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Locke Rush Headshot

The U.S. As Addict

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I have worked in the addiction field for over 30 years and at one time owned and ran a successful Chemical Dependency Clinic. Over time I have come to know hundreds of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts and have seen a familiar plot unfold in each of their lives. The story usually starts out with the alcoholic as someone doing very well in his/her chosen field. As the chemical dependency strengthens, the alcoholic begins to make mistakes which, in time become more frequent and the downward slide accelerates until the alcoholic ends up losing everything he has gained, even family and home -- remember Wilbur Mills (past Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee). It is a sad unfolding and bittersweet in that one can see clearly the reason for the downward spiral, yet at the same time, is powerless to stop it. There is a saying familiar to those who are in recovery: "Our addiction will kill us unless treated." Or as a physician friend once told me, "Alcoholism, untreated, is more terminal than cancer."

Only a few decades ago, the U.S. was King. We were the best at everything. Academically we were number one, over every other nation. We were admired and respected as the flag-bearer of a free and democratic nation. All countries sought to emulate our success in medicine, education, politics, capitalism, and our role as peacekeeper of the world.

And today, a very different picture has emerged. In arguably, the most important area, academics, we have fallen from grace. Dozens of other poorer countries are now our superiors. Our highly touted healthcare system is the most expensive in the world, yet our cancer and obesity (64 percent) rates are climbing ever upwards. Once admired as the world's peacekeeper, we are now seen by many as an aggressive military power starting wars as it suits us. Our infrastructure is in a perilous state of disrepair and getting worse by the hour. Our prisons are crowded beyond capacity. Our hunger for drugs fuels the drug cartels of South America and Afghanistan. Perhaps the most vivid example of our downward spiral is the gun violence that proliferates in our country. Over a million people have been killed by gun violence since Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. Over 100,000 shootings occur each year. Something terrible is happening.

What has gone wrong?

My ancestor, Dr. Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, Surgeon General to George Washington and named the father of American Psychiatry, wrote in the late 1700s, "Freedom without virtue is meaningless." By virtue I believe he meant what is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as strength, courage, moral excellence and doing what is right.

Back to the the alcoholic: A young patient of mine was a 20-year-old student whose addiction was so severe that each time he picked up a drink it could well have been his last. He always drank with a vengeance and had almost killed himself twice. After treatment, he was doing very well, had a full year of sobriety, and attended A.A. meetings daily. He lived in the country and one day had an uncontrollable urge to drink. He walked down the hill to the bus stop where the noon bus (always on time) would take him to a bar two miles down the road. He waited but the bus was late and suddenly he heard clearly a voice speaking in his ear which said, "Patrick, you have to do what is right not what you want." He was shocked and frightened because there was no one within sight. He ran back up the hill to his house, and the bus came and left. Years later, as a college professor, happily married with three children, he told me that had this not happened, he would probably be in prison or dead.

This true story has always touched me not only for its mystical side but for its moral lesson. Patrick gave up what he wanted and what his mind told him he needed and chose what was right -- a difficult choice, and for him, a wise one that changed his life. In this country, in a government fueled by fear and greed, the addiction is to power, to maintaining control at all costs. Special interests and lobbyists have allowed their particular wants to blanket sanity and actions that would benefit the poor, sick, and less fortunate. Individual representatives have relied on special interest money to influence their votes. It is often referred to as expedient, but expediency is increasingly proving to be the deadly enemy of virtue. It is said in addiction circles that alcoholism (addiction) is the only illness that tells you you don't have one. The same can well be said for the addiction to power.

I remember as a child during World War II, each family was limited to a few gallons of gas each week. No one complained as it was the least we could do to support our troops abroad. There was this amazing feeling of unity and pulling together for a common goal. We sacrificed willingly to help those who needed. Yet today, this feeling is sadly lacking. Many have come to see their own individual needs as more important than the common good and call anything different... "socialism." Paul Krugman put it succintly in a recent column when he said called it "an ideology in which the suffering of the unfortunate isn't a proper concern of government, and alleviating that suffering at taxpayer expense is immoral, never mind how little it costs."

On his deathbed, Dr. Benjamin Rush raised up and said to his son, Richard, "Be indulgent to the poor." He then lay back and died.

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