Addiction: a Witchcraft Myth of Modernity?
© William Pryor, 2006

Dr. John Stith Pemberton, a medical herbalist, died in Atlanta, Georgia in 1888, aged 56, from what would later have been called morphine addiction. He was beginning to make money with his Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, which he copied from Vin Mariani, a blend of Bordeaux and coca. The latter’s Corsican inventor, Angelo Mariani, made great use of celebrity testimonials to advertise his product, citing Thomas Edison, Émile Zola, Queen Victoria and no fewer than three Popes.

Dr Pemberton’s rip-off was marketed to middle-class intellectuals in an Atlanta traumatised by being on the losing side of the civil war. In an interview with the Atlanta Journal, Pemberton claimed the drink would benefit “scientists, scholars, poets, divines, lawyers, physicians, and others devoted to extreme mental exertion”. Among the many conditions he suggested it would help was, ironically, the very condition that would soon kill him, morphine dependency.

Addiction is a construct of modernity, one that knows no boundaries of class, circumstance or intellect, a mythic construct that seems to explain what is nigh on inexplicable, our strange response to the pain of being human. Not that people weren’t doing addict-like things before the industrial revolution, they just didn’t get into such a moral song and dance about it.

Some statistics.
Two million people are now locked up in the world’s jails on drugs offences. About fifty percent of all prison populations are heroin and cocaine users. In the UK at least £2 billion worth of goods are stolen annually to buy illegal drugs. There were half a million ‘problem users’ of class A drugs in 2003 – up from 1,500 in 1963. There are now some 30,000 professionals whose work focuses solely on drug and alcohol misuse, teaching their fellow human beings how to live!

Equivalent statistics from 1852 caused nothing like the moral panic we experience with today’s numbers, but then the zeitgeist was different. On March 8th of that year the Times reported: “From the annual accounts relating to trade and navigation… it appears that the quantity of opium entered for home consumption in 1850 amounted to 42,324 lb.” That’s 22,867 kg of opium consumed in British homes in 1850 — nearly all in ‘medicinal compounds’. If the 3,929 kg of heroin seized in 2001 represents, say, 10% of the actual weight consumed, then maybe, despite its dramatic move from medicinal compounds to street drug, opiate consumption hasn’t changed that much in volume, especially when you take the growth in the size of the population into account.

By comparison, in the UK in 2003 there were 114,000 deaths from tobacco smoking, 30,000 from alcohol misuse and 1,800 from all illicit drugs put together. There are now 3 million people dependant on alcohol (compared to 1.6 million dependent on illegal drugs). As they say in California: it’s a zoo out there!

Until well into the 20th century, all psychotropic substances were legal in the UK, whereas, in modern times, the £300 billion spent on street drugs around the world every year becomes one of the biggest drivers of crime, corruption, abuse of power and even terrorism simply because those drugs are illegal. For instance: opium is Afghanistan’s only visible export, filling 87% of world demand, mostly consumed by western economies. And the resurgent Taliban is now one of its major producers, after having cracked down heavily on its production when in power. Now driven into the margins by NATO, they have made alliances of convenience with opium warlords. The War on Drugs meets the War on Terrorism in a mythic alliance.

The Purpose of Myth
And the underlying reason people spend that £300 billion? They are slaves of the myth we give the name ‘dependency’ or ‘addiction’. I use the term advisedly. Levi-Strauss wrote: The purpose of myth is to provide a logical model capable of overcoming a contradiction (an impossible achievement if, as it happens, the contradiction is real). This sense of ‘myth’ is of a chimera of the mind that controls our understanding of every aspect of the compulsive use of mood-changers and their supply. Joseph Campbell made it more poetic: myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.

The contradiction behind the myth is this: addiction is both real and not real. No one can deny the reality of a full-blown junkie or alcoholic in hot pursuit of his next fix or drink — his need is a palpable and frightening force. But addiction is also unreal: many addicts just stop, with no intervention, no treatment (Miles Davis and John Coltrane both got off heroin by shutting themselves in quiet rooms in the country for a couple of weeks). Such addicts get through the body’s ‘withdrawal symptoms’ and emerge the other side, transformed and able to take up their lives and improvisations with a new clarity.
We take mood-altering substances to “treat” the human condition, the pain of being. This “treatment” releases a self-narrative with which we feel more comfortable, one that seems to prise us free from the vice-like grip of the tragedies of disappointment, frustration and unhappiness that would otherwise define us. Like all good myths, we mistake them for reality.

The myth segues into one of addiction when we want more and more of the ersatz liberation our psychosomatic stories seem to offer. As the lyrics of one of Bob Dylan’s songs on his new album, Modern Times, has it: I’m trying to get as far away from myself as I can. It’s the very self and its pain that are the inexplicable that require explanation. The myths of addiction and treatment that we tell ourselves not only give us identities, but seem to allow us to understand ourselves.

It’s all very well me adopting an outsider, myth-busting position with regard to an industry that deals with the outsiders that are addicts, but myths make their own pressing demands to be seen as reality, to be treated. The junkie that’s just mugged you to feed his habit is no myth, but a real person in the power of a myth; we’ve got to do something about him. We, society – liberal, caring, compassionate people that we are – have to respond. Maybe this imperative to respond is also part of the myth? He’s telling himself and us an elaborate and scary story about his suffering, his misery. As long as he tells it in the way we need to hear it, we respond with our compassionate and overly bureaucratic treatment stories.

Something More Comfortable
As an outsider to the treatment industry I am struck by how much energy is expended on trying to get clients to slip into something more comfortable, a ready-made story, rather than letting them find their own more authentic accounts of their unhappiness. As endless acronyms threaten to drown the humanitarian impulses of drugs workers, their compassion is corralled into the measurable bureaucratic outcomes with which adherence to such myths ends up.

One target that has been imposed on the service provider whose board I’ve just joined is to attend a certain number of referrals in a particular police station. This has the Kafkaesque result that they fail to meet their key indicators if there aren’t enough suitable arrests. I only just held back the suggestion that they send a worker out to urge more clients to get arrested, so they would get treatment and their indicators would be properly indicated.

The government says to itself that it needs to know, us voters need to know, how successful they’re being in treating addicts. But what on earth is this success, how can it be measured? How can we tell when an addict is no longer an addict? Is it when they stop being criminals, when they’ve had treatment, when they are abstinent, when they are on a script or all of the above?

The only answer to such questions that the medical, legal and social work establishments can give is a codifying and bureaucratisation of misery. Government has realised there is a connection between the taking of illegal drugs and law breaking. Not that the very illegality of the drugs might be the problem, but that, somehow, breaking the law has become a symptom of addiction, and as such, it can provide a useful measure of the treatment industry’s success. The more offenders that can be managed at the moment when officialdom first comes across them – on arrest in police stations – the more addicts government can boast of treating.

The Bureaucratisation of Agony
Since alcohol is legal, ruining your life with booze rarely qualifies for the NHS or NTA help given for drug addiction, even though liquor kills thousands more than do all illegal drugs put together. In that police station, my service provider’s outreach workers suggest to offenders, with a nod and wink, that their alcohol problem is really a drug problem, then, with story adjusted, they can get some caring attention.

As an ex-addict outsider, perplexed by this bureaucratisation of agony, I am in a quandary with regard to addiction and its treatment. On the one hand the whole thing – addiction, treatment and their explanations – is a huge catacomb of interweaving stories, a bucket of wriggling worm-myths, hopelessly intertwined.

The only way to move on is to move on, to find new and different stories to tell ourselves, stories free of dependence on the medical, social work and criminal justice professions and their dependence on a steady supply of addict-victims. On the other hand we’ve been living with these mythic dependencies for over 150 years now, they are so ingrained in the way people express their alienation, grief, anger, isolation, frustration and world-weariness, that addiction has crystallised into a bureaucratic reality with which we are forced to deal.

And for all those for whom getting straight is a much bigger battle, addiction is still not what it seems. The myth of addiction emerges from the cracks between its physiology and it being a cover story for a host of other, largely unrealised, social, cultural and psychological dissatisfactions and vexations. Addiction is more than a metaphor for the UNspeakable UNhappiness it masks. It is an expression of the difficulty of being fully human in a world of modernity, a desert with no lasting oases of happiness.

Though the seeming reality of addiction is the result of the body’s undeniable physiological response to being given repeated doses of toxic chemicals (its dependency on the substance and subsequent withdrawal symptoms from it), 12-step proponents of the illness model of addiction say there is more. They say this mysterious sickness will be with you for the rest of your life, long after you have stopped using. They must mean it is an illness of the self, not unlike sin.

A Public Nightmare
The myth of addiction is actually a public nightmare not a dream, a nightmare in which we try to fight off an invasion of body-snatching devils. Our secular society of separate selves needs to be able to see evil, so it can be cast out. Addiction takes on the form of the weak, and therefore evil, self who cannot cope with being a modern human. This is why pushers are second only to paedophiles in the demonisation stakes — they spread the disease by turning ordinary decent citizens into weak and evil junkies. The modern self understands itself at the end of the pusher’s syringe – let it penetrate and you have the illness, the sin of weakness, resist and you are a hero citizen. A defining moment!

An addict’s private myth is a dream that he will one day be able to revisit that first high when he soared way above his cramped, unrealised self into the stratosphere of mania and omniscience, a dream of Eden that can never be realised.

Back to Atlanta: in 1885 the good citizens of the city adopted strict temperance legislation forcing Dr Pemberton to find a way of taking the alcohol out of his tonic. After much experimentation he concocted a syrup made from coca leaves, kola nut (chewed in many West African cultures for its high caffeine content) and damiana (a mild psychoactive South American herb used to treat coughs, constipation and depression). The syrup was taken mixed with soda water. He called it Coca Cola.

It is the lens of hindsight that gives this story its frisson, that makes these Victorians look like money-grubbing hypocrites. But they weren’t — well, no more than we are today. The population as a whole held psychotropic substance use in a rather different way from the febrile and contradictory attitudes we hold today, despite a few well-chronicled exceptions like that of laudanum-crazed Coleridge. In the late 19th century the only mind-altering substance to be illegal, and that in small pockets, was alcohol. The most-used medicines were opium and its derivative morphine. Opium bought from the corner shop was often cheaper than gin and had become the preferred escape route from the miseries of the new industrial cities of Britain.

A Population of Criminals
Today twenty-five per cent of the adult UK population (50% of under-29-year-olds) are criminals because they take illegal drugs. Here is another contradiction the myth seeks to explain – half of all young people in the UK break the law to be normal! The beginnings of this moral dissonance can be traced back to the 19th century. Despite visiting an opium-smoking house in the 1860’s and his self-medication with the drug during his tour of America in the 1870’s, Dickens, with just a tinge of racism, was one of the first to demonise East End Chinese opium dens, most notably in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Such moral posturing would culminate in the first legislation against narcotics in the second decade of the 20th century, also driven, in part, by racist notions of needing to protect decent citizens from Chinese, Mexican and other well known users of drugs.

But remember: several Popes endorsed Vin Mariani, Pemberton felt the target market for his concoction of coca and cola included poets and divines, and the Empress of India herself was known to take hashish to help with her menstrual cramps. Indeed, use of the word drug to mean narcotic or opiate probably begins just when a radical cultural, moral and demographic change in attitudes towards – and therefore the practice of – ingesting psychoactive substances for pleasure began.

Thomas de Quincey started another strand of the myth, the romantic junky hero, prepared to risk everything in pursuit of some arcane, mysterious inner paradise, a strand spun further by the beats like Burroughs and Trocchi (and indeed myself). But this strand has been impotent to even dent the huge negativity of the addict and addiction myths. They are too useful as they are. To give it shape, the unhappiness that plagues our families and society needs such mythic tales. It’s not that addiction is untrue, but that it is something else.

One Response to “Addiction: a Witchcraft Myth of Modernity?”

  1. oldude59 Says:

    I host a Blog Talk show that I’d like you invite you to a conversation on addiction. Your insights toward addiction could lead to an interesting conversation.

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