By Lovely Rita
I was inspired to write about smoking and addiction after reading last issue’s article that questioned whether we should have smoking spots on campus. I wanted to share a little of a smoker’s perspective. I’m hoping not for more people to smoke here, but to share that addictive behavior is a normal and human response to living in an isolating, stressful environment full of social and economic pressure.
Almost everyone I talk to about it can name some addiction in their life. Some forms are more socially acceptable than others. For example overusing tobacco, caffeine, and alcohol is generally more acceptable than burning or cutting oneself, or binge eating.
If you have ADHD, depression, PTSD, anxiety or trauma in your family history, you likely have a dopamine and/or serotonin deficiency. These are the delicious molecules the body makes on its own that are meant to reinforce behaviors that are beneficial for survival and reproduction. They also help with cognition, learning, motivation and memory. What nicotine does is fill the dopamine void. Substances, when used addictively, generally fill some neurochemical void. What addicted people are doing is escaping things we literally can’t deal with right now. That’s what addiction is about.
We all experience unmanageable levels of stress at some point in our lives, and we all cope with it differently. People learn how to cope with stress from the moment they are born by observing
their parents or guardians. If someone grows up with healthy role models in regards to dealing with stress, they’ve got a much better shot at developing healthy coping skills than someone who grows up with role models who deal with stress in unhealthy ways. If we learned unhealthy ways to alleviate stress, and especially if we have histories of abuse or neglect, we’ll have to use unhealthy ways to cope as adults — we have no choice.
One lie we’re told in this society is that we are 100 percent individuals, that we can exist in a vacuum. That we can be self-made, totally independent. But we are made of each other. Our mirror neurons trigger empathy towards those around us. We pick up nervous tics and vocal fluctuations from those we’re closest to. We evolved to become pack animals, with a marvelous capacity for complex collaborations to help us survive. If one of us is addicted, it is due to the failing of community.
As my mom or maybe your eighth-grade health teacher would say, people don’t just wake up one day and go, “gee, I think I’ll try heroin today.” There’s a hole, caused by overwhelming stress and pain, that demands to be filled.
Of course, it would be better to use healthier methods to escape and relieve stress. Dancing, yelling, taking a hot and cold shower, moshing, watching cartoons, hanging out with people, taking a maul to an old chair and reaching out to literally anyone for support are some of the countless non-harmful ways to cope. But we live in a society that makes money off our addictions and pain, and without much accessible education on managing our emotions, it’s generally easier to turn to the substances being sold to us en masse.
If we can understand the large-scale causes of addiction, we can begin to change the way we think about and act toward addicted people. Instead of demonizing addicts, we can think about what social and economic conditions might have caused a void that big, especially for opioid users, who are at even greater risk because of these drugs’ potency. Maine makes the top-10 list for deaths caused by opioid overdose, which is a total bummer.
This is a very complex topic, and I have made some big generalizations here. This is based on my lived experience. Every single person’s circumstances are unique, and factors of identity need to be taken into account. How this culture reacts to someone’s skin color, gender, religion, class, body type, and general appearance can also have a huge effect on how easy or hard it is to get help for mental and physical health problems.
For a great tool on visualizing the relationship between social environment and addiction, check out the Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell video titled “Addiction” on Youtube. Also worth looking at is “For All We Care,” a zine by Crimethinc that can also be found online.
Please get in touch if you want to talk more about mental health and addiction, or to collaborate on art or writings related to the topic. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.