Imam Khalid Latif is blogging his reflections during the month of Ramadan, featured daily on HuffPost Religion. For a complete record of his previous posts, click over to the Islamic Center at New York University or visit his author page, and to follow along with the rest of his reflections, sign up for an author email alert above.
Every so often I meet someone who has issues dealing with pain that they are experiencing. It becomes so severe at times that they are willing to do whatever it takes to feel better, even if the feeling lasts only for for moments. They turn to cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, hookah, pornography, food, and a variety of other things that slowly turn into habits and then from habits into addictions, and Ramadan becomes a time when many actually see the habits and addictions that they have. The break from our daily routine enables us to see how much we actually rely on our addictions to get through the day and then decide whether we want to use the opportunity to overcome them or let them stay with us. I see a lot of people who do this with medicine.
The issue is not with the medicine itself, but the manner in which some of us take it. Many of us today eat medicine like its candy. At the slightest of pains we open up the cupboard, with ease remove the childproof cap, and pop a couple of painkillers not realizing the detrimental effect it potentially could have on us. Our goal is to feel good in the immediate, not thinking necessarily what it could do to us beyond the short-term.
I have never really taken too much medicine in my life. Even though my dad is a doctor, it isn't really something I've been socialized to do I guess. My first experience with a painkiller came when was I in high school. I tore some cartilage in my jaw during the first football practice of my junior year. Later that day, my entire family (my brother's wedding was in a few days so relatives had flown in from everywhere) sat down to eat dinner together at a restaurant and as I was about to start eating, some more of the cartilage ripped in my jaw and it hurt a lot. Some painkillers were prescribed to me and they did their job.
It's true that the feeling you get from taking one of these pills is quite relieving. It seemingly removes from you the physical aches and pains that your body might be experiencing, and for many becomes an only outlet to get through the day to day agonies that they might have to deal with. A person whose skin is burned in a fire, victims of car crashes, someone whose eye has been damaged, the list could go on and on. Most of us though, thank God, don't fall into those categories. Yet seemingly a lot of people are still buying these pills. Between 1997 and 2005 alone, the sales of painkillers went up 90 percent, and those are just the legal transactions. Are people just hurting themselves more? Or have we just broadened the type of pain that we are trying to kill with these tiny tablets?
I read a book a few years back called "Pillhead: The Secret Life of a Painkiller Addict." For anyone in this line of work, I would recommend reading it. For people who are interested in the subject matter, its an easy read. It's written by a young man named Joshua Lyon who narrates his experiences and the experiences of others getting addicted to painkillers and then their respective efforts to fight that addiction. One of the most profound chapters in his book is entitled "Depression Hurts".
"In my own case, and I think this is true for the majority of pill heads I've met, I was self-medicating for some form of depression. I say this because, well, not only did I know I was depressed, but there's a whole emerging field of study about depression manifesting itself as a physical pain. Cymbalta, a popular antidepressant, has even incorporated this idea into its advertising campaigns. Depression Hurts, the ads declare."
Thresholds for physical pain vary from person to person. Similarly, thresholds for emotional pain vary from person to person as well. Some of us handle our emotions better than others. But when we get sad, it hurts. When we get angry, it hurts. When we get depressed, it hurts. And when that hurt gets so heavy and we don't want to deal with it anymore, we need a quick fix. I met a young woman recently who had been physically and emotionally abused in numerous ways by some of her closest family members. As the tears rolled down her face from her own retelling of her life's experiences, may Allah give her strength and grant her the best in this world and the best in the next, I asked her what does she do to cope with it all. Her response "Is it wrong for me to do something that makes me forget the world for a little while? That makes me feel normal for a few moments?" The relativeness of wrongness aside, that temporary fix is problematic because it is just a temporary fix. It doesn't change the reality of a situation, it just gives one the false illusion that reality has changed. Then when the numbness leaves and you come off of that high, you get slapped in the face again with an emotional pain that you can only overcome by popping another pill. And like any other addiction, you begin to need more pills more often to get the same effect.
A big issue is that painkillers are easy to get. My second experience with painkillers came about five years ago. I am not really known to take the best care of myself and after a few weeks of not sleeping, eating, or drinking properly, my back twisted itself for the first time. For a few days I couldn't walk because my back had literally twisted itself. I was taken to the hospital and given a prescription for a mild painkiller as well as a lot of Vicodin, a pretty popular painkiller. It is classified as a Schedule III drugs, potentially causing moderate or low physical dependence or a high psychological dependence if abused. As such, I was hesitant in getting it. Sensing my hesitation, the pharmacist encouraged me to get it, saying that even if I didn't use it all now I could enjoy using it later. That woman pretty much helped me cement my decision not to take it. I wonder how many people though started an addiction from her encouragement to take it.
Its not easy dealing with pain. The solution isn't looking for a quick, easy fix. Whether you turn towards pills or a different drug, the bottom of a bottle of alcohol, weed, cocaine, pornography, cigarettes, or even a sheesha pipe, that temporary fix you get is going to always be temporary. Complacency is a lot different from contentment.
Its also important for all of us to understand why one would look towards that temporary fix. People go through a lot of different kinds of tests. If we aren't in a situation that leads towards an addiction, the questions we need to ask ourselves are two-fold.
One, why would someone in fact use an outlet such as a pill?
Two, what role do we play in helping them overcome the addiction?
Our understanding of pain and how it functions has to broaden, and in turn the solutions that we provide to people going through pain have to broaden as well. What isn't helpful is being harsh or judgmental. Life is hard for some people and they will turn towards things that you may not turn towards to find ease. The person experiencing the pain will still need an outlet of some kind. Our regular recommendation is to encourage one towards prayer -- but even that needs to be supplemented with other supports. It can't be the only option provided. I might not find the same solace in praying as you do, and my process of overcoming addiction might necessitate different methods of support from you and others around me. I don't need to believe that I am on my own in overcoming it, so help me by not letting me feel alone. Help me understand that I can be better and encourage me towards reaching my potential best. Addictions can be broken and habits can be changed and we all can play a pivotal role in the process.