Friday Takeaway: Vertigo

  • Bill Dwight poses in front of the Pie Bar sign outside of the bar itself on Thursday August, 10, 2017.

Friday, June 01, 2018

The desire to alter our consciousness is embedded in almost all of us, I think. When we were kids, we would spin around until we were transported from the world we managed to a condition of disassociation. Losing control, we would get dizzy and giggle. And when the effects wore off, we’d do it again. It was a thrill. 

We do similar things now that we are older, only induced for a price (usually), at amusement parks, bars, celebrations, gatherings of all sorts and even in solitude. There are other forms of what we aptly refer to as “escape,” to be sure. Some of those modes are destructive, and some, like meditation or exercise, come with benefits, not problems. But culturally, we have an almost arbitrary standard of how we accept or reject the multitude of consciousness distortions available to us. Some of our most wealthy enterprises profit from these innate urges: pharmaceutical companies, the film industry, drug cartels, social media systems, pornography, etc. They all rely on our insatiable desire for stimulus and relief from the banality of our lives.

Mixed messages directed at this tendency in us bombard us throughout our lives. Television advertisements are almost exclusively devoted to exploiting this need hardwired in our reptilian brains. Drinking is equated with fun, camaraderie and/or sophistication. Getting drunk invites disdain. Being a drunk is considered shameful and contemptible. If you just feel out of sorts, there’s a product for that, too. It may have some nasty side-effects, but what the hell.

Smoking is another example. There was a time, not all that long ago, when being a non-smoker was to be the outlier. Planes had ashtrays in every armrest, and for those health nuts who chose not to imbibe, there were two rows in the back near the restrooms that were reserved for them (because, apparently, smoke couldn’t venture past a “No Smoking” sign). Tobacco is powerfully addictive, and it kills around 500,000 people annually. But back in the day, it was not only culturally accepted, it was promoted and encouraged. As our attitudes shifted about smoking (inspired by science, data and law) we actually dealt with the millions of folks afflicted with this physical dependency in relatively humane and encouraging ways. Some smokers would rightfully argue that being relegated to outdoor smoking areas in the dead of winter or being treated as pariahs at parties was hardly the best treatment. But compare that to the way we deal with heroin users, and maybe you can appreciate the distinction.

Right now, we here in the Northeast are struggling to cope with what’s been dubbed “the opioid crisis.” A decade ago, crack was the scourge. In large swaths of the country, methamphetamine is destroying lives, families and communities. Alcoholism continues to plague us. There is hardly a person in this country whose life has not been impacted by the effects of drug dependency (alcohol and tobacco are drugs, by the way). Some of these agents are legal. Some are not. And you would be hard-pressed to explain what accounts for that discrepancy. The “war on drugs” was our absurd national response for decades — ultimately more destructive than the effects it was supposed to protect us from.

We are very quick to dehumanize people who are dependent on many of these drugs. We stigmatize them as weak-willed sinners who deserve poverty, jail and even death. That was certainly not the case for smoking, though. Today, millions of our family members, friends and neighbors, regardless of class, gender, ethnicity or age, are battling with the disease of addiction. It is now considered and treated as a disease, but our society reacts differently depending on the substance. 

I’m a diabetic. Diabetes is a common disease that is regarded as such — not as a personal failure. I have access to comprehensive health care and counseling. Treatment requires daily injections with clean hygienic needles and medications to control my “sugars.” I’m lucky. My addiction is manageable and legal. I know and love many people whose addictions have relegated them to desperate circumstances and abject shame. The help they need is not simple nor readily available. I have lost family and friends to a bias that shunned them and denied them their essential humanity.

We are prone to condemn people who succumb to the same impulses that compel us all. Unfortunately, that disdain often means denying them the tools to know the kind of dignity that I enjoy despite my disease. We create many of the obstacles that prevent these community members from re-entering a community that allows them to thrive. People with drug dependency are fighting an epic personal battle that should be eased by all of us; they shouldn’t have their challenges compounded by being shunned and punished. 

We must protect and help the people who need equilibrium — the balance we all cherish but try to escape from time to time. A community is defined by its kindnesses or its cruelty. Choosing kindness is a relatively easy choice to make; biochemical compulsions are much harder to fight. We can help.

Bill Dwight is a Northampton city councilor and a pie wrangler at the Florence Pie Bar.