The real power drugs hold is how they make the user accept magical thinking as real
In the 16th century, Sir Thomas More originated the idiom ‘grasping at straws’. In actuality, the lawyer, philosopher, and Roman Catholic saint was referring to straw – cattle bedding – and that a drowning man will grasp at anything floating, even straw, to try to stay afloat (paraphrasing). It’s a perfect idiom 483 years later to illuminate how drug use is rationalized by the user and by American society.
Any drug use. Any time.
Every rational man and woman knows the risk of addiction – and death – from using opiates and opioids, for example. There is a well-documented history of addiction and death from this class of drug, dating to it’s first cultivation and use 3,400 years BCE. Why is it still around? Because people will use it. That’s why.
One of the first affects of any mind-altering drug is that it convinces the user it is somehow safe and the consequences are for the other guys. Magical thinking. Like a drowning man believing a single stalk of dried grass in an ocean will buoy him and float him to safety. Once the drug of choice takes over that human, the magical thinking gives way entirely to chemical dependence.
Even when the drug use doesn’t escalate to dependence – or I should say ‘especially’ when it doesn’t – magical thinking trumps intellect every and any time a person is under the influence.
A recovery pioneer and modern-day anti-alcohol trailblazer in the 1970’s, Father Martin, put it succinctly in his Chalk Talk. He said the human mind works best when it operates as Intellect over Emotion, or I/E. Add a mind-altering drug, any of them, and the equation flips to Emotion over Intellect, E/I. That’s a good explanation to why we say and do incredibly stupid stuff while impaired. Your grandmother was right when she said, “That’s not your Rhodes Scholar Grandpa, it’s the booze talking,” right after he declared he was going to shave the cat.
We do dumb stuff, and believe dumb stuff
A lot of recovery professionals, especially in court-ordered programs, see the aftermath of the dumb stuff followed by some more magical thinking. Every single person charged with DUI or other drug-related crime believes in magic. He or she will be sentenced lightly because of their unique situation, or get off on a technicality, or the evidence will be lost because it happened to his ‘guy’ ‘a couple years ago’ and the ‘law is muddy on this issue.’
When a drug tells the same brain it’s poisoning that the stuff isn’t so dumb, we do the dumb stuff. Including rationalizing the use of the drug. Two common examples are the well-funded oversimplifications of marijuana benefits, and the widespread acceptance of alcohol risks.
A medical user of marijuana dislikes the getting stoned part. Just like a medical user of Oxycontin doesn’t care for the high. When a recreational pot smoker wants to rationalize use, however, out comes the Emotion. Drinkers… well, there isn’t medical use and there aren’t any health benefits. It’s all about the buzz.
Send life rafts, not more straw
They’ll trot out the ‘medical benefits’ to support their continued consumption of a drug… when the medical benefits are far from their reason for smoking dope. They’ll roll out the frequently misquoted safety argument in favor of the drug. It sounds like ‘nobody ever died from smoking weed’. True, nobody overdosed on weed, put the drug is linked to more deaths and health consequences than can be dismissed as coincidence. They’ll spout the long history of smoking herb, embraced by cultures vastly older than ours. Drowning… grasping at any fleck of straw that will keep them afloat.
The scientific evidence on alcohol as a toxin and carcinogen is even more concrete than the evidence of health damage from marijuana use. The drug can change DNA! It begins damaging otherwise healthy tissue from sip one. It’s so poisonous that if the liver had pain nerve endings, none of us would take sip two. Very scientifically sound and highly intellectual. However, even moderate use of the drug alcohol flips the I/E equation to E/I.
The grasping for straw sounds something like: ‘It’s legal’… ‘It relaxes me’… ‘Moderation is safe, the ad said so’… ‘It’s good for the heart’. That last point has been discredited for more than a decade, by the way. Rationalizations… buoying a drug-altered brain modified to E/I by the same drug that’s killing it. When someone is drowning, they want to believe in the straw. What if you drift to them a life raft of factsinstead? We have to deliver them back safely to the boat off which they jumped. That boat – society and social behavior – may not be Utopia (Sir More’s more famous work), but it beats drowning.
Scott Stevens, is the author of four alcohol books including the December 2016 release, I Can’t See The Forest With All These Damn Trees In The Way: The Health Consequences of Alcohol. Get the new BookLocker title now on Amazon (viewbook.at/prehab), alcohologist.com, and everywhere you buy books. Click Alcopocalypse for the author’s 2017 Alcohol Awareness Month whitepaper. Image by Kevin Carden, used with permission.