The dynamic between my father and me was distant and unpalatable on so many levels—not the least of which was our contrasting physical statures. He was over 350 pounds for as long as I remember and I, having topped out in adulthood at 5’ 6” and 130 pounds, was always minuscule in his presence. Instead of cowering to his size, I learned to be rebellious, sarcastic, and passively condescending. That is, until things began to border on violence—then I would retreat.

When I was about 12 years old, my seventh-grade class was planning a three-day trip to Washington D.C. The cost was 150 dollars, to be paid in three 50-dollar installments. I can recall one Sunday night at the dinner table as my mother brought out the spaghetti and my dad looked up at her as she placed it down, the way a Saint Bernard would, when I just remembered that the last installment was due the next day. I was quite relieved that I remembered, and so before I allowed it to once again slip my mind, I blurted out, “I need the fifty dollars for my trip tomorrow!”

My father turned the most incredible shade of red and began bellowing, “YOU NEED? YOU NEED?”

Truthfully, it scared the hell out of me.

He continued his diatribe about how I had no appreciation for what it took for him to earn 50 dollars, and how thankless and ungrateful I was to make demands of that nature in such a flippant way. Of course, “flippant” wasn’t the word he would’ve used. His description would include more profanity in an attempt to convey his anger. Nonetheless, he’d make his point.

If I had to paint a portrait of my childhood, it would be of this exact moment. This one sticks in my memory a little deeper because the trauma has always stayed with me. What made it so traumatic was that my head was somewhere else entirely before he changed the entire timbre of my world with his tantrum. I was a 12-year-old boy who could barely remember my homework assignments, much less any fiscal responsibility I was given. The kind of finesse my father longed for, with regard to my pleas for assistance, was just too much to navigate—at least for me.

Several years later, when I was in college, I smoked a blunt for the first time. Looking back, it turned out to be a very significant day. The moment I got stoned, I felt as if I had been freed from the chains I had been wearing for my entire life. I made a resolution to myself to never go back to feeling the way I used to feel ever again. This began a twenty-year love/hate relationship with illicit substances.

A Different Look

Unfortunately, I am not the exception. In my nine years of sobriety, the countless N.A. meetings I’ve attended, and the volunteer speaking I’ve done at jails and rehabs, I cannot even once remember anyone saying that they began getting high because it was fun. Addiction, as far as I could observe, was a phenomenon that began accidentally. It was like all of these people were carrying around hundreds of pounds throughout their childhoods and then they discovered a way to finally lay it down. Once that happened, it became nearly impossible to pick it back up.

This is the severe challenge of recovery. It is not just a question of ceasing to put chemicals in one’s body. It is the wholesale rebuilding of an entire set of coping mechanisms. It is so much more complicated than many people believe. How else can we explain so many people’s unwillingness to stop even when faced with consequences that run the gamut from prison to death and all points in between?

Dr. Daniel Sumrok, director of the Center for Addiction Sciences at The University of Tennessee Health Science Center’s College of Medicine, has even gone so far as to write that addiction should not be called “addiction”—it should be called “ritualized compulsive comfort-seeking.” Sumrok has gone on to attest that this comfort-seeking is a normal response to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) much like “bleeding is a normal response to being stabbed.”

In all of my years volunteering in the field of recovery, this theory seems to be the most realistic. This is why America’s “War on Drugs” has failed so miserably. It makes as much sense to lock up an addict or alcoholic as it does to lock up someone with diabetes or cancer. Even more than the moral implications of imprisoning the non-violent diseased, the fact that [over] 50,000 people are dying of overdoses every year in the U.S. should give some indication of how unsuccessful these policies are.

The bottom line is, we need to look at addiction differently. Punishment is not working, and it never has in the past. Unless we as a society begin to approach this issue with love and empathy, it will never get better. I know for myself, I felt so strongly about turning my empathy into something pro-active, that I wrote a book to try to help others. That, according to the Dalai Lama, is “…our prime purpose in this life.” The quote goes on to say that if one cannot bring themselves to do that, “at least don’t hurt them.” That is to say, be compassionate. Addiction is nothing more than a natural response to an unnatural situation.

 

Billy Manas— This piece is a reprint/repurpose courtesy of Elephant Journal and author Billy Manas—a poet, singer-songwriter, and truck driver from the Hudson Valley in New York. Manas has a new book coming out this spring. Find out more right here.

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