Personal Reflections on Stanton Peele’s “Why We’re Losing the War on Addiction”

I quit booze almost 7 years ago and, for a time, bought into the idea that I was a so-called “alcoholic” and would be for the rest of my life, that I “had” a “condition” called “addiction” that lived in my body somewhere– in my genes, in my brain, in my metabolism… (I now see the great irony in this, as during those early years in which I was saying “Hi, I’m Laura and I’m an alcoholic…” on a daily basis, I was simultaneously rejecting all the labels put upon me by psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers under the guise of “mental health care”– those absurd words like “Bipolar” and “Borderline” and “Eating disordered”, which had effectively imprisoned me in a barely-there, hopeless existence of “life-long mental illness requiring life-long treatment”…)

Stanton Peele’s ‘Why We’re Losing the War on Addiction’ is an important, thought-provoking article. If you’ve struggled with booze or coke or pot or binge-eating or food-restricting or sex or shopping or video games or gambling or whatever other escapes you feel entirely enslaved by, YOU ARE NOT BROKEN. You are not “sick”. You are not “diseased”. There is nothing “wrong with” you. This is not something you’ll “have” for the rest of your life. It’s about a relationship to something– a substance, an activity, a behavior– that perhaps began as something useful (providing a nice, quick escape? Relief? Respite? A sense of belonging? A sense of self-worth? Confidence? Purpose? Energy? Motivation? Acceptability?) but eventually grew into something else.

For me, booze started out as my anti-suicide strategy: get drunk each night so that you don’t have to face the fact that your pathetic so-called “seriously mentally ill” life has been reduced to pills, shrinks, locked wards, loneliness, alienation, loss of agency, and hopelessness. That everything you once may have had going for you is gone now, and all you are is “sick”. Booze worked for a while… Until it didn’t. Until my relationship to the bottle became just another prison unto itself.

For a time, I thought this meant I had a new “sickness”– “alcoholism”. Now, I see how indoctrinated I still was into the notion that suffering and struggle and self-destruction means there must be something “wrong with” you.

It doesn’t.

It’s really hard to be alive in this world– fucked up things happen to us, we lose meaning and purpose, we’re hurt and lonely and lost and in pain, our bodies feel strange around us, the institutions and systems surrounding us destroy our spirits and make no sense to us, we feel awkward and anxious and insecure, we yearn for all the unmet needs and desperately try to break free from those burdens and chains we wish we didn’t have on our shoulders, we feel stuck, inauthentic, trapped in a life that feels like a stranger’s…

What on earth does this possibly have to do with a “disease”? It’s called being a sensitive, feeling, thinking, being human in an often-times fucked-up world. We end up turning to escape– whatever that may be– because it helps us endure another day. It can keep us alive, at least for a time, until it doesn’t any more, and life begins to fall apart.

Don’t get me wrong– the experiences that get labeled as “addiction” are very real, very debilitating, very frustrating, and very overwhelming. They can lead to prison, psych wards, and even, sometimes, death. However, as long as we think of them as merely “symptoms” of an “illness” or “disease” requiring professional or medical intervention, we are nothing more than powerless prisoners of a reductionist and entirely absurd medicalized ideology of what it means to be human.
I let go of the “alcoholic” label after I realized I’d been running away into the bottle because I had a desperate urge for CHANGE from my miserable, “seriously mentally ill” life. It dawned on me that maybe I had all I needed within me to reclaim my life, my life’s meaning, my life’s purpose, my physical health, my ability to be connected to myself and to the world, and my POWER. My beautiful, human power I’d been separated from the moment I began to think of myself as “sick” and “broken” and “diseased”. I realized I had the POWER to choose to live my life with intention as best I could, to treat my body like a temple, to treat others with respect and dignity, to hold myself accountable for my actions.

The self-destruction that had poured out of me for so many years as I poured psychiatric drugs and eventually gallons upon gallons of booze down my throat was not the byproduct of faulty brain-wiring. Nor was it “my fault”. It was, simply put, my best attempt at surviving the meaningless and disconnection that had taken over my life. And when I began to reconnect, to find meaning, to feel “a part of” once again, to re-inhabit my body, to reconnect with my human spirit, to feel my soul ignite once again, free from psychiatric labels, gradually the label “alcoholic” began to make me cringe until I literally couldn’t say it any more. I realized, “I am human”, and I decided then and there that I was done running away from life, from my pain, from myself. And I was done boxing myself into labels of any kind to make sense of who I was and how I fit (or didn’t fit) into society.

I realized, my pain and struggle and darkness are nothing to be afraid of.

I realized that only in learning how to “be with” myself could I truly be free.

I still don’t drink today, but it’s not because I “have an addiction” or even because I’m afraid of booze. I choose not to drink because I have no interest in running away any more– in numbing myself, or in creating a synthetic sense of happiness that’s inevitably going to dissipate by morning. I was labeled “broken” for long enough. I was disconnected long enough by psychoactive chemicals– mostly in the form of so-called “psychiatric medications”, but in the bottle, too– that coursed through my bloodstream day in, day out. I only have one life to live, and I’m finally ready to be with it. To feel it all, to be enveloped by my darkness sometimes, to be overwhelmed by the light, to face fear, to be in pain. I don’t need to run away any more.


The Subtleties of Being

Turning an airport delay into an opportunity to feel my feet on the ground and my butt on the seat and the breath in my lungs and the beat of my heart as I write and reflect and sit and listen, over and over, to my friend Hannah Epperson‘s beautiful song ‘Story (Amelia)’ from her new and absolutely amazing album UPSWEEP… and feel.
Fuckin’ feel.
Feel: the tips of my fingers on the keys… The way the air caresses my forearms and cheeks every time fellow journeyers breeze by on their way to somewhere… The fatigue at the backs of my eyes from my early AM flight and not-enough sleep… The flutter of excitement as I think about where I’m going, not just in a few hours’ time but tomorrow and the next day and all the days to follow. Because I’m here… not simply in this encasing of skin, but in the world.
I savor these subtleties of being today, for they were once so lost to me I forgot they’d ever existed. That I ever existed. That I was a human being, built to feel and yearn and desire and believe and strive and hope and hold onto and thrive. What They stripped me down to, literally, were a series of slow, dying wheezes of breath and a barely-there heartbeat. They almost put me to sleep forever.
These subtleties of being are my most profound reminders of my aliveness today. Of where I’ve been and where I’m going. Of who and what and why I am. Of what it means to be– to simply be, deeper than anything possibly captured by the written or spoken word. Of what I never was, despite all the things They once tricked me into believing about myself.
I’m now closing my eyes and feeling this beautiful, haunting song and taking Hannah’s words and bringing them into my own internal expanse of selfscape. I am feeling overwhelmed by gratitude in the midst of a lot of pain. I am feeling my heart against my ribs and this fire in my gut, this sacred fire, this fire of spirit They nearly extinguished.
Man, this life thing. These feelings. Every day, at least once, I’ll feel the urge to pinch myself to see if this is all just a dream… To ask, “Is this real? Are these really my hands? Is this really my consciousness? Am I really here?”
I am. I fuckin’ am. And you are, too. We are, together.
“When the walls caved in and the light shone through
There were spaces in between the things you thought you knew…”
–Story (Amelia)

What might really be going on when you’re labeled “Mentally ill”?

If you (or someone you love) has been labeled “mentally ill”, odds are one or more of the following is true:

1. You aren’t getting what you need or are getting a hell of a lot of what you *don’t* need (be it emotional, physical, mental, social, environmental, sensory, spiritual, etc.).

2. Something big and painful has happened to you– or slowly, over time, a series of seemingly small “somethings” have accumulated to such a degree that you’ve crossed the tipping point.

3. ‘Boxes’, ‘labels’, ‘definition’, ‘rules’, ‘authority’, ‘convention’, ‘compliance’, and ‘normal’ are all words that make you cringe. You find yourself wanting to shout out “NO!” pretty much every day.

4. You are trapped in a life situation or circumstance that doesn’t feel authentic, meaningful, or purposeful to you, or aligned with who you really are.

5. You don’t know who you really are, and feel hopelessly lost.

6(a). You are awake to the reality of the current social, economic, and political order, but it seems like everyone else around you is fast asleep.

6(b). You see or feel unjust, corrupt, greedy power in seemingly every direction you turn, and don’t know how the hell you can possibly survive participating in it, or where else you could go.

7. You feel lonely, disconnected, or alienated from your fellows.

8. You feel– fuckin’ FEEL– the world and everything in it and it is so much, so big, so overwhelmingly, acutely raw all or much of the time that you don’t know what to do with the experience…

Far from signs of “sickness”, these are manifestations of being fully alive and in touch with oneself and with the state of the world.

It’s time we reclaim our pain and struggle and anger and alienation and fear and loss and despair, and transform the society we live in.

Who’s with me?

To My Fellow Ex-Mental Patients in the Aftermath of Psychiatrization: We Heal

I cried this morning as I thought about the depth of the violations we face as mental patients, especially those of us who were psychiatrized as children and teens. To have psychoactive chemicals coursing through our veins every minute of every day through our most formative years… The years when we’re meant to be figuring out who we are, what our bodies mean and how they work, what we believe in, who and what we’re drawn to, what drives us, what matters… There are no words to describe what this means, what this really means, for not just us in our own individual lives, but for American society. For the entire world. No words.
But let me now say this: though the despair swept over me this morning and I cried for a while, it wasn’t long for the deep faith that churns at the very core of my being to reemerge. For while they may have taken our bodies, our minds, our sexuality, our creativity, our passion and our sense of connection to self and world through our years of psychiatrization– our entire identities, enslaved to them– they never, no matter how hard they may have tried, came close to touching the fire of human spirit that burns in each and every one of us, and it is this– this fire of second chances, of awakening, of perseverance and determination– that fuels the process of healing and reclamation that we are all going through as ex-mental patients, together.
We have many grave doctor-induced physiological injuries to heal from: our guts are shot, our cognition sputtering, our muscles aching and our bodies stuck in fight or flight; the overwhelm and fatigue and terror and angst and panic and despair and numbness and paranoia; all those terrifying moments of feeling possessed or occupied by thoughts and sensations that are strangers to us… There’s no doubt about it: our central nervous systems, these intricate beautiful biologies that forge the seats of our souls, have been gravely harmed by the pharmaceutical bomb of so-called “care”. But we. Will. Heal. We are, already, healing. We will keep healing, until we feel fully settled into the potential for life that they took from us for all those years, but were far too weak to forever hold onto.
I have healed so much, already, nearly six years off. Every day I am blown away by this fact– by the continuous unfoldings of awakening that make themselves known to me day in, day out. I am transformed, and transforming, continuously. I feel powerful, and awake.  Sensitized so acutely to life that it sears me with pain as it fills me with joy.  And the more I wake up, the more it hurts.  I despair, every day, at the fact of what happened to me and to so many of you. What’s happening, as I write these words, to so many millions of our fellows out there.
There’s more healing for my body to do — plenty more, I know, though this is now an exciting instead of daunting fact to think about — and though the dark cloud of pain and despair often moves through me, I always find myself afterwards, on the other side, sitting once again in the bright beautiful awareness that I am coming alive– that we, together, are coming alive, more and more every day. Our bodies are regenerating themselves, right down to every last cell.
To my comrades out there– today, I think especially of those of you who lost your childhood and adolescence to the Mental Health Industry– hang on. Let those clouds of despair and fear sweep over you and move through. Know that that bright beautiful awareness of aliveness is waiting patiently within you, and will emerge in due course, whether five minutes or further down the road of time. Together, we are reclaiming our bodies, our minds, and our lives. And together, we are building a future in which growing up and being alive in this world is no longer something to modify or “treat”.  A future in which we no longer turn to professionals and pill bottles to navigate our pain, but instead, to each other. We’ve started, already.
Sun and Life, Frida Kahlo.

Sun and Life, Frida Kahlo (1947).