With the innocence of children questions get asked, excuses don’t add up, and the walls come closing in, as a thing called “accountability” starts to expose your lies, one by one.
Many addicts have been through this downfall a number of times. When their deceits are exposed, plan A has failed and they move to plan B. They move on to tearfully confessing their addiction, and even going through the motions of attending AA meetings or rehab groups, but sometimes even such emotion is little more than grandiose drama and a cynical ploy. Some know the routine so well they could even run the rehab groups. It is just one more lie. Even when they promise to enter a detox, it may be an act.
It is when you get them to the door of the detox center that all the smiling and nodding, all the tears and all the the tugging of heart strings, all bluster and all blame,and all the other make-believes of lying may abruptly cease, and you may suddenly find yourself face to face with the big, ugly gorilla that rules the addict’s mind. No way are they going to step through that door. No way are they going to face the agony of withdrawal. No way are they going to honestly face their problem.
It is then they are at long last honest. They tell you exactly what they think of you, and also of all your lame, prissy, holy-rolling efforts to help them. Then they storm off in a huff.
Let them go. I once stormed off like that, and no one heard much of me for years, and during those years I cleaned up my act. True, I wasn’t addicted to anything terribly unforgiving, but it did seem necessary to get away from my past to learn what I needed to learn, and I’m thankful I lived in a free country that allowed me to do it.
The problem with addicts is that they often don’t stay away very long; they often call home quite soon, from jail, repentant and asking for bail. Again they are telling the lies, tugging the heart strings, (or perhaps, if they are a spouse or lover, even blustering, and threatening to tell some intimate secrets you’ve foolishly shared with them.) It is as if they want to employ the line from Robert Frost’s “Death Of A Hired Hand“: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
Don’t take them in. Don’t be taken. Tell them, “Detox or no talks.”
Not that detox helps, in and of itself. For many addicts Detox is a warm bed in January, three squares a day, and a place to regain strength and stamina before the next binge. Even the detox places, who are prone to inflating their success rates, confess terrible rates of recidivism. The typical rate of relapse given is between 60% and 70%.
At this point it is important to draw a distinction between the secular and the religious. The secular detox places get all the government funding, and can be amazingly ineffective, while the religious places are far more effective, and are not allowed to get any government funding. (It is just a glaring example of the government perversely funding what doesn’t work.) In the case of some inner city Detox centers, involving the more vicious addictions such as heroin, a pathetic 2% of the addicts actually stay off the drug when they depart, whereas the Christian “Teen Challenge” Detox centers sees over 60% succeed in staying “clean”.
(In terms of gathering statistics, the secular groups always include “all” centers when stating success-rates, while the religious centers make sure to exclude secular center’s rates, when stating their success rates. Go figure.)
When attempting to explain why the religious groups did better, the secular centers noticed the religious groups involved confession and soul-searching. Talk seemed important, and the secular centers got the idea that, besides “Detox”, “Rehab” was important. And indeed there was an improvement in success rates, once tax-payers were hit upon to fund further time for addicts in warm shelters and half-way houses. However the statistics still showed the religious Rehabs did better than the secular Rehabs.
This annoys people who feel God should be banned from government. However it does suggest that that there is something about an addict turning to the sky, during the screaming agony and nausea of withdrawal, and pleading to the heavens for help, that draws some sort of mysterious healing down. Of course, God likely knows the mention of his name causes some to break out in a rash, and therefore it is likely better to substitute the word “Truth” for “God”.
Truth is the opposite of a lie, and, as addicts are such consummate liars, Truth is a sort of antidote to what is poisoning them. Or that is the best I can do to explain why Bible-thumping holy rollers succeed, where highly educated doctors and psychologists and social workers and billions of dollars fail.
Not that a truly ingenious addict cannot milk the religious organizations just as effectively as they leech from everyone else. Just as they know the right things to say to a degree where they can run a Rehab group, there have been addicts who have been pastors. But such liars eventually falter; there is something about the hell of addiction that is corrosive to the sense of hope that keeps humans going, and eventually the lies drag every addict to rock bottom, where the options are either suicide or the honesty of a desperate cry for help.
That honesty is not a thing you can make an addict do. You can lead a horse to water but you cannot make it drink. The drinking involves the despairing torment of burning thirst. It is a state a person must find for themselves, but those who have fallen so low often speak of remarkable events, and of experiencing unexpected, inexplicable compassion.
“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.
3 Give ear and come to me;
listen, that you may live…” (From the start of chapter 55, the Book of Isaiah)
It is a truly remarkable thing to witness a soul step over the threshold from a dark landscape of lies into the broad, open vistas of Truth. In essence, it strikes one as impossible. A complete skumbag? Become a rose? Fat chance. But then you see it happen. You see this fellow who formerly would pawn his grandmother’s teeth cheerfully scrubbing the floors in a soup kitchen. And then, when you see this, you simply have to wonder, “What the heck happened to you?” Sometimes they might tell you, but sometimes they keep it to themselves, because they don’t want to sound weird.
Catholics are big on confession, and there does seem to be some element of confession involved in stepping over the threshold. When you are living a lie, a way to kill the lie is to confess, which is why such stress is put on this part of the first chapter of 1 John:
8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word is not in us.
Of course, because the addict tends to see you as a narc and as the gestapo, he doesn’t have much of an urge to confess. Pressed in that direction, he will fight like a cat fights a bath. He may despise you, and look at you with eyes of unabashed hatred. That may well be your reward for trying to help. You can lead a cat to water, but you cannot make it bathe.
But what is the alternative? Pretending you don’t see through the lies? Pretending you can trust when you cannot? Pretending a person can ever honor his own word when his only obedience is to a gorilla?
Sometimes your only choice is to throw the bum out. Perhaps you are not the one who will uplift. Perhaps the cat has its own way of washing, and doesn’t need your bathtub. Perhaps the addict will clean up on his own. However you do not help an addict by enabling the addict to continue his deception. Sometimes by pushing a person towards a crisis in the gutter you are pushing them towards the threshold of salvation.
And in the end that is how things ended this summer. The young man told me in no uncertain terms that I am a meddlesome jerk, a spiritual hypocrite, and a home wrecker. (Addicts seldom blame themselves.) It was up to my daughter to chose whether to follow him or not, and she chose not to. Next thing I heard the fellow was in jail. Not a happy ending, at this point.
And that is why there have been so few “Local View” posts. I have been busy totally wasting my time on a young man who doesn’t seem worth the time of day. And I wonder how much other time has been wasted in other lives, by the stupidity of addiction. Drugs seem a weapon used by our enemy to weaken us. Every day I hear about drug deaths, even in our quaint and rural landscape.
But I cannot end a Local View in such a depressing manner. But what can I say? It would take a genius to make a cartoon out the way that addiction is turning good, intelligent people into beasts.
Well I’ll be. America has already been given that genius, and has had a great symbol of how vices turn people into jackasses, ever since 1940. There is no mystery in it, for we’ve known for 76 years. Why then does the entire nation seem so determined to turn itself into a jackass?
Perhaps it is a sort of payback for the fact some Americans once got wealthy sailing clipper ships and selling opium to China. What goes around comes around. Or perhaps it is a trial that will make us a better people in the long run. There can be little doubt that those who survive addiction have an awareness of human frailty and of evil far greater than those who haven’t been through the hell. They know when compassion merely enables and when compassion is life-changing. Perhaps, if the drug epidemic doesn’t destroy us as a nation, it will result in a core group of solid people who know all the wiles of liars, are seldom fooled, and who love the Truth.