Comfortably Numb

by Mark Gordon

Read this piece at Aleteia

Of all the deformations of character wrought by consumer society, perhaps none touches as many lives as addiction. New and recently updated studies show that Americans are self-medicating themselves in growing and alarming numbers.  In addition to the cumulative wreckage addiction wreaks on individuals and their families, there are huge implications for public health, as well.

In figures updated last month, the National Center on Drug Abuse (NCDA) estimates that there are 24 million drug abusers in the United States. This population is defined as persons 12 years or older who have consumed illegal drugs or illicitly consumed prescription drugs – pain relievers, stimulants and tranquilizers – within the past thirty days.  Overall, the study found that 9.2% of Americans regularly smoke, snort, shoot or swallow illegal substances. That number is up from 8.3 percent a decade ago.

A separate 2011 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that the problem is most acute in the Southwest, West Coast, Northwest, and New England, with Vermont coming in as the most drug-addled state in the Union. Fifteen percent of Vermonters who responded to the survey admitted to having been stoned in the past month, as compared with only 4.2% in Utah.

Then there’s alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently alerted medical professionals to be on the lookout for the estimated 38 million American adults who routinely drink to excess. Though many of these do not fit the classic clinical definition of an alcoholic – a definition so imprecise that it is always in dispute, by the way – they nevertheless regularly cross the boundary between sensible, social drinking and binging, which for most normal people would be definition enough. It should be noted that the CDC numbers do not include young people. They are captured in survey conducted by the Century Council, a nonprofit organization funded by the manufacturers of booze. It revealed that 26% of 12th graders had been drunk in the past thirty days, with 22% reporting that they had engaged in binge drinking. The numbers were lower for 10th and 8th graders, but still quite alarming when one considers the size of the teenage population overall.

Other booming addictions include gambling, pornography, and Internet gaming. Of these, gambling addiction is a recognized pathology in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) while the others are not. Nevertheless, together they afflict millions of Americans from all walks of life, a situation made worse by the fact that the largest pushers are government (gambling) and big business (porn and gaming).

In 1987, Blessed Pope John Paul II sent a letter to the head of the United Nations International Drug Control Program on the occasion of the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. In his letter, the Holy Father wrote that “A correspondence has to be recognized between the deadly pathology caused by drug abuse and a pathology of the spirit which leads a person to flee from self and to seek illusory pleasures in an escape from reality, to the point that the meaning of personal existence is totally lost.” But the Pope didn’t stop with describing symptoms; he also diagnosed causes: “Factors such as the breakdown of the family, tensions in human relations, growing unemployment and subhuman standards of living all contribute to this estrangement,” he wrote. “In fact, at the root of these evils is the loss of ethical and spiritual values.”

So what accounts for that loss of values? The late historian and social critic Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, identified the culprit as the consumer culture of the liberal West. By transforming citizens into consumers through advertising and other subtle forms of manipulation, Lasch thought, modern consumer capitalism “teaches the individual to want and need a never-ending supply of new toys and drugs.” In other words, it teaches addiction, which in any context is characterized by an overweening narcissism and the desperate insistence on immediate gratification.

“Conservatives sense a link between television and drugs,” wrote Lasch, “but they do not grasp the nature of this connection any more than they grasp the important fact about news: that it represents another form of advertising, not liberal propaganda … The effect of the mass media is not to elicit belief but to maintain the apparatus of addiction. Drugs are merely the most obvious form of addiction in our society.  It is true that drug addiction is one of the things that undermines ‘traditional values,’ but the need for drugs — that is, for commodities that alleviate boredom and satisfy the socially stimulated desire for novelty and excitement — grows out of the very nature of a consumerist economy.”

There’s a saying in the recovery community that addiction turns good people into bad people, and therein lays the connection to the “loss of ethical and spiritual values.” For an addict, desire comes to be experienced as need, and that need eventually overwhelms even the most deeply embedded moral and spiritual values. The addict inhabits a socially fragmented world; he experiences a profound psychological alienation and even loss of identity. Petty moral transgressions become conceivable, even desirable, and ever easier to commit. The deeper his addiction, the more isolated he becomes, until all social connections formerly based on affection or conviction either dissolve or are redefined solely on the basis of utility. Shocking violations of the moral code, including violence, become not just possible, but likely. The addict is a one-dimensional being without a past, future, or even a present beyond the rock in his pipe, the bottle in his hand, or the needle in his arm.

Is it any coincidence that the same existential trajectory has often been ascribed to consumer society as a whole? Like addicts, consumers experience wants as needs, often superior to their obligations. The consumer’s world is likewise fragmented, his social connections also based largely on utility, defined as the satisfaction of desire: “What’s in it for me?” He too spurns family, place, and culture (the past), as well as education and civic engagement (the future), in favor of instant material gratification. And he, like the addict, often indulges in the most egregious violations of the moral law in the name of “freedom” or “choice,” including the dismemberment of unborn children.

Alcohol and drugs have been around since the dawn of time, of course, and many human cultures were built around the convivial cup or the proffered pipe, but substance abuse at the scale we confront today was not so common. It signifies a profound social crisis, an alienation of people from each other and from their own true selves. “People use drugs, legal and illegal, because their lives are intolerably painful or dull,” wrote the poet and essayist Wendell Berry in The Art of the Commonplace. “They hate their work and find no rest in their leisure. They are estranged from their families and their neighbors. It should tell us something that in healthy societies, drug use is celebrative, convivial, and occasional, whereas among us it is lonely, shameful, and addictive. We need drugs, apparently, because we have lost each other.”

In his encyclical, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Blessed Pope John Paul II confronted the consumer society directly:

“A disconcerting conclusion about the most recent period should serve to enlighten us: side-by-side with the miseries of underdevelopment, themselves unacceptable, we find ourselves up against a form of superdevelopment, equally inadmissible, because like the former it is contrary to what is good and to true happiness. This super-development, which consists in an excessive availability of every kind of material goods for the benefit of certain social groups, easily makes people slaves of ‘possession’ and of immediate gratification, with no other horizon than the multiplication or continual replacement of the things already owned, with others still better. This is the so-called civilization of ‘consumption’ or ‘consumerism,’ which involves so much ‘throwing-away’ and ‘waste.’ An object already owned but now superseded by something better is discarded, with no thought of its possible lasting value in itself, nor of some other human being who is poorer.“All of us experience firsthand the sad effects of this blind submission to pure consumerism: in the first place a crass materialism, and at the same time a radical dissatisfaction, because one quickly learns — unless one is shielded from the flood of publicity and the ceaseless and tempting offers of products — that the more one possesses the more one wants, while deeper aspirations remain unsatisfied and perhaps even stifled.”

On the surface, the addict — like the consumer — appears to always want more. In truth, what he really wants is different: a place in the world, productive work, an identity rooted in being and not in not having, and an authentic human community marked by affection and gratitude. Sadly, the society we’ve built has conspired to deprive us all of these things, but there is hope. Recovery is possible if we take it one day at a time.