American History From An Addiction Perspective…

The other night I realized that many of Trump supporters … and whole other sections of our society — are acting like addicts. They seek something that will kill them and they know it, but they go there anyway. Those of us not in that addictive phase, or without that gene or whatever, don’t understand the apparent suicides. This is becoming more and more apparent at this moment in history, and it might be worth taking a look at it.

Years ago, I worked at a detox unit outside of Boston where the majority of clients were dealing with a heroin problem. Relatively fresh from grad school, I had a book knowledge of the addiction and recovery process. Having worked in a church with three AA groups meeting daily, I witnessed the recovery process often, including getting addicted, but not really what being addicted was like.

At the detox, that changed when my boss told me to ask the clients about their experience. I did and heard much, but the thing that struck the most was a woman who said, “You don’t get it. If we’re watching the evening news and they say, ‘the new deadly drug being sold has, let’s say, a skull on crossbones on the bag‘ , you think you should avoid that stuff. It’s deadly. I and all the addicts I know think, ‘That’s the good stuff!’ . Those other people are wimps who can’t handle it. We go out looking for it.”. At that moment, I understood how “out there” they could be and how I could misunderstand it so much.

For those clients, in active addiction, good is bad and bad is good. Death feels like life, and normal, boring life feels like death. Systems therapist Virginia Satir says, “once you understand the premise, everything makes sense”. So let’s start there and bring it to our situation.

That story brings me to the Trump rally in Michigan yesterday, the Republican Party under Trump, anti-vaxxers and Q Anon, and addiction in general. Trump’s supporters believe that good is bad, and bad is good. When Trump supporters, or Q Anon people, or whoever start, they hold rigid beliefs that deny their own experience. Russell Brand, a well-known (recovering) addict says that addiction isn’t about the drug or sex or whatever. It’s about trauma. In my time working with addicts, I have yet to meet an addict without a trauma history. Sometimes that’s before they started using, sometimes it’s a trauma like a friend dying while they used, but there is trauma involved somewhere. Does this mean that trauma causes addiction? No, but it certainly hastens or deepens any addiction one might have.

So, backing up to history, people who know right from wrong, and know what they see and hear, come to believe the opposite of that. That takes a lot of work, and a lot of denial about how bad or troubling an experience is. Satir says that nearly all dysfunction comes from shame.

Let’s say, person A did something to person B that they know is wrong, and they feel ashamed of the pain they know they have caused. A healthy individual might apologize and try to fix things… unless th thing they did is so awful that they can’t imagine that it can be fixed. Sometimes, with abusive parents, every error is that big. Sometimes, the person has actually done something so bad that to hurt someone else, that coping with it required denial, and a lot of it.

If we combine the two, we get a child who has hurt another person, and feels bad about it, and their parent yells at them, tells them that they are bad, because they didn’t hurt the other person enough. Donald Trump not only says that people don’t need masks, he says you’re wimpy, or bad if you want to wear one. The listeners are stuck between what they know about the virus and its effects, what they have done to others, and the information that they’re bad for feeling bad. Denial/ doubling down is an easier escape route from their shame than facing it, and so the psychosis begins.

On a larger societal scale, what is racism or sexism or homophobia but abusing people while knowing that abuse is wrong? All of those old children’s stories of two children who grow up together and one is the dominant group and the other isn’t, so they have a falling out — what if those stories happen more often than we know? What if White Billy and Black Billy grow up as friend, and had a falling out while their parents said, their friendship wasn’t “proper” anyway, and should have happened anyway — that they were stupid for trying, or trusting, the other person because that’s just how “they” are? Soldiers who have been forced to do horrible things in war speak of moral injury. All of the -isms involve moral injury. When we treat humans as non-humans, and feel we have to because it would be wrong to do otherwise, we morally injure ourselves while we demonize the other.

This is consistent with any number of religious teachers, including Jesus, Mohammed, Gandhi, and in America, Martin Luther King, but I’m psychology we can see it as well.

It is often said that children aren’t born hating. They are taught to hate. What if that process of changing from “open to the possibilities of others” to “hurting them due to some biological reason” — skin color, gender, national origin, sexuality , or whatever causes moral injury and shame to the person taught to hate? What if the act of hurting a person we know — and being told that is the right thing — is the cause of an addiction to hate, because it causes shame that can’t be removed under those conditions.

Regarding recovery from addiction, the key to recovery is complete honesty, facing the acts that were done under the spell of the addiction, and coping with them, then living honestly for the rest of one’s life. If there is an addiction to hate, or ignorance, or fear, we must break it in order to be free. All of the acts of genocide or individual violence in our history have led us to this time. As victims acknowledge their own hurt and call for justice, and average people witness extreme violence against others for no particular reason, our society feels shame or guilt. Those who can acknowledge their own issues in it (and many people have not had personal conflicts with “the other”, so only feel sadness or guilt) can be be free by working the issues through in this time of reckoning. Those who cannot, or will not, will remain addicted and getting sicker and more challenging as time goes by.

May we all find the freedom that honesty provides.

Resisting with Peace,

John

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