October 4, 1991

Powdered Happiness

A hundred doses of happiness are not enough: send to the drug-store for another bottle --and when that is finished, for another.

Aldous Huxley (1894-1963)

There is an old story about a doctor telling the town drunk that if he didn't stop drinking, he would go completely deaf.

He replied, "I like what I drink better than what I hear."

The point is that people who are addicted to anything are addicted to it because they like what it does to them.

I don't believe that drug or alcohol addiction is a disease. For it to be a disease, the booze would have to pour itself into the man and the narcotic would have to inject itself. Taking any kind of drug is a voluntary act. It being voluntary, a person can stop taking it if he wants to. Often the addict doesn't want to stop, even if the drug is no longer pleasurable; just painful when he stops. It has become a way of life. That's a large part of the problem.

The basic principle of human behavior is that people do what feels good and avoid things that feel bad. That's why, despite the valiant efforts of some clergy, sex continues to be one of our most popular activities.

In my forties, I shattered my ankle in a skiing accident. While recovering, it was all that I could do to make it look as if I was functioning. The pain was both intense and continuous. My doctor was very concerned about drug addiction, so I managed on aspirin and some barbiturates to help me to sleep at night. I didn't know that there were much more effective drugs for pain. For more than 6 months I didn't accomplish anything. I went to work, and tried to looked as if I was working --I faked it. If I had had some of the narcotic that I have been using recently, I would have functioned almost as well as if I were not in pain. Since then, attitudes about narcotics have changed in the medical profession. Physicians now seem to be more willing to relieve pain, even at the risk of addiction.

Recently, following some traumatic surgery, the narcotic that my surgeon prescribed made my life livable. My perception of pain was dulled so that I felt almost normal. I could do almost everything as if I wasn't in pain. Isn't that wonderful?

Not quite. When anything makes you feel good, there is always the danger of addiction. In my advanced time of life, drug addiction would be very easy to get into. My family is grown and I am free to do as much or little as I please.

If a drug just kills the pain, like aspirin does, when the pain goes away you stop taking the drug. If besides killing the pain, it makes you feel good, the temptation to keep taking it is a very real one. That's why the government regulates or forbids drugs like heroin, morphine, cocaine and a variety of opium derivative. The amount of regulation is proportional to how good the drug makes you feel: the better it makes you feel, the more the regulation.

The most effective pain killer known is morphine. From the point of view of the pharmacologist, the ideal pain killer would be a drug that killed pain as well as morphine does and had no other effects whatever. That ideal drug doesn't exist. The best pain killers all have side effects such as making you feel very good, which makes addiction a real possibility.

I keep telling myself that there is no reason for me not to continue to take that one pill in the evening. But there is a good reason not to take that happiness pill. What is it? I can't think of it at the moment because the narcotic kicked in half an hour ago.

By the time this gets into print, I will be off the drug because I don't like being dependent on any drug. People who stay on drugs eventually get dependent on them. And every drug, even aspirin, has bad side effects when used for a long time. The effect of a narcotic is very profound --it does more than just kill pain.

The reason that a person gets off a drug habit is that there is something else that he wants to do more than to feel the pleasant effect of the drug. The key to kicking an addiction is an interest in something else. I knew a man who found that skiing feels better than heroin, and kicked the heroin habit. He then got hooked on skiing.

Many soldiers got addicted to heroin in Viet Nam. The vast majority kicked the habit when they came home. They had good reasons to kick it. Living for a narcotic is a totally consuming occupation --you have no time for anything else. People also tend to need more and more of the drug to get the same effect, and it has adverse health effects. Drug addicts have their lives shortened considerably. The effects are more than just happiness; most drug addicts degenerate both physically and mentally.

I don't fear drug addiction. I don't fear anything that I can control. If I knew that I had just a few years to live, I wouldn't worry about getting hooked on a narcotic. I would continue to take it and would continue to enjoy the pleasant effect. As it is, there are other things that I want to do, so the narcotic has to go. Like other pleasures, there's more to life than just one pleasurable thing. Even sex, the greatest of pleasures, can begin to pall when that's all that there is in your life --or so I've been been told by people who claim to be experts on the subject.

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