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|