The world can be a harrowing place. Every day we read about hundreds of Iraqis and U.S. troops being blown up and killed. We have witnessed New Orleans, an important and beautiful city, get swept away by a hurricane and then neglected by an ineffective administration. We see increasing damage from global warming and realize that our children's generation is in for serious trouble. It gets harder and harder for people to balance the multiple challenges of work, family and health -- not to mention the fate of the planet.
It is sometimes hard to take in and fully absorb all the world's harsh realities. This is why so many of us try to tune out or numb the pain by doing things that may not be healthy for us: excessive shopping, zoning out in front of the TV, overeating, recreational drug-taking. Most of us end up using one of these strategies as a crutch to get through the day (or night).
Every day we receive thousands of messages to buy stuff we don't really need. We are bombarded with commercial advertising, product placements in TV shows, and our president encouraging us to go shopping as an appropriate response to September 11th. Many people are hooked on shopping. There is an incredible debt crisis going on with the majority of American families living in debt. It is clear that shopping can be both addictive and harmful.
We watch too much TV. The average family spends more time watching TV than they do interacting with each other. I am also someone who winds down the day with a good chunk of TV before bed. Too many Americans are tuning out the pain in the world by watching hours of mindless TV. Thus TV becomes part of a sedentary lifestyle and another unhealthy addiction.
Food and eating also bring people joy and pain. Many people fill an emotional hole or dull their sadness by eating. Many are constantly struggling with their weight, going on and off different diets. The majority of dieters end up breaking their diets and even going on binges. Like shopping and TV, food consumption has become an addictive behavior for many Americans.
Drugs are the most demonized form of addiction. People use drugs to produce joy and dilute pain. Different people have different relationships to different drugs. Some can handle a few cigarettes or drinks a week and others cannot. Some people have healthy relationships with drinking and smoking and can enjoy it, others fall into patterns of addictive behavior. For some people, abstinence is the answer; for others, it is about reducing the harms associated with their behavior. They may give up alcohol and cigarettes, but continue to smoke marijuana because they can handle it better.
Less Judgment and More Compassion
The major difference between substance abuse and other addictions that afflict us is that our legal system treats people with drug addictions as criminals who deserve incarceration. Why does it make any more sense to lock up someone with a drug problem than it would to lock up someone with an unhealthy eating disorder?
It is a nice fantasy to imagine a world where people never engaged in unhealthy behavior. We should all strive to improve ourselves by living a more balanced and thoughtful life. We all know that exercise and clean living is a more positive lifestyle than relying on chemical crutches that compromise us mentally and harm us physically. But let's not be so quick to dish out judgment and punishment thinking that this will be an effective way to get people to improve themselves. We need compassion and support, not jail cells and humiliation when we act to help others overcome their personal struggles and demons.
Tony Newman is the communications director at the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org)