Why Former Addicts Dread Addiction Memoirs

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 9:33 PM EDT

Below is a guest blog entry by MoJo author Maia Szalavitz:

I'm starting to dread reading about addiction. One would imagine that coming up on the 20th anniversary of my own decision to stop using cocaine and heroin that I would either be utterly bored by it or alternatively, entranced with a subject that touches on free will, morality, neuroscience, sociology, psychology and endless politics.

Typically, I engage in the latter obsessions—but when I read media portrayals of addiction like Sunday's front-page New York Times magazine excerpt of the its columnist David Carr's addiction memoir, I cringe.

It's not that I don't have sympathy and compassion for people who struggle with this disorder—how could I not? It's not that I don't recognize that other people will have different perspectives from my own. My problem is that virtually every addiction memoir—whilst strenuously arguing otherwise or, as in this case, self-consciously highlighting the clichés—tells the same story.

Meanwhile, other equally true stories of addiction go untold. And worse, these untold stories actually represent the majority of cases, according to the research data. For example, a large proportion of people who recover from opoid addiction do it using methadone—not abstinence. Ever read a methadone memoir? And most people who quit cocaine addiction do it without treatment or even self-help groups. Ever read that one?

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Our failure to recognize these alternate stories means that we continuously repeat the same mistakes in policy and treatment. Then we go on congratulating ourselves for our understanding of addiction, believing we already have the answers!

Carr's story of 80's excess with cocaine dealing and using is unusual in the sense that he admits that he neglected his infant twins and beat his wife—your typical addict memoir leaves out or plays down the damage done to kids.

But, and here's where my dander goes up, Carr doesn't seem to realize that cutely admitting he messed up and "doesn't deserve" the good life he has now isn't enough to explain—let alone excuse—what he did.

Perhaps in the book he tells the story of how he came to be so uncaring and far gone as to leave his children in a car for hours the winter while smoking crack or shooting up. Perhaps there, he further examines his privileged position. And perhaps there he recognizes that a model of addiction that sees addiction as simple immoral behavior doesn't capture its essence.

In the article, however, his immorality is described as a simple consequence of addiction. The drugs made me do it, Officer. End of story.

Well, no. There are actually many addicts—and many more people who use drugs, even hard drugs like crack—who don't abuse or neglect their children. Or, who don't have kids because they know they can't care for them when high. In 20 years of studying and writing about addiction, what I've found is that drugs and even addictions don't create bad behavior all by themselves.

Yes, addiction can cause extreme stress on one's moral system, like any other hunger. When that ethical system has been attacked earlier by trauma, abuse, or neglect, that's typically when it fails—not just when someone takes a lot of drugs. Drugs alone aren't enough.

Under such stress, indeed, some people are willing to steal, kill or yes, neglect children to get what they want—but many others aren't. What should interest us is who does and who doesn't—and why, not the archaic story of drugs taking another guy—even a Times writer—down.

These distinctions are important because if addicts are simply immoral scum driven by evil substances that promote bad behavior, we already have appropriate drug policy. If, as Carr writes, what he deserved was "hepatitis C, federal prison time, HIV, a cold park bench and an early, addled death," we're already doing what we should be.

Lock 'em up, stigmatize 'em and sure, go on and refuse to provide enough clean needles and compassionate treatment to avoid such outcomes—that's what those halfwits deserve. They asked for it—they're all people who abuse and neglect children and commit all of the worst crimes.

When someone tells an unanalyzed story like this, which seems to almost justify child neglect because it ultimately got the addict clean, it simply reinforces that limited and misguided perspective.

Carr leaves out the most important things: the motivations, the history, the psychology, the brain chemistry and the racial and socioeconomic factors that meant that he didn't go to prison for 15 years (as he would have done under New York's Rockefeller laws for selling the amounts of cocaine he admitted selling) or contract HIV or hepatitis. He leaves unmentioned the critical factors that meant he could get a good job afterwards, when so many others cycle in and out of prison for doing exactly the same things.

Does anyone think a black man would have avoided a lengthy prison term in his circumstances, selling multiple ounces of cocaine? Do we think young black twins whose mother was drug-positive would even have been allowed to go home with her? Would either mom or dad ever have ever gotten those babies back?

If you are going to investigate your own story of addiction, perhaps you should interview not just people from your past, but academic treatment experts, sociologists, drug policy analysts, neuroscientists, psychiatrists and those who've actually looked at our bizarre way of dealing with this problem beyond anecdotes, community-based treatment and self-help groups. Reporting isn't just talking to people who were there—it's talking to people who have studied the subject and getting outside your own limited perspective.

I haven't read the book yet—perhaps it, unlike the article, contains this broader view. It's really hard to write outside your area of expertise—and the addictions field is filled with people who repeat discredited ideas as truths—so it's especially difficult to get past that if your only knowledge of addiction comes from the method by which you recovered.

I understand Carr wrote the book to pay for his daughters' college education, which is certainly admirable. But without going deeper, this excerpt serves as just another entertainment piece to titillate readers—and it reinforces myths that underlie our failed drug policy.

—Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz is the author of "Help At Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids," and Senior Fellow at stats.org.

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