In honor of the holiday on the calendar tomorrow, I will be talking about love. However, it will not at all be in the way that you might expect. No, today, I'm talking about the correlation between love and substance use.
I recently started working as a Substance Abuse Counselor, the title I find off-putting. I quickly noticed how ridiculous it was to me that there is a question in the intake asking whether the people I see have experienced any traumatic events in their lives. This question seems ridiculous because regardless of whether the person in front of me classifies certain events as traumatic, they all have a trauma history.
I recognize that this is in part confirmation bias as I learned to look for underlying trauma in the context of atypical substance use. I prefer some version of the term "atypical substance use" as it feels more human than referring to people as substance abusers or people who abuse substances. To me, the very idea of abusing something not living feels farcical, like referring to property damage as violence, so I'm glad the clinical term employs "substance use," but I still dislike speaking of disorders. In every story I have heard, my digression aside, there has been at least one traumatic event involving a caregiver, but rarely is there only one event. No, I typically see a string of deep betrayals and abandonment.
In their unique way, each learned that the people they love most would leave them, injure them, hurt them, withhold the very love they deserve and need; people are simply not safe. By the time these people become adults, grown children with festering mortal love wounds, they have resorted to something else that will fill the gaping hole and numb the ache that relationships—now seen as profoundly unsafe—were meant to fill. If only for a few minutes, the person can participate in a sort of relationship they know they can rely on, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
This relationship is the allure of the substance. It is like a best friend and a lover at once to the person who can no longer trust humans. Somehow, we seek to punish these people. In some twisted form of logic, we have created a system that punishes the tormented. In so doing, we drive them further from people and relationships. I am not saying that these people are unable to love, though.
Many of the people that I see have married and parented children whom they love sincerely. However, the people who I diagnose with disordered substance use seem to primarily be in relationship with the substance or substances as the case may be. These beautiful people love their families with all of their hearts, but their capacity is constrained to the extent that they use substances to manipulate the darker emotions. We cannot numb certain emotions without numbing all of them—numbing grief diminishes our capacity for joy.
Here is what most of us do not understand about these resilient people: they developed their substance use as an adaptive strategy. Literally, their substance use has helped them survive. However, the institutions and oppressive systems that operate have us believing these are weak and broken people—they are no less human and no more broken than you or me.
Thankfully, my profession has moved away from the disease model of substance use, treating atypical substance use like an infection. As with everything, the practice of substance abuse counseling is a slow-moving ship, and the public perception that the profession culpably created in part is even slower to change. There is nothing criminal or defective about people trying to get the attachment or relational nutrients they need to survive from substances because people have so abjectly and repeatedly failed them.
Once more: there is nothing criminal or defective about people trying to get the attachment or relational nutrients they need to survive from substances because people have so abjectly and repeatedly failed them.
Finding sustenance where there is none is truly remarkable to me. Over time, as I've seen, these people can find a way to make entire lives without deep human relationships. Several of my clients express a strong desire to be left alone and go out of their way to avoid human contact to a large degree. They are starving for love and can find no way to receive that from people, so they resort to the only truly reliable and dependable thing in their lives.
We have created an entire criminal justice system that penalizes and brutally punishes these people primarily for trying to survive. Horrifically, the war on drugs, which so many of us are ardent supporters of, criminalizes vilifies these hurting people. Through imprisonment, parole, and the complex system we have woven together, it's almost certain that these people are only driven further away from society and people almost sentenced to a life of increased substance use.
This is a very dark topic for a post that started off talking about love. But you see, you cannot speak about atypical substance use without acknowledging that many of these people were driven there as a survival response to a lack of love. And to talk about substance use without mentioning the criminal in-justice system is in and of itself criminal. However, speaking about substance use without mentioning the context of the criminal justice system and vice versa is how we have gotten ourselves into the predicament we find ourselves in today.
You tell me, should we be criminalizing these humans?