Sunday, February 16, 2014

What's wrong with this CNN picture?

With the recent death of a famous American actor from an assumed heroin overdose, commercial news media, including local outlets, are replete with a reinvigorated focus on drug addiction, its consequences, and the enforcement efforts that we as a society are making to curb it.
Look familiar??  That's League City's half-built Public Safety Building in the background, a half a mile from us.  This is a screengrab from a recent Channel 13 piece that showcases the ongoing training of League City's newest drug-fighting K9.  That black blur you see in the mid-ground is another pooch practicing his pounce.  LCPD reportedly now has three drug doggies.

Screengrab courtesy of KTRK-TV.  
The problem with many of these news media offerings, in my opinion, is that they are formulaic and misleading, thereby doing a profound disservice to the public in helping to perpetuate a variety of addiction-related myths.

The most egregious case I've encountered thus far comes from CNN, in this story titled "One snapshot in a tragic national picture:  Long Island sees exploding heroin use".  This piece framed the issue in the same old tired sensationalist terms:  There are narcotic-peddling wolves in our midst, and they are zooming down a freeway near us, targeting our innocent and unsuspecting children.  Where they strike next, nobody knows, but you can bet that the results will be randomly tragic and wildly undeserved.  

No.  Someone needs to call bullsh*t on this nonsense, because that is not the typical mechanism by which kids get sucked into drug use.  And if people don't discard that kind of mass-consumption mythology and instead start coming to terms with the truth, they won't have a prayer of interceding effectively when (not if) drugs come knocking on their own family door.

I have to insert the usual disclaimers before I continue with my editorial.  I am not a psychological services professional.  I do not have any specialized education or training in the area of substance abuse.  But what I do possess is almost five decades of experience in actively opposing addiction-based lifestyles within certain branches of my own extended family, and in certain social and professional circles.

I'm also a mother who has recently had to deal with predators actively promoting drug and alcohol use to my own kid.  The same is true of every parent of an American teenager - if you have a teenager but you don't believe that your kid has been offered drugs and alcohol, then you are simply delusional.  And if your kid hasn't described either to you or to some other trusted and responsible adult when, where, what, and by whom those illegal substances were offered to them, then I strongly advise you to do whatever is necessary to build up enough security in your primary family relationships and friendships for that kind of intergenerational communication to happen.

In disclaimer sum, my history has left me with strong perceptions and opinions on the subject of substance abuse, which I will now proceed to express.  The opinions of others may differ.

I parsed the offending CNN article in the most practical and useful terms I could think of:  I analyzed it through the lens of my own child's prevailing perceptions of what might be wrong with it.

My child has a particularly vivid, visceral, and almost irrational need to see justice prevail (a characteristic that she might have inherited from her mother).  In shedding the innocence of childhood during her transition to adolescence, she began reacting negatively to a wide variety of social imperfections, including drug and alcohol abuse.  So I gave her a printed copy of that CNN article, I numbered each paragraph for ease of reference (there are 25), and provided the following instructions:
  1. Mark the warning signs that the parents in this story missed.  
  2. Flag the erroneous beliefs, assumptions, and harmful paradigms that most probably allowed [drug] addiction to flourish in some of these cases.  Physically mark and describe on these [printed] pages.  
If you have a teenager who is old enough to handle this kind of exercise, I invite you to do the same, because there could scarcely be a better learning experience.  Print out the article, and have them annotate it as best they currently can.  They could also read it online but I prefer tangibility - if they print it out and write on it, that process will be more deeply symbolic of them taking ownership of the content and ideas (which is an example of the process of taking personal responsibility for something).  Writing over the top of someone else's statements is an act of physical domination, which also underscores the counter-message that your children do not, in fact, have to perceive of themselves as helpless and submissive potential targets of an impending tidal wave of Mexican heroin, as I believe this article insinuates.

Then, after they have done their best based on their current teenaged understanding of substance abuse, sit down and discuss their findings with them.  Teenagers, even the best-developed ones, won't be capable of spotting every red flag in this article, which is exactly what makes it such a valuable learning experience.  Some of the atrocities in the piece are easy to perceive, but some of them are much more subtle and derivative in nature, and thus will not be recognized except by people who have developed extensive addiction-related empirical wisdom.

I'm going to provide you with my own propaganda punch list to help you with the headwork.  I will tell you what I believe, which is not necessarily the same as what the majority of Americans believe (which, I contend, is exactly why addiction continues to play such a prominent and inconceivably expensive role in our society).  You might not agree with everything I describe here.  Some of it might take you aback or make you offended.  You can decide which of these viewpoints below you wish to consider and/or offer to your own teen.

Scope of the issue as stated by the article:  "Heroin use has exploded in what is being described as an epidemic...".  

A layperson's grasp of the word "epidemic" is along the lines of the typhoid outbreak that killed one third of the population of Athens Greece, or, closer to home, one of those miserable intervals in which fully one quarter of the kids in a public school classroom are simultaneously out sick with the flu (as happened when my daughter was in Grade 4).  We went to a wedding a few years back where 50% of the guests came down with norovirus - now that was an epidemic, let me tell you (and yes - every member of my family ended up on the unlucky side of that statistic).

In profound contrast to those examples of epidemics, only about 1.6% of Americans have ever tried heroin in their entire lives.  In their entire lives!!!  Sure, there are isolated enclaves where usage is higher than that, but to describe the present situation as an "epidemic" is irresponsible at best, and unconscionable at worst.  Perception is the most pernicious part of peer pressure, and what statements like that do is leave young people under the impression that a whole bunch of people are doing heroin.  CNN implied this, so it must be true, right?  And when naive young people think that "everybody" is doing something, they will be more inclined to try it themselves.
And don't believe everything you read on the friggin' internet either, even if it comes from a source that's supposed to be reputable.  
Overall tone of the article:  "Several factors have contributed to this "perfect storm" of addiction according to experts -- among them, proximity to major airports and transportation centers..."  with an expound provided by Paragraph 17:  "Many [who begin using heroin] are cheerleaders, athletes and straight-A students from loving homes."  

In a one-two perceptual punch, as well as being unconscionably misleading as to basic American heroin use statistics, I find this article to be sensationalistic, superficial, and fear-mongering because it insinuates that the primary drug addiction threat is primarily attributable to an exquisitely-efficient trafficking infrastructure which preys upon otherwise functional individuals.

In actual fact, a large percentage of the young people who adopt a drug-using lifestyle do not do so because they are pretty and popular blonde kids randomly seduced by a "perfect storm" of circumstances.  They do so because they are taught those behaviors within their own families.
It's very difficult for young people to "just say no" when their own families are saying "yes".  Many of those families try to impose the "do as I say - not as I do" directive.  But a parental message of hypocrisy is almost always worse than no parental message at all.  
 Sure, there are some kids who, because of conspiracy of circumstances and immaturity, start associating with the proverbial "wrong crowd" and get introduced to an addiction lifestyle through that route instead.  But I believe that they are a distinct minority.  There are no hard statistics on this that I know of because it is so difficult to measure, but my estimate from personal experience is that at least two thirds of young people who embrace addiction do so because, as a lifestyle, it is methodically handed down from generation to generation within their own families.  Usually the addictive substance of choice is not something flashy like heroin - it's usually alcohol, given that about 15% of American have a problem with the drink.  But in other cases, the culprit behavior can instead be another drug or non-drug addictions such as workaholism, sex addictionspendaholism, or religion addiction.  The end lifestyle result is the same regardless of the addictive substance.  Only the details differ.

This is an important point because, until the true source of any given difficulty is identified and acknowledged, there is zero chance that it can be overcome.  People who point accusing fingers at Mexican and Colombian drug lords as the ultimate source of their problems are bullsh*tting themselves and everyone else, and won't be capable of helping themselves until they adopt a framework of personal responsibility through which they can come to terms with the truth.

In expanding upon this primary family-related (as opposed to drug-lord-related) focus, I'll show you red flags in the sections below and you'll see a consistent theme emerge.  I don't claim to have any intimate knowledge about the specific individuals showcased in the CNN article.  I'm using them here as stand-in representatives for what I have most commonly seen in a variety of addicted (usually alcoholic) families.  In other words, I'm "profiling" here because the practice is useful as a starting point in comprehending larger trends, not because I intend to be accusatory toward any given individual. The resulting interpretations may not apply in those individual cases, but they are instructive of larger overall addiction realities regardless.

Paragraph # 2:   "I was stealing money from my parents, I was doing illegal actions with my friends..." 

Most people, including teens, will be able to spot this one because it is the obvious freebie, the low-hanging bullsh*t detection fruit in the article.  Most commonly, parents who don't register significant amounts of money missing from their own wallets and the general existential impacts of five bags of heroin per day on their kid are:
  1. Not in possession of basic information about drugs (most adult Americans cannot legitimately claim this as information about drug addiction is readily available in our society and is taught in most public schools)
  2. Mentally, emotionally, and/or physically absent from their child's life
  3. In denial, a dangerously maladaptive, personal responsibility-abdicating state of mind which may include full-blown enabling of their child's addiction
  4. Engrossed in an addiction lifestyle themselves, which prompts them to interpret their child's similar behavior as normal, or
  5. Some combination of the above
In a minority of specific situations, there could be other more innocent explanations, such as, perhaps a parent was battling cancer and simply couldn't be there when their child needed them.  Conversely, some addicted children have genuine un-diagnosed mental illnesses that render them beyond the reach of even the best parenting.  But extenuating circumstances such as those are the exceptions, not the rules.  Most of the time, a child's addiction is a reflection of what's going on within his own family.  Specifically, it's a reflection of the family's prevailing world view, which we'll talk about next.

Paragraph 5:  "There's a primary focus on youths taking responsibility for their own behavior."

If your teenager doesn't pick up on this red flag, try using this question as a prompt:  Can you think of a reason why it might it be necessary to isolate a young person in rehab and spend a solid year teaching him to take responsibility?

Answer:  Assuming that child has no neurological impairment, the most likely reason why that's necessary is that he was not taught to take responsibility at home.

And therein lies the number one hallmark characteristic of addicted individuals and families: A general refusal to take personal responsibility.  If you look closely, you can see this idea manifest again and again in the CNN article and in my analysis of it.

Paragraph 19:  "Heroin?  My son?  Never.  How did I not see that?"

Most likely it was denial.  My teenager picked up on this red flag with ease.

Paragraph 20:  "[The named parent] says stigma is keeping families from seeking help.  "Our children are just like every other mother or father's child and they're not junkies.  And that term needs to change.""

That one skinny paragraph is so fat with addiction world view that I almost don't know where to start.  I fully believe that I could literally write a second Master's thesis on just those three sentences even though my formal education is within the natural sciences rather than the psychological sciences.  For brevity, let me just hit a few of the highlights:

  1. 'Stigma' does not keep addicted families from seeking help.  False pride, otherwise known as vanity, is sometimes what keeps addicted families from seeking help and was perhaps the phenomenon that this speaker was referring to.  Vanity is that condition which compels us to put a higher priority on maintaining a good-looking lie than on being honest about a relatively common truth of experience (addiction).  Furthermore, normal healthy people in general society do not brand others with any kind of 'stigma' simply because those people sought mental health services (although shrewd people may do so if folks are obviously in need of such services but choose not to seek them).  
  2. "Our children are just like every other mother or father's child..."  No they are most certainly not, and to profess otherwise is to intensify the same denial that exacerbated the family's problem with addiction in the first place.
  3. Did you pick up on the pervasive "shoot the messenger" theme in that skinny paragraph?  Did it take you aback a little bit??  It should have, especially the attack in the last line, the attack that was directed at you and every other CNN reader.  When you saw that, did you think to yourself, "Whoa, whoa, whoa - who said anything about applying a derogatory term to drug-addicted youths?  Where did THAT come from?!"  Again, this is a manifestation of the fact that people in possession of an addiction world view are strongly disposed not to take personal responsibility for a wide variety of what goes on in their own lives.  One of the hallmark behaviors by which personal responsibility is abdicated is the practice of shooting the messenger: every time someone tries to tell them that their situation calls for personal responsibility, they reflexively reply with some variant of "It's not ME who has the problem - it's YOU" in order to deflect focus away from their functional issue.  In this example, the de facto messenger got shot before any message was even delivered - that's how prominent this practice is in the lives of those caught up in addiction.  Many addicted families will go to stunning lengths to avoid taking responsibility for addiction, enabling, and the various role-related behavioral problems that accompany that lifestyle.  God Himself in His infinite wisdom could come down from Heaven and in His most compassionate and loving voice, He could inform many an alcoholic family that they could enter the Kingdom of Heaven if only they would turn their efforts to resolving their addictions, and in response to this, many of those families would reply, "Who the hell are you to judge?!  Everyone knows that you are an imperfect God not worthy of trust.  We'd be fools to listen to anything you have to say."  A complete reflection of focus away from the situation on the table and toward a general effort to discredit the messenger is often the method by which personal responsibility is side-stepped (simple avoidance is another common choice).  

Paragraph 23:  "Being able to say that I have different ways that I can manage my emotions besides getting high, it makes me very happy and excited to go through my future."

My teenager initially missed this red flag, but immediately snapped to it when I issued a prompt analogous to that for Paragraph 5:  Can you think of a reason why this young man needed to learn to manage his emotions in rehab?"

Answer:  Most likely, it's because he didn't learn to do that within his own family home.

And why didn't he learn to do that while he was in his own family?

Because emotions are incredibly powerful, and making conscious and effective decisions about the ways in which you will manage your own emotions is pretty much the ultimate achievement in the realm of personal responsibility.  You have to focus on yourself (not messengers) to pull that off, and you have to take ownership of every external issue that affects you.  And for families characterized by addiction, that is their Achilles heel - they cannot and will not take that kind of responsibility.
I could go on, and on, and on with this analysis, but this post is long enough.  Again, my purpose here is not to criticize any specific individuals - my purpose is to call bullsh*t on the types of bad paradigms and misinformation that needlessly contribute to the loss of so many American lives to addiction.  The referenced CNN article describes numerous individuals who died of heroin overdoses.  In my view, we can best honor those souls not by engaging in mindless mass media mournography, but if we instead unblinkingly use the rich learning experiences provided by their examples to help other people avoid the same fate.  Especially teenagers, who are just entering the full flower of that stage of life in which they first learn to take responsibility for themselves.

Addiction is a lifestyle characterized by a maladaptive world view that revolves around blaming others and avoiding personal responsibility on a variety of existential levels.  The consumption of heroin, alcohol, and other substances is usually the very last step in the process of succumbing to that lifestyle - the use of substances is not the first step, and it's rarely the most consequential step.  Substance abuse is the tip of an existential iceberg - a symptom of something much more pervasive.  If we can be honest (brutally so if necessary) about what that triggering world view consists of, then there's hope for the people affected by it.

Have fun with your teenager.  Me, I'll sit here and wait for the messenger-shooting to begin.  But I don't mind being shot as the messenger, because I've had decades of time to get used to it.

Update February 17, 2014:
The morning after I posted this piece, the New York Times published "Addicted on Staten Island".  This is a paragraph screengrabbed from that article.  The NYT piece speculates, "the problems that have arisen on Staten Island would also seem to suggest a story about the stagnancy and the ailing fortunes of the working and middle classes."  Would you guess that this person described in the paragraph above became addicted in response to grief, depression or frustration arising out of a sense of economic stagnation?  Or could the fact that she spent ten years as a young child doing drug runs with her mother have had anything to do with it?

In so many of these cases, it comes from the families, not from the streets.    

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