Tuesday, October 22, 2013

When It All Comes Down

Although I'd originally intended for today's long overdue post to be something light-hearted and off-the-wall, one of life's family-drama curve balls socked me right in the gut this afternoon, prompted by a panicked phone call I received from my mother. Instead of elaborating on the details, I'm just going to write about how I'm feeling right now, which is emotionally exhausted. I will preface this by saying that my dad was a psychiatrist and my mom was a psychiatric nurse, and that I grew up on the grounds of a large state mental hospital (my family lived in one of the staff cottages). I worked in a psychiatric hospital for several years during my early 20s. Ironically, one of my current job functions entails giving anesthesia for patients undergoing electroconvulsive therapy for various mental illnesses and dementia.

Addiction. It's a word that's been tossed around in my family quite a bit, dually fueled by Drug War hype and poor decisions made by individuals over the years. Addiction is medicolegal terminology for vices that become acquired habits. Like mental illness, it's a stigmatizing label for behavior that's deemed socially unacceptable. It's also a politically defined disease, rooted in society's belief that it's the government's job to protect adults from themselves. But, individuals are accountable for their actions, period. They are not powerless over their behavior. Drugs don't ingest, smoke or shoot themselves, alcohol doesn't drink itself, money doesn't gamble itself, and sex doesn't sell or fuck itself. The government's role should be strictly educational regarding the potential consequences of these activities, not to criminalize them. Whatever the vice happens to be, an individual makes a decision to engage in compulsive behavior that's usually accompanied by a set of undesirable consequences. 

Addiction is really a problem in living. Although I realize that many people experience successful recovery through twelve step programs, the basic tenet of powerlessness defies common sense. Thomas Szasz, a modern day psychiatrist, who was an advocate of individual freedom and vocal critic of the social controls engendered by psychiatry aligning itself with government, described drug treatment that isn't completely voluntary at its inception as being "eerily akin to forcible religious conversion." In other words, individuals who really want help are capable of helping themselves without coercion. His analogy comparing the Nazis' persecution of minorities with today's persecution of drug users is compelling: "The Nazis spoke of having a 'Jewish problem.' We now speak of having a drug-abuse problem. Actually, 'Jewish problem' was the name the Germans gave to their persecution of the Jews; 'drug-abuse problem' is the name we give to the persecution of people who use certain drugs."

Suicide. It's also a word that's been tossed around in my family quite a bit, given that several of my relatives suffer with severe depression. One has to be suffering greatly to view suicide as an acceptable solution. I mean, is there any problem or cause worth dying for? I honestly can't think of any, which is probably why I have no respect for ideologies that are centered in patriotism or martyrdom. I don't consider suicide to be a moral issue in any way, but it definitely contradicts human instinct. Suicide is always a tragedy, especially for those left behind. But, is it morally reprehensible...a crime? If one believes that individuals are morally free in determining whether or not they wish to live or die, then involuntary commitment is what's criminal. Being depressed isn't a crime, even if it involves suicidal ideation or a plan. But, involuntarily locking up a depressed person for not wanting to live breaches that individual's freedom. Although I think someone who's suicidally depressed should be actively discouraged from going through with it, there is little that can be done to stop someone who's truly decided that suicide is the only option. A blogger friend of mine shared with me this passage from David Foster Wallace, an American novelist who eventually took his own life. It provides very personal insight into the decision-making process behind suicide:

The so-called "psychotically depressed" person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of "hopelessness" or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall; it’s terror of the flames. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling "Don’t!" and "Hang on!", can understand the jump. Not really. You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”

So, there it is. I am not pretending to understand either of these issues inside and out, nor am I making any kind of value judgment about people who are struggling with addiction, depression, or suicidal ideation. I do think that all human beings experience feelings of depression or even fleeting thoughts of suicide. I know I have. It's part of the human experience. But, thoughts are thoughts, and thoughts alone are pretty meaningless. It's the power that people give to their thoughts, the translation of thoughts into behavior, that changes everything. When it all comes down, we're our own worst enemies.  The only person who can save you from yourself is you.
A pencil drawing made by my father in 1984





30 comments:

  1. Oh my. I don't know what to say.

    Considering that your post on addictions and suicide was written under an introduction of "...one of life's family-drama curve balls socked me right in the gut today, prompted by a panicked phone call I received from my mother. ..." I'm fearful of saying anything that might make a painful situation yet more painful.

    If I'm right in assuming that your introduction was not a non sequitur, my thoughts and best wishes are with you.

    As far as addictions are concerned, I fully agree that it's the government's role to educate, but not to legislate against stupidity or bad choices. That having been said, I think there are at least two caveats to that.

    First, I do think that it is the government's role to pass and enforce legislation to protect people who are not yet able to make informed, reasoned choices. The most obvious example is children. Even with a parent's approval, I think society has a duty to protect children from doing harm to themselves before they have the ability to recognize how harmful it may be and, with that knowledge, make rational choices about whether they think any benefits they might receive from ingesting or injecting those substances.

    It's not easy figuring out where the dividing line is between causing sufficient harm that it warrants protecting or not causing enough harm to warrant that. However, I don't think the government should shirk that duty simply because they are unlikely to get it exactly right to everyone's satisfaction. There are some truly horrific parents out there and their children don't deserve what they get from them.

    Another more controversial example is people who suffer from mental retardation (is that the still a politically correct term) to the extend that they've never developed beyond the mental age of young children. Should they also be protected by law? I'm inclined to say yes, but with somewhat less certainty than about children because is there never to be a time when they can make their own choices?

    The other caveat is that if we legalize all drugs then we need to review our criminal codes to ensure that "not in control of or in knowledge of one's actions as a result of being stoned out of one's mind" is not a defense against violence and other criminal acts. If an adult make the choice to have that first drink or take that one drug dose that eventually leads to intoxication, hallucination and/or addiction then he or she must also assume responsibility for the end consequences of that choice. At least, that's my opinion.

    As to suicide, I agree that there is nothing immoral about it in and of itself. It's a choice. I think it's almost always the wrong choice, but it's a choice. It's only immoral if the way it's done harms others beyond the emotional suffering of loved ones. You gave an example of when it's immoral, namely suicide bombings—which I think should not be called suicide bombings at all, but terrorism. The suicide is not the relevant issue in that case.

    I said ALMOST always the wrong choice because I think there are times when it could be the rational choice. For example, I am in favor of legalizing assisted suicide for people who are suffering horribly from terminal diseases, with no reasonable chance of recovery.

    All that having been said, I feel a deep emotional need to repeat that if your introduction was not a non sequitur then my thoughts are very much with you and I hope you handling whatever it is as well as possible under the circumstances.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful responses, Joel. I'm pretty much in agreement with what you've expressed here. Sometimes, I really wish I lived in Canada.

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    2. Apart from the weather, Canada is a great country; far from perfect, but great nonetheless. However, on these issues we're not much different than the U.S. Our drug laws are similar to those in the U.S. And our current government, one that I don't support in the least, is making them tougher, not freer. And assisted suicide is illegal here.

      The thoughts in my previous comment were just my thoughts, not the thoughts or policies of our current government—or our past governments. But one can always hope for the future.

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    3. Even so, Canada has always seemed more...rational. But, maybe it's being influenced unfavorably by US? I guess the grass is always greener on the other side.

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  2. Wow, damn Kris. I can bet you feel better emotionally after releasing your feelings so openly. The experience we call life if full of both disappontment and gratification, two things that mix together as well as oil and water. Feel better Kris, tomorrow is right around the corner.

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    1. I do feel better, Steven. And, you're right about tomorrow. I am looking forward to getting some much needed sleep tonight. Tomorrow is a new day.

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  3. Kris,

    First of all HUGS from me to you. I'm still unsure what happened but I agree with the majority of your points. I had a rough day myself and sometimes I think thoughts which I call dark. Thank goodness I shake my head and walk in faith. I will pray for you and yours as soon as I finish typing this. It is my privilege to do so.

    oxxox

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    1. Theresa, thanks for the hugs. It sounds like your faith enables you to see those dark thoughts for what they really are...thoughts. Thoughts themselves aren't harmful; it's the power people give to them that causes harm. I think that's a key realization in thwarting depression, addiction, etc.

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  4. I've just read this and just like Joel, I'm not quite sure what to say.

    On a personal level, I know what it's like to feel totally exhausted with living life day after day and I've never said this openly before. Life and what goes on in it has a way of kicking you in the teeth when you're down on the floor and yes, we do have options but what option do we take is what trips me up all the time.

    Tomorrow always seem so far away until you get there, and when that 'tomorrow' comes you'll either get a breakthrough or you'll end up with another 24 hrs of the same old crap.

    Dark holes can be deep and dangerous and sometimes we just find ourselves there very quickly and it's a hard climb out.

    Whatever you are going through right now I'm praying that you'll be able to deal with it and everything will work itself out in the end. I'm hoping that you did get a good nights sleep, and whatever the situation, you can see it in a better light.

    Helena, we all care and wish you the best.

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    1. RPD, I appreciate your candor. There have been times in life when I've felt the same way: exhausted and alone in a dark hole. I think my spirit is what got me through those times, along with support from people I care about. I also think that levity can be found by not taking oneself too seriously.

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  5. An awesome post, very well said.

    An interesting side note, the pain of depression supposedly lies in the same part of the brain we feel other pain, and recent studies have found one acetaminophen (tylenol) can help with that pain if not make it disappear all together.

    Suicide has also touched my family and I had a bout of major depression at least once in my life due to too many of my family dying, first naturally, and then suicides because of them, it was a bad couple of years. I can understand not wanting to go on, but dare say I have felt pretty great for the last decade or so thankfully.

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    1. Scott, I am so happy to hear that you've had a decade of feeling great, especially given the tragic circumstances within your family. It makes sense that the pain of depression is on the same circuit as other physical pain. Since the body's natural response to painful stimuli is to withdraw from it, then why doesn't that apply to the thoughts involved in depression? To me, that signifies that there's a choice on some level to ruminate, instead of putting out the fire. I don't know. Depression is difficult to nail down.

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  6. When I read this, it almost seemed as if it was addressed to me personally. You didn't make the connection explicitly, but I believe that addiction and suicidal depression are closely linked. At least, that's my experience. I get depressed quite easily, although I haven't felt suicidal for decades, which is probably because however I feel, I have a partner that I would be letting down by giving in that easily.

    Sorry Kris, but I'm probably rambling. Drunk, as usual, but that's me. I'm a compulsive personality, whether it's drink, cannabis or rock climbing. I take everything seriously.

    By the way, this post made me think whether things like depression are what affects introverts (like me), and that extroverts don't get depressed.

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    1. Good question, Dennis. My husband is also an extreme introvert, and has battled with depression his entire life. I see no problem with drug use that doesn't interfere with one's life in any way or harm oneself or anyone else. It sounds as if you've achieved a pretty good balance in life.

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  7. Kris, my heart goes out to you! I am so sorry you’re going through a gut-wrenching family drama. Getting a panicked phone call from your mother is very upsetting. I know about going through family crises and there is nothing more emotionally exhausting.

    Addiction is a black hole that drags the person and everyone else around him or her into it. Your line that “addiction is really a problem in living,” defines it so well. Having seen addiction with more than one family member, I sadly know about it. Like you, I believe the addicted person is responsible for his or her actions, and “capable of helping themselves without coercion.” My view has been tough love, I see no benefit in enabling, and that has not gone over well with some family members who disagree. It’s a very tough situation. I also agree that the government’s role should primarily be educational.

    Severe depression and suicide are so often linked. My family suffers from that as well, and I have seen the tragedy of how that unfolds. Personally, I find suicide difficult to fathom because I can think of no problem or cause worth dying for, yet I understand for those in the throes of depression, something inside them tells them this is the way to seek relief from the emotional or physical pain. The tragedy is not only for the life lost but for those left behind. I have no respect either for ideological reasons for suicide.

    Experiencing depression now and then is part of everyone’s human experience, I agree. There are many times I feel sad or blue, but like you, I’m able to find the sun again. For those suffering from clinical depression, finding that sun is so much harder and addiction only makes it worse. Still, how to handle the depression is always a personal choice. Thoughts alone have no power until we give them power by breathing life into them, whether positive or negative. There are so many layers to this.

    What a poignant drawing by your father showing people in the depths of despair and addiction, a person reaching up to be helped, and people walking upward toward the rainbow and the sun, getting stronger as they move along. Such a powerful image! As a psychiatrist, your father understood the human condition, but you can clearly sense from this drawing that he was also a very soulful man with a deep caring for others. There is so much emotion in that drawing.
    Hugs and my thoughts are with you, my friend!

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    1. I totally agree with you about not enabling addicts; I think that addiction is often used as an excuse not to be accountable for one's behavior. When I wrote this post, I thought about how so often, it's a person's spirit that gets them through the rough patches in life. I know that, given your childhood experiences and knowing you as well as I do, it was your spirit that made you so resilient. I thought Dad's drawing was the perfect choice for this blogpost. Love you.

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  8. You know what Kris, it's got to be a bad day. One of my long time friends called me to break the news that his wife's been detected with cancer that seems to have viciously spread in her abdomen. I thought of your Sun Jelly Pastures story. And now this.

    I really don't know what to say but I hate people who kill themselves to punish others. Yet, life is not always a valley of flowers. May the Force be with you.

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    1. Uma, I am so sorry to hear about your friend's wife. Is there hospice or palliative care available for her, if the cancer is indeed metastatic and untreatable? I agree with you about vengeance suicide. It's like saying, "I'll show you; I'll hurt myself."

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  9. Sorry Kris for your currently situation. As a person who had been burdened by my sister's depression since high school, I know it is not fun!
    I pretty much agree with what David Foster Wallance said about suicide, also I agree with Joel's interpretation. I think we should try our best to help those whose depression drives them to suicidal thoughts, also some suicide could be completely understandable, such as physical suffering.

    About addiction, it is also complicated. But I do agree,that it is not much a government business, rather people's own, or, psychologist or psychiatrists''. For me, people helplessly addict with something, the problem is not that "something" is so attractive, but these people lack something important in their lives, such as love, self-esteem. I personally never tried drugs, don't now what kind of harm it brings to people, but I do believe, any addictions, as long as they don't harm others', they should not be such a big problem.

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    1. kris, i did not finished this one:"people helplessly addict with something, the problem is not that "something" is so attractive, but these people lack something important in their lives, such as love, self-esteem", so they let themselves drown into others things in order to forget about the real fear.

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    2. Yun, is your sister older or younger? Dealing with other people's depression is exhausting, especially those who believe they are special cases beyond help. I believe that people who are severely depressed can recover, provided they are willing to help themselves. No one else can change your thoughts but you. I completely agree with your statement about suicide in the case of extreme physical suffering, whether assisted or carried out alone. It is no one's place to judge someone else who decides to take their own life. I also agree with you about addiction and drug use, that as long as it's not harming oneself or anyone else, it shouldn't be such a big deal.

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    3. Kris, my sister is 2.5 years older than me, but I acted like her older sister from the beginning, always protected her, always forgave her wrong doing. Plus my father's abuse, she has been quite screwed up almost beyond "repair". Even with a husband and son, her focus remains on herself forever. Also she is physically extremely feeble, I wonder how much that does to her mental condition. She seems getting slightly better now. I can only hope.

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  10. Long ago, Kris, I cultivated a healthy indifference toward the thoughts, beliefs, opinions and actions of others. Your brother is not responsible for the hateful conduct of his wife, he has no power over the heartless machinery of the law, which exist just to oppress and persecute him and further entangle him in miseries. He has to remove himself, let go, and not take all this personally; but that for some reason is the hardest thing for people to do. They just dig themselves deeper into the black hole of anger and depression.

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    1. You are so right about this, Marty. It is so hard for people not to feel slighted by life, not to take it personally, not to take themselves so seriously. That is the root of so many problems.

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  11. First off, I'm sending you a hug. I don't know what the situation is but it hurts me to know you're going through it. You obviously have a healthy perspective on the situation but that doesn't make it any less painful. Hang in there and know I'm thinking about you and your family.

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    1. I appreciate that, Janene. As Marty said above, I am trying to maintain a healthy indifference toward the situation, which does not preclude having compassion for the suffering of others. It's been a rough week, and I sure do appreciate having supportive friends like you.

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  12. Hi Kris, Yes suicide (precluding assisted suicide), is a truly desperate act, but also selfish, because those left to grieve can do so for many years. I remember studying the sociologist Durkheim, who measured suicide between countries, as a reflection of either a lack of social norms or norms that are too restrictive. If we feel enough of a social/family restriction on actually committing suicide, because it is ultimately selfish, then this should save us. Maybe we'll go to the brink, but somehow it will hold us back. Without this there can be very little to hold us back. I wish you and your family well during this time.

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    1. Thanks, Neil...that is an interesting approach to studying suicide. Somehow, I feel that the more social norms, the more messed up people become. For now, things are quiet in my family. I've found that no news is usually good news.

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  13. Hi Kris, while I am sorry to hear you are going through such a rough time, I appreciate your willingness to express your thoughts to honestly with us. My family has also been "through" the wringer due to the demons of addiction. My feelings about the issue are torn. Ive been taught that addiction is equal to a disease. The problem with that idea though is that it takes accountability away from the affected person. The individual has the power to break free of the affliction, if they so choose. In any case, Ive learned to not allow the pain that addiction has caused to ruin my own pursuits of happiness

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    1. "I've learned to not allow the pain that addiction has caused to ruin my own pursuits of happiness"...so true, Kyle. I've also adopted this approach. I think that addiction is curable in some cases, without any intervention whatsoever.

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