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 meaninglessness 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.