Besting Our Addiction

If there is one story that’s favorite in America, it’s that of a person redeemed. Not in religious terms alone: the hero doesn’t need to turn to God, simply to have turned away from addiction or destructive behavior and towards a constructive existence. It can even be foolhardy: Yossarian rowing his rubber lifeboat away from the war in Catch-22.

Just look at our recent and popular movies—especially the bio-pics. At Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. At their stories are of falling into addiction and then struggling to overcome them. Both Ray and Walk the Line end with recovery. Both leave out the hard work that comes after that—a less compelling, less interesting, though even more inspiring, story. Both, however, do show that it takes the belief of others if one is going to conquer the addicting demons.

Why do such stories draw us? Why are we more interested in the story of the prodigal son than in his brother who stays home and simply works hard? Part of the answer to that, of course, lies in our love of drama and of the sublime—the walking on the edge. Another part is that many of us have been there. Hell, as a nation, we are there right now.

Me, I spent twenty years drunk. I know something about addiction in one’s personal life and so cheer as people begin to emerge from their struggles—be it in movies, books, or real life. And I’m certainly not the only one. We recognize addictive behavior when we see it and hate it from the memories of our own personal experiences. Sure, the addict herself or himself has to want to recover, but we know what we are seeing, and the feelings that well us as we stand by feeling helpless—they enrage us.

Each of us knows that, somewhere within, there’s an addictive personality waiting to take control. It may be gambling that wakes it, or drugs, or alcohol—or any of a number of things. Whatever. Each person has one thing, at least, that can take control of them.

As a nation, as America, we have two.

Yes (if you haven’t figured it out by now), we are a nation in the grip of addiction. The radical right that rules us right now is simply the addictive side of our national persona. Just watch how it acts, and you’ll see. Possessive, protective of its prerogatives, jealous, quick to anger. Any time conversation turns to its addictions, it changes the subject or excuses itself.

As a country, we are addicted to wealth and to power, and we have let our weaknesses for them overpower us and rule us, personified by the rightwing group now in power. We are acting as destructively as only an addict can. We have spent ourselves into near bankruptcy. We have concocted myths of persecution to justify our continued addiction. And we refuse to admit that we have a problem.

At least, a part of us does. The nation, like an individual, has a sober person within, trying to take control.

In ten days, we will see if we can take the first step towards regaining control of our national life, of casting out our demons. It’s going to be a long road, but if we can take that first step, electing a Democratic majority in at least one House of Congress, we may just be able to save ourselves from the destruction that is inevitable for the addict. No longer, at least, will we be able to partake of our addictive behavior without consequence. It will be as though someone has finally stepped in, someone with the power to say, “Stop and look in the mirror. See what you have become.”

The power of addiction should never be underestimated, even then. The addict who refuses to admit to a problem can force his or her way onward—little can stop her, or him. When Karl Rove and George Bush portray confidence about the upcoming election, they have reason. The political campaign (accent on fear and avarice) they are overseeing right now is little more than the passing of a full shot glass under a drunk’s nose. Even if the drunk really does want to get sober, the temptation right there, right in front of them, is almost impossible to overcome.

Once, we had a whole class of people who had taken on the job of making sure that the unscrupulous didn’t tempt us too successfully. Professional interveners, they prided themselves on their own sobriety. Now, however, they too have fallen, and have joined the enablers, erasing half a century of proud journalistic tradition in favor of tastes from the bottle in the hands of those who are stealing everything all the drunks once had.

Remember, when this crew came to power, how they would say that the adults were in charge once again? What they didn’t tell us is that the adults were addicts, people whose brains no longer function in any logical fashion, whose every action is skewed by the needs of their addictions. Personally, I would rather return to the children.

Our only way free is to take control, to place our sober selves at the head of our nation, repressing our demons or, for now, at least placing them in check.

We can do that, and then we can start on the long path to recovery that Ray Charles and Johnny Cash (and millions of others of us) have walked. But we can’t do that if we spend our time arguing about what exactly that road should look like, for that gives the demons just enough purchase to stay in control. We can’t allow that. If we are to survive, we have to worry about what we are doing just “one day at a time.”

And the time to start doing that is now.

By casting our votes for as many Democrats as possible. Though we may not like them all or agree with them all, at least they are sober.

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