This morning a facebook friend posted a quote that I found both depressing and sanctimonious. Yeah, I know irritating facebook posts are par for the course, but this one really got to me. Here is the quote (attributed to Philip K. Dick):
“Drug misuse is not a disease, it is a decision, like the decision to step out in front of a moving car. You would call that not a disease but an error of judgment.”
The friend who posted this is a complex thinker. He’s an artist, a storyteller. He gets nuances. So for him to fall back on such a black-and-white, uncompassionate characterization of the complex and awful experience of addiction indicates a psychological reaction that is probably based on past experiences with drug users. In fact I know some of this history. He has been hurt by the drug use of others. He has lost people. His self-protection reaction is to harden his ideas.
I, too, have been hurt by the drug use of others. My reaction has been to soften my ideas, incorporate less judgement and more compassion. I do not think this makes me better than him – my reaction is also ultimately about self-protection. And I have plenty of judge-y moments, believe me.
The quote saddens me because of its implication that addicts are akin to idiots who deserve what they get, but what upsets me more is its sanctimoniousness. It’s easy to assume that a certain condition involves more choice than it really does if you have not experienced it personally, i.e. in your own person. One of the most ubiquitous traits of human beings is that they like to say how much better they would behave in any given situation if it happened to them.
“Just say no.”
There’s a reason that campaign failed. If it were as easy as making a decision to do the “right thing,” we would have won the drug war.
We tend to like to think that we have pure free will, but in actuality many, if not most, of our “choices” result from a complex interplay of psychological and biochemical factors that are unique to individuals. There is no universal easy-button choice that everyone should be able to make and if they don’t, they have failed in the simplest of tasks and must be idiots. Thinking there is allows us to avoid contemplating a world in which there is no easy answer. Sometimes solutions seem too hard to come by. Or impossible. Who wouldn’t want to think that the scourge of drug addiction is an easy fix if only people wouldn’t be such idiots and just make the right choices?
I write this as someone who has a condition that many would say involves choice: depression. Happiness is a choice, after all. Many people really believe this. Why don’t I just buck up? Why do I let myself get so unhappy?
Of course the truth is complex. Sometimes happiness is a choice. When I am not experiencing an episode, I can make daily choices that maintain and increase my happiness. Eating well, exercising, making sure I make time for reading and contemplation. During an episode, I am robbed of most of my ability for choice, and more importantly, even if I make the same behavioral choices they will most likely either make no difference or actually increase my unhappiness.
It is not something you can understand unless you’ve been there. And that’s fine. Human experience is full of things we only witness, and never personally experience. I really believe, though, that we create harm when we judge others as weak or failures for any given reaction they have to life. It could be a direct harm, i.e we ourselves fail to help the person in trouble, or we fail to help ourselves deal with their situation. Often, though, it is a more amorphous type of harm, that of contributing to a culture of hardline thinking.
Which really doesn’t lead to anything good, as has been so amply demonstrated in our culture over the last decade.
We have consistently failed to deal with mental health and addiction problems in the United States. And for those who associate addiction with drugs or alcohol, and thereby with people who are degenerates or slaves to vice, let me point out that the most problematic addictive substance in our country is food.
You may be wondering what my response to my friend’s post was. Nothing. About ten acidly sarcastic comments came to mind, but I know that posting any one of them, or even a well-thought-out reply, would make utterly no difference to his thoughts on the matter. This is the saddest thing of all, I think. How little people are willing to entertain the possibility that life looks different, and is different, seen through a different set of eyes.
I did unfollow him, though.