Lindsay Lohan has been much in the news recently, and I’ve had several conversations about her, both in person and online. Two things that they all seem to have had in common were (a.) contempt for Ms. Lohan, and (b.) the general opinion that with all her money she should somehow be able to rise above her addiction. One person even wondered why she didn’t just hire a driver, instead of driving under the influence.
I find this disturbing, and not because I’m a particular fan of the starlet herself. (I am not, as a matter of fact.) What bothers me every time people start trashing celebrity alcoholics and addicts is that it indicates how, half a century and more after alcoholism (and later addiction) were recognized officially as diseases, we as a society still view them with a moralistic attitude. We also seem to enjoy seeing icons brought down, but that speaks more to our character than that of the icons.
My personal belief is that this is because nearly all of us have had our lives touched by addiction, and have experienced the chaos that addicts carry and leave behind them the way a tornado carries dust and debris. Addicts do things that “good” people would never do. We lie — to ourselves, our families, and the world. We steal — time, affection, money, jewelry, attention, and sometimes lives. We cheat others of the things that we like to believe that we are all entitled to: peace of mind, security, sometimes even shelter and food. We not only do these things, but we do them in ways that confound those around us. He wasn’t raised like that! Look what she did to her poor parents! What could such a person be, but evil? What could they possibly deserve beyond contempt?
I know those questions, because I asked them of myself in my active addiction, and for some years afterward. It wasn’t until I began to relate my behaviors during my addiction to those of the addicts that I was working with in my recovery that I really “got” it.
Addiction is chemically-induced insanity. We use drugs to make us feel different from what we really are. They do that by altering our brain chemistry in ways that make us feel better about ourselves. We like that. We may feel less shy, less “uptight,” less dumb, more romantic, more desirable — the list of things that drugs (including alcohol, which is just another drug) do for us in the beginning is limited only by the things that we might want to change. They change the way we feel, but they do not change reality, so when the good feelings wear off we’re “still the same old girl we used to be” as the song goes, and we want even more to experience that change — to be that other person. So we have some more drugs or booze, because the very first thing that they take away from us is the ability to make good decisions. In the case of alcohol, only two drinks affects our critical thinking, and our critical thinking is what keeps us out of trouble.
Over time, the continual presence of drugs in our brains causes actual physical changes that make us need the drug to feel normal. Because our critical thinking is affected, using again looks like the most reasonable choice. We tell ourselves that we’re OK. We lie about our use. We do what we need to do to protect the drugs that take us in the direction we believe we need to go. Eventually, we really do need the drugs to function. We are well and truly hooked, even though we had no intention of getting that way. The drugs become the center of our universe, and we are compelled to do whatever it takes to get them. We don’t plan to hurt others in the process, but it’s inevitable.
It’s also unsurprising that most of those folks don’t get it. They think “Just Say No” is reality, instead of a cruel joke, and to them our behavior is a complete puzzle, the obvious solution to which is that we are terrible people.
That’s really a shame, because I’m convinced, along with most other folks who know the facts about addiction, that if we put the time, effort and money into drug research and rehab that we put into prisons for incarcerating addicts, we could make a really big dent in addiction. That would be a good thing, because addiction — including alcoholism — costs us hundreds of billions of dollars a year in health care, lost wages, bankruptcies, disrupted families, and the myriad other kinds of fallout from lives run amok, not to mention heartache and misery for all involved.
But first, people have to understand that insanity — whatever the cause — is not evil. In the case of addiction, it is a disease that can be arrested, like diabetes, once the addict gets clean and begins to understand what’s needed to remain that way. That’s where detox and treatment come in. It doesn’t often work the first time, and for some it doesn’t work at all, but it’s the best we’ve got until our national will and attitudes change.