Ben is Back — or is he?

Yesterday I watched “Ben is Back” — a recently released feature film about a heroin-addicted young man (Lucas Hedges) and his heroic and tenacious mother (Julia Roberts) who tries her best to keep him “clean.” Ben is around 20 years old (at which age I too was also shooting heroin). He scams a trip home from his residential rehab so that he can spend Christmas with his family.

ben and momBen seems to be trying with great determination to keep away from drugs. Yet the demon of addiction is doing pushups in the parking lot, just as they warn at the 12-step meeting he attends with his mom. He finds a bag of dope in the attic, but manages to avoid taking it and gives it to his mother instead. He looks the other way when dealers and drug buddies from his former life show up magically on elevators and at car windows. ben and sis at xmasHe bravely endures the cultural ambiguity of an American Christmas and tries his best to connect with his sibs and step-sibs. He’s a good guy, and he fights the good fight, but…well I don’t want to spoil it in case you decide to watch it.

I thought it was a pretty good movie (I love Julia Roberts) with a half-assed ending, but there were a few impressions I want to share with you — impressions that epitomize a lot of what’s wrong with the mainstream perception of drug addiction.

Although the subtext of the movie is clearly the overdose epidemic, there is hardly a wave at the real causes of overdose deaths: fentanyl in street drugs, drug/alcohol/drug interactions among pharmaceutical users, and impediments to getting methadone or suboxone when needed. (However, to its credit, the film provides a snapshot of the lunacy of pharmacies unwilling to dispense naloxone.) See Maia Szalavitz’s excellent synopsis of what we’re thinking and doing wrong.

julia berates doctorInstead, the usual “Reader’s Digest” simplifications are offered. For example, Mom meets the doctor who first prescribed pain pills, which got Ben “hooked” years ago, and says she hopes he dies a horrible death. We know that the OxyContin surge in the 80’s and 90’s did increase exposure to opiates and fueled increased rates of addiction. But to continue to blame doctors is insane. As Maia Szalavitz (and I) have made clear with arguments and statistics, doctors aren’t the problem, and the result of blaming them is the cutback of pain meds for people who really need them, while driving addicts to the street — to heroin that’s laced or replaced with fentanyl.

12-step with BenThe 12-step presence is portrayed somewhat accurately. Both the good (fellowship, honesty, and mutual respect) and the not-so-good (brain washing, propaganda, and the all-or-none trappings of the disease model) correspond well enough with reality.

ben hugs momThere is some recognition that addicts have choices. Ben fights his impulses bravely, and he makes sensible choices to avoid contact with the people and places that serve as triggers. And yet there is this creepy sense of fatalism sneaking up on Ben and other addicts. As though whatever choices they think they’re making, they’re bound to succumb. By the way, addiction isn’t referred to as “a disease” in this movie. Yet the miasma of an alien presence or infection lurks behind much of the dialogue and plot.

addicts downtownJunkies are portrayed as zombies. They are the opposite of clean. They’re dirty. They hover in alleyways, under bridges, around trashcans brimming with burning litter. It’s a classic and grossly overdone stereotype. When I was shooting heroin or morphine in my twenties , garbage-strewn alleys and river banks were not my preferred home away from home.

Despite the biases, stereotypes, and omissions, the movie does portray the struggle to avoid temptation rather well. And despite the Hollywood heroism and unlikely confrontations between good and evil, the plot and characters are engaging. The movie may well be worth seeing.

different speciesBut here’s my biggest beef. People who take drugs are shown to be occupied by some demonic force (or disease, or what have you) that makes them another species. They are not anything like normal people. They live in a different world, they’re not to be trusted, and they ought to be sent away to residential rehabs (where they won’t infect the rest of us) until the demon is exorcised — itself a rare event. This dichotomous “us vs them” perspective is the real message of the movie.

An alternative message, which I hope you’ve encountered in my posts and the comments and guest posts of others on this blog, is that people who use drugs are so crushed by emotional confusion and pain, much of which is served up by American culture itself, that they seek and sometimes find substances and activities that help them turn down the volume of their anxiety and depression and bring a semblance of in convenience storebalance to their lives — what I referred to as “substance” last post. The cause of addiction can be found in mall culture itself (portrayed in the movie as a sort of heaven on earth), the rampant commercialism that sucks meaning out of day-to-day life, the often immutable stamp of privilege vs. poverty and the stultifying dead-end lives of those who don’t make the cut. Not to mention the sheer hypocrisy of a society that proclaims Christian values but rewards self-serving, self-protective priorities. I wonder if Ben was infected by these horrors rather than a magical drug high, and whether that’s what made it so hard for him to quit.

66 thoughts on “Ben is Back — or is he?

  1. Peter Sheath January 17, 2019 at 6:31 am #

    Hiya Marc
    Yet again right on point and, very much, in the moment. Almost every film, soap opera, drama, and work of literature is polluted and corrupted by the stuff you discuss here. Powerlessness, disease, dirty junkie, etc. etc. It’s othering in the extreme and, even the people who should know better, drug and alcohol policy makers, are often influenced and manipulated by it. Looking forward to meeting up in April.

    • Marc January 18, 2019 at 12:34 am #

      “Othering” — thank you, Peter. That’s the word.

      Yes, see you in April!

      • CG January 21, 2019 at 8:15 am #

        Marc, I definitely want to see this movie. I too like Julia Roberts as an actress. I have struggled with cocaine, crack , methamphetamine, and now and then if nothing belse,…half a vicodin. Ivwas diagnosed with anxiety disorder and depression a few years ago. Now I’m taking a mood stabilizer for the past month. I go to a state run facility for med and counseling. By my choice now. They’ve not been if much help. Nearly a free facility. My counselor says “I’m impulsive with no self control” , oh I also was diagnosed with ADD at age 44. That psychiatrist prescribed Adderal!!! I abused it if course. I’m so frustrated. My addictive momoments are less. About once a month a METH binge. Not good but better. Yes, it is like a demon coming out but rekeases the thoughts of “what the heck do I do now” I was an RN 10 years ago. The only places who will hire me are maybe restaurants or fast food joints. $9/hr and I can’t handle the work. So, I have an attitude that I was just meant to be this way. Goof blog, thanks. I enjoy reading them.

  2. matt January 17, 2019 at 7:21 am #

    Hey Marc

    I think the withholding of medications like suboxone, which have been OVERWHELMINGLY proven to facilitate re-entry for motivated individuals is not just wrong, it is UNCONSCIONABLE. So is the difficulty in some areas of waivering physicians who want to prescribe it to help their patients. “It’s a disease but we aren’t going to let healthcare professionals freely prescribe medicine for it?”

    I agree that the stereotyping that leads to self-stereotyping and self-stigmatization only compounds the problem. But I also think singling out American culture as in “…people who use drugs are so crushed by emotional confusion and pain, much of which is served up by American culture itself…” is oversimplifying things, and well…stereotyping. The pain and suffering that spur adaptive, addictive behaviors to seek relief can happen anywhere.

    • Marc January 17, 2019 at 4:52 pm #

      Matt, we certainly agree about the meds. But as for singling out American culture, I don’t think that’s inappropriate here. Let me explain.

      Yes, it oversimplifies — which one must do when writing any kind of opinion piece or review. But the US is where the opioid overdose rate is epic, “far outpacing” that of other countries according to the WHO. The overdose epidemic is consistently front-page news in the US, growing by roughly 10,000 per year in recent years. What might be the reasons for these stats?

      The US ranks at or near the bottom in almost every measure of social and medical wellbeing in the developed world, where any “social safety net” is pretty much fictional. There is no universal health care — which is unique in the Western world and in my view inexcusable for such a wealthy nation. I think you’d agree. It’s also where the rich/poor divide is becoming more rather than less entrenched by the decade, where the prison population is profoundly greater per capita than in any other developed country, with a hugely disproportionate representation of oppressed minorities. And while rampant commercialism is clearly worldwide, the US has earned a special status (internationally) as a country where the pursuit of money has replaced every other cultural currency — except perhaps Christianity.

      The US is also where the film was made and where the story takes place.

      Yes, I’m stereotyping to some degree. But extremes can teach us important lessons. The UK and other European countries also have addiction problems, as do nonWestern societies. And you’re right: we should determine common factors that predict addiction independent of cultural and political boundaries. But other societies with Western/democratic/liberal values pale in comparison with the US when it comes to the public outcry re addiction, especially when it comes to overdose statistics. That must mean something.

      So I don’t think it’s misleading to single out the problems of the American landscape. And hey, as a Canadian, and as someone who’s lived in the US for many years, I can assure you that some of my best friends are Americans 🙂

      • Carlton January 17, 2019 at 8:32 pm #

        Many addicts WANT to embrace and believe the various of reasons professionals give for their addiction.

        Such as;
        Its a disease, the culture, the society, their upbringing, etc.

        Looking under every rock, especially the authorized rocks, can be an part of the “process-of-elimination” for many addicts, leading to a life-changing realization during the recovery process,

        • Marc January 18, 2019 at 12:33 am #

          Yes, unless they find something slimy and offensive under said rocks. Confirmation bias is a bitch.

  3. deborah j barnes January 17, 2019 at 9:51 am #

    Hi Mark,
    The dichotomy of a simplistic story of life seems a general cultural take that goes into the core concepts of relationships. History is full of it, war and business think maintain hierarchy constructs and that default programming seems to block sensibilities. To get past these knee jerk reactions, might take a new story about doing and being human. My polymath free range studies have yielded a new take on almost everything! Now trying to share it, get feedback etc is a challenge. Addiction is one of those plus to minus spectrum “things” as “Biology of Desire” inferred. The qualities that impact desire can become addictive if other channels are as blocked, metaphorically or physically. Seems the greater context is always relevant.
    Thanks for your work,
    deborah barnes

    • Marc January 18, 2019 at 12:13 am #

      I almost understand your comment, but a more standard writing style might help you share your message more easily.

      • CG January 21, 2019 at 8:21 am #

        I agree with that one!! I’m college educated, but standard writing would help. Who is she trying to impress!!??

        • Carlton January 21, 2019 at 5:43 pm #

          “Addiction is one of those plus to minus spectrum “things” as “Biology of Desire” inferred”.

          Deborah, could you say a bit more about this sentence?

          • matt January 28, 2019 at 7:34 am #

            Hi Deborah
            I’m also curious about this as Carlton is. Snarkiness does little to promote understanding.

            • Carlton January 28, 2019 at 10:37 am #

              Actually the spectrum; “addicted to not-addicted”, is the very same spectrum as; “ In-love to Not-being in love”.

              It is radical idea, because Addiction and Love traditionally (and currently) are considered opposites, such as good /bad, right /wrong, healthy /unhealthy, etc.

              But in hindsight, it is indeed the very same spectrum.

              I don’t know if Deborah was referring to this “spectrum”, but if the Recovery Field comprehended Addiction in this way, it would radically change the idea, and especially the treatment of Addiction in a very profound way.

              • carl January 30, 2019 at 2:20 pm #

                Carlton- I absolutely love the “love” analogy. I also think it can radically change how we look at it. I think it makes so much sense. It use the analogy as a way to communicate to others the complexity of addiction. I’m bothered that April Smith doesn’t like it for some reason because honestly I’m a fan of her views but I suppose we’re just have to disagree on this one.

                • Carlton January 31, 2019 at 8:31 pm #

                  Carl, in certain ways they are inter-changeable.

                  Take this this quote from Emily Bronte:

                  “The Love which Devours life itself, which devastates the present and desolates the future.”

                  and swap in addiction;

                  “The Addiction which Devours life itself, which devastates the present and desolates the future.”

                  Addicts may recognize it themselves easier, and Society would understand and empathize
                  with addicts I think, if this was properly presented.

                  • carl February 4, 2019 at 4:04 pm #

                    Yes. I would agree very much so.
                    ugh. I feel like we’re getting there. its all so fascinating ad yet so difficult. Thanks Carlton.
                    I do think that if a better definition of addiction could be presented -it would be so helpful and I think we need to include a relationship analogy.

                    • Carlton February 6, 2019 at 6:59 am #

                      People do not “decide” what to love, or not love, but the intense feeling can change

                      Nor do people “decide” to be addicted or, not to not be addicted,
                      but the intense feeling can change.

                      In a way, this study also points to Love and Addiction as being one-and-the-same.

                      It may provide the science to help addiction from this perspective.

                      Here is the link again:

                      “Love-related changes in the brain: a resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging study”

                      https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00071/full

                      Again Carl, its not easy reading, but curious what you think.

                  • carl February 7, 2019 at 1:11 pm #

                    Carlton-I think trying to read that article was pretty painful actually but its interesting to see relationships researched in that effective manner.
                    I believe this kind of research is helpful in broadening the scope of addiction
                    -which will prompt a new definition of addiction-
                    and hopefully encourage a much wider selection of individuals with SUD issues to get help as they are prompted by a change in how treatment is executed (less disease-like, a continuum that includes it not being identified as a disease) which in turn helps everyone..

                    • Carlton February 23, 2019 at 10:12 am #

                      Carl, to grasp that a “severely addicted” person is identical to a person that has a,“robust and functioning experience of unshakable love” for something….will take time.

                      But these types of studies and research, (like the link above) is adding evidence of this.

                      As Marc mentioned, addiction is a very complex (and individual) thing.. as is Love.

                      I think the public-at-large will grasp and accept this change of mindset from a disease-based model to a Love-based model before the Medical or Recovery field will.

  4. Dor January 17, 2019 at 9:54 am #

    To deny the demonic force involved in addiction is to deny the spirituality needed to “cure” it. I agree it is filling a void, but where does that void come from? If God, and a purposeful life were there from the start, the addiction might not have taken hold. As an outsider looking in, you can see the devil in all his glory.

    • Colin Brewer. London UK January 17, 2019 at 1:32 pm #

      A purposeful life, certainly: also the parents and the (partly inherited) personality characteristics that help to acquire it, plus some good luck in the lottery of life. But God? What’s your evidence for that and anyway, which God? There seems to be more than one. (At least thirty thousand, I was told in Katmandu.) Denmark and the Czech Republic have low and falling levels of religious belief and adherence but neither figures very prominently in the addiction statistics and Danes are regularly cited as the world’s happiest people. They also have a functioning welfare state and – from my brief visits – not much obvious poverty. America’s history may partly explain the prominence of religion in everyday life and politics but on this side of the Atlantic, things are different. And by the way, there wasn’t much illicit drug addiction in the Godless USSR, though lots of alcoholism from the days when everyone went to church and kissed icons. There are AA groups that don’t do God and I think that their abstinence rates are no lower than the ones that do.

      • Marc January 18, 2019 at 12:15 am #

        I couldn’t agree more.

    • CG January 21, 2019 at 8:30 am #

      Uhhm….Many people I’ve met in 12- step programs were brought up introduced to God. They were involved in church with their families. A lot if them Catholic. So, the “no God” theory leading to addiction I don’t agree with. Nor do I agree with “poor upbringing, or low socioeconomic upbringing. I was brought up in upper- middle-class family, no abuse and felt loved. So. Why did I become an addict by age 18? And it ran rapidly after I became a successful nurse, mother and wife?? Hy , when I had everything going for me, did I throe it all away for dope? While a RN it was not any meds at work. No, opiates were not my thing. Speed!! Anything to give me energy. I’ll never understand why. I hope to someday get out of poverty but here, in SW Florida, it looks grim. I’ll keep pushing on….all anyone can do.

  5. Gary January 17, 2019 at 11:16 am #

    Pre-conditioning, in many respects, shapes ones’ core beliefs about themselves, others as well as the world in which they live. Although this “brainwashing” begins in the context of a family ( who has also been conditioned) it continues at school, work, community, etc.., technology also, especially in today’s world, plays a significant role as well. Institutions politically and/or religiously contribute.

    However, unless and/or until a person can wake-up from this dilemma he or she may remain forever trapped by their core beliefs. This is where “belief” becomes a thief.

    • Marc January 18, 2019 at 12:18 am #

      I assume you mean beliefs about the “otherness” of addiction, and certainly I agree. Even here in the Netherlands, when I teach or lecture about addiction I find that many young people are shocked that addicts can and do recover, that I (being a relatively functional human) was ever an addict, and so forth. The core belief that addiction is something like leprosy is incredibly strong and broadly disseminated.

      • Annette January 18, 2019 at 2:35 am #

        Yes! Totally agree, Marc. I see addiction as a response to the world, which feels valid at the time (to the person with the substance misuse problem). And then, as things improve, the need for the crutch gradually wanes and then disappears as life becomes happier and more meaningful. As I said below, I think the core issue is scapegoating in all cultures. Addicts are useful scapegoats, which is a pretty dark realisation….. 🙁

  6. Annette January 17, 2019 at 12:17 pm #

    I’ll go and take a look at the film. But the narratives need to change. Society loves to hate a scapegoat, rather than we ‘normal’ people doing the work to dismantle our judgments and lack of awareness. My younger brother (heroin addict) contributed to society for 20 years, via work, then checked out and relapsed when he didn’t have the unconditional love he needed (which we all crave.)

    What’s the answer? Kindness and patience – patience to help people rediscover their real selves and purpose, and the encouragement for people to live life at the margins if that’s what they prefer. My brother lived in low-income housing all his life, never drove, had a mortgage or long-term relationships, had poor health and a lot of emotional pain the last 10 years of his life Yet he cared for, and was friends with, many other addicts whose families had abandoned them. Who are we to judge what is a well-lived life, and not?

    Personally, I prefer to look at the love that each person shows others, rather than whether they’re using/abusing substances, or not

    • Janet January 17, 2019 at 12:49 pm #

      Annette, Thank you. You spoke to my soul. My sad and hurting heart. I want my son anywhere but where he is. Which is on the streets of Denver. With AIDS and a second time infection of Hepatitis C. After having been cured…literally cured.. of that. He went back out. I am helpless, helpless. The addict is so strong. My original son is long gone. I hope he meets your brother, and people like your brother, along the way. The broken and depraved behavior that rules the drug world is worse than the drugs. The lying and stealing and hustling. And the power of it all. I can’t find a way. Everything I have offered has been deconstructed. Now he’s 36. Tall and handsome and stronger than any other being I have ever known. How does one live in the streets? How do you choose the terrifying and frightening scenarios of that underworld over the shelters and the warm food and the social services that are free? The road out. That’s because the addict is choosing. And the addict is super human. The human is no match.
      We are all at a loss. Together.

      • Karen January 17, 2019 at 1:27 pm #

        The stories of Annette and Janet are about rejection. People can be very cruel in their othering of anyone who is the slightest bit different or independent. Life at the margins, on the streets, can offer more love and inclusion to some people, than the so-called “successful” life. The shelters and the warm food and the free social services come with a sting in the tail – the “dirty junkie” is judged, stripped of his dignity and autonomy.

        Even those of us living “normal” lives are addicted – to screens, sugar, alcohol. Marc refers to this as American culture but it’s wider than that – “modern” Western culture that infects the whole world. We’ve forgotten how to connect with each other, and just make money instead.

        • Janet January 17, 2019 at 3:27 pm #

          Karen, The truth has such a special ring to it. Yes, I feel terribly rejected. Rejected as a mother, a parent, a human heart, and fellow traveller. I didn’t even know how rejected I feel until you put a word to it. This will give me much to think about and feel. And Yes, drug addicts feel deeply rejected as well. It is a very profound, connected, and complex emotion I need to explore.
          On the other hand, falsehoods also ring loud. “Normal” has never been the goal. My son can ride the rails, live in a box, walk barefoot to the moon…. it is his life and I admire and respect that. He’s a stunning force of nature. Western Culture values have never entered into my view of my life or his or others.
          As far as the worship of money… all the addict ever ever wants from me is money. Nothing else. The all consuming quest for money rests on the addict. Not me. Not my values. And you know, if money could fix this, it would have been fixed a long time ago. I spend my day in service to others in a deeply rewarding community. Indeed, dignity, human connection, and respect. No matter your circumstances. Are what make this life have value. And to never stop learning. Marc, this is what has helped me live. Thank you.

        • Annette January 18, 2019 at 2:24 am #

          Janet, I have 5 decades experience of addiction – my birth family and now my own (hubby and son both have alcohol issues.) I did too – and HAPPILY quit almost 4 years ago.

          I dug deep to understand all of this: firstly my genes, discovering a distant relative who’d been an alcholic. The person was never spoken of, it was all buried – this was the Victorian era. It made sense = the genes had skipped 4 generations and erupted in us (and two cousins in Norway, with a completely different upbringing to us!) Then my father’s mental illness – that goes hand in hand with addiction.

          It’s all about inconsistency, which creates huge levels of anxiety in kids, as it did with me and my brothers. (Later on, my father suffered paranoid schizophrenia and had ECT and strong drugs – they did work, btw. He was a lot less proud and a bit more empathic after it – a relief!)

          Our genes WILL out. They need to be expressed in successive generations and brought to a level of awareness, and then healing, for successive generations to thrive. We can see that in people’s CHANGED behaviour. Mark Wolynn’s book “It didn’t start with me” is brilliant at explaining how successive generations who had nothing to do with the original trauma, still suffer its after effects. War is very traumatic for the soul: soldiers and civilians. So then I understood the reasons for my father’s mental illness.

          Eric, whom I wrote about, took his life in ’09, when he was 54: the exact same age as my father when he developed paranoid schizophrenia. I’m the only one in my family who’s managed to ditch the ‘fight/flight/freeze’ response and live peacefully with what is. A combination of deep, raggedy faith (not a churchgoer – there’s often huge judgment there!) and patient learning, and quiet observation. These days, I help people to quit drinking and there is a deep to it. I never needed to fit in, I just expressed my curiosity, courage and creativity and latterly compassion. (I also had two years of Open Dialogue therapy to help me come to terms with all this suffering.)

          I sense that your son does know his way back, but he’s not at the level of awareness yet. Unconditional love is the ONLY solution for what ails us. you demonstrate that in what you’ve written. I hope you can find some joy in each day, knowing and accepting you’ve done your very best. The truth is, none of us know the future: not our own, and certainly not our kids. Learning to live in the present is a gift of peace that we can renew each day. Namaste. xxx

          • Marc January 19, 2019 at 3:46 am #

            Hi Annette, What I think is carried by genetic and epigenetic links between generations is vulnerability to mental (and physical) health issues, not a tendency toward addiction per se. Of course the two go hand in hand when people try to find some relief from their demons.

            When you say it’s all about inconsistency, I fully agree. The degree to which mental health issues are transgenerational automatically sets up conflicts between idealized and real styles of parenting and philosophies of child-rearing. Mom said be like this, but she acted like that, and I don’t know which I can or should use as a template. This is where I think these inconsistencies sprout.

          • Janet January 19, 2019 at 12:38 pm #

            Namaste, Annette. Thank you for writing. What I learn from others is invaluable. You have a deep understanding and it’s brave to look at all the things you have. Peace.

      • Marc January 19, 2019 at 3:32 am #

        Your story is remarkably sad, Janet. We’ve communicated in the past, and I’ve shared your hope that things would change some day. But just as there are dark periods of history, when hope has no chance of being realized, there are dark periods in families, chapters with sad endings. It’s good to hear that you continue to persevere and to build a self-protective perspective that can help you through.

        I’m sure you’ve heard and considered a million suggestions from every compass point. Here’s a wild one — maybe a crazy thought, but it’s something that I must have gotten from the movie. What if you offered to accompany your son through his world for a few days or a week, or even 24 hours. Without judgment, as much as possible. Just to accompany him, as he scores, uses, finds places to sleep, and so forth. That would be a remarkable adventure for both of you. And you never know what might come of it.

        Or perhaps that’s too dangerous for your own peace of mind. Just a thought.

        Best to you, as always.

        • Janet January 19, 2019 at 12:36 pm #

          Hello Marc, You are always such a fine voice. Yes, I have thought of accompanying my son in his world. Do you know anyone who has done this? My family would probably put up a lot of concerns. Especially my other son, who is of all things, a firefighter, paramedic, college graduate, open heart … but he would be very very concerned. The father of my children, sadly, lives the same life as my oldest son, homeless, addicted, alcoholic in Florida, so I do not have a co-parent on this. But the man I am married to now would most likely stand by me to do the what I need to do in spite of the risks and support me. I think about finding my son more and more in his world as I believe less and less that we will ever meet in mine. I will continue to think about this. I imagine my son would think it an epic waste of money and ask for the cash instead. I live in California, he is now in Denver. I am open to input on this from you and others.
          I read your comments about inconsistency… another world to explore. My addicted son has often told me that he got “mixed messages.” I am sure there were many. We were all unaware of the level of their Dad’s secret life with alcohol and pills and although we believed we were one thing, we were another. I know I did the dance of the seven veils for years to keep things bright. I know I was not equipped to be this son’s mother. I knew it at the time. But I always hoped that the vast connection of friends, teachers, coaches, mentors, uncles, aunts, cousins..friends and families… that someone would connect. It never happened. A wasteland. The inconsistencies and the inability to properly parent my child is something I have had to make peace with as well. Sometimes I say to myself, “If I were powerful enough to have made this problem, I would be powerful enough to unmake it.” I am not.
          My son was born to live free… if anyone reading this wants to read my guest memoir on this blog it is called Immortal Pain, Loving an Addict. [You can find it here. –Marc] It was clear very early on that he would be free. And that was great. Despite the difficulties of school, employment, relationships. Never did I think this was where all that raw beauty would take him.
          Thanks everyone, especially Marc, for listening. Reading Marc’s book many years ago and connecting here has been a lifeline.
          Peace to all of you. I will let you know if I find my son. And if I don’t.

          • Karen January 20, 2019 at 2:23 am #

            Janet, if you did as Marc suggests and accompany your son in his world for a time, you imagine he “would think it an epic waste of money and ask for the cash instead”. Children and addicts often don’t know what they really need in the long term, because that part of their brain isn’t really functioning; only the immediate gratification bits are really online.

            • Karen January 20, 2019 at 3:24 am #

              Janet I just read your piece from 2012, Immortal Pain: Loving an Addict. From the comments it’s clear that your writing is valuable to others. I find this page is a nice place to be, and I hope you do, too. Good wishes to you. K

              • Janet January 20, 2019 at 5:49 pm #

                Thank you, Karen, for your warmth and encouragement. Marc has created a very safe place for so many of us. It’s an ongoing place of refuge. This started when I read Marc’s first book, Memoirs of an Addicted Brain. That book came into my life at an incredibly important time and this venue, where ideas are explored, where hearts are opened, has sustained me for years. Yes, it is a very good place to be. Here. When you say that my story has helped others feel a sense of place and safety and honesty … this helps.

            • Marc January 20, 2019 at 6:54 pm #

              Karen, just a PS, since you were good enough to put the brain into the picture. You are precisely right in your comparison of addicts and children. Indeed we can talk about a neural lack (ok, “dysfunction” then) that they share…. but we don’t have to see it as a dysfunction at all. Rather, you can see it as a *shortcut* which has its own advantages. In our evolutionary prehistory and even at the dinner table, grabbing what’s available isn’t such a bad habit at all!

              The pull for immediate gratification is something you can see so easily in kids…Even at age 12, my twin boys will gorge on the bread basket at a restaurant, knowing full well that the lamb chops to come will be more pleasureful in every way, and that they’ll fill up on bread and have less room for the lamb chops, if they persist. Psychologists and economists call the basic bias (for it IS a bias) “delay discounting”, which I nickname “now appeal” in my books and articles. I’ve written lots about it. It’s fundamental to addiction, in my view.

              We tend to scoff at this sort of “immaturity”, both in kids and in addicts. The older the person — child, teen, adult addict or thrill seeker — the more intense the scoffing. But there’s nothing willful, immoral, or even lazy about this cognitive mechanism. It’s like the “event horizon” in astrophysics….metaphorically of course. The actual mechanics of cognition (in the case of high reward value, close proximity in time, perceptual habit strength) connect the immediate reward (the bread basket) to the premotor system more readily than they do the later/”discounted” reward. So they sync up — the image, expectation, impulse, and the motor preparation…and in doing so they set up the action…whether it’s to reach out for the bread basket or to reach out for one’s cell phone (to contact Mr Dealer) — and that’s NOT metaphorical.

              • Karen January 20, 2019 at 11:23 pm #

                Now Marc, I paid attention when I read your books, and heard you interviewed on Radio New Zealand National, so I understand “delay discounting”, and that it’s not a dysfunction in itself. It’s part of a system that ensures (mostly) that we will behave in ways that promote our survival and the passing on of our genes, as long as we live in small kin groups on the savannahs of Africa in the stone age. I trained in biology (many years ago), so I see things in those terms, and try not to attach moral labels.

                Reading and thinking about procrastination and motivation, there’s a similar conflict, between immediate gratification and long-term gains. I’m in a new job, where my writing ability is useful to the organization, and the sense of achievement and kudos that come with that are gratifying, in a similar way that, say, eating chocolate is. It makes me think that meaningful, rewarding activities such as the ones I’m doing in my new job, could be one thing that helps people get out of substance addictions.

          • Marc January 20, 2019 at 11:56 am #

            Janet (and Karen) — These are fascinating reflections. I agree with Karen, that addicts often don’t know what they need. They can’t find (or even remember) the original “substance” that drugs replace. I’d go one further: it’s not his decision. If you want to try it (despite opposition or concern from your family), that’s your decision. You offer it. He either says okay or not. (nothing wrong with throwing in a restaurant meal as a mini-bribe)

            No parent is ever consistent…and I imagine you’ve been advised a million times not to blame yourself. So I’ll make it a million and one. Besides, being lied to by your alcoholic spouse doesn’t exactly make it easy to be consistent in your parenting performance.

            My mom often acknowledged that sending me to boarding school as a teen was a huge mistake. And it was her mistake. She owned it. (My dad never did.) Those two years of dislocation led to twelve years of drug misuse/addiction — read my Memoirs of an Addicted Brain, readers who want the whole story.) But eventually my mom figured she’d paid enough, in the currency of guilt and remorse. And I forgave her. And still do. Entirely.

            Altogether not a bad model for any and all parenting confusion. I tune into it myself when I think I’ve made a poor decision re my own kids.

            But my guess is that there’s a brain anomaly at work here — one that may be genetic at least in part. As you may know, I usually argue against the “genetic” causes of addiction. That tends to be too easy an answer. Still, it sounds like your son has psychopathic traits. (Have we discussed this?) That doesn’t make him evil. Far from it. It makes him a victim as much as anyone else.There’s a great interview with a diagnosed psychopath on Medium: https://medium.com/the-cut/my-life-as-a-psychopath-107114b46a03 It expresses the difficulty and frustration of dealing with a “normative” world with a brain that’s tuned differently. It doesn’t get into the brain stuff, but I recall from my brain study years that psychopaths actually have unusually sparse connections from the amygdala to a part of the prefrontal cortex called the orbitofrontal cortex, where, basically, value is assigned to experiences, especially social rewards.

            I don’t think that diagnostic wastebasket terms like “psychopath” do anyone much justice. They are just signposts plunked down somewhere on the continuum of variation in human traits. But still. Having a brain that works one way and not another way is certainly not anyone’s FAULT. That’s the take-home here.

            I’ve inserted a link to your Guest Memoir above, Janet. Hoping that many other readers will find it easily. As I’ve said, your story is incredible, frightening, inspiring, and deeply relevant.

            • Janet January 20, 2019 at 6:17 pm #

              Marc, as always I thank you. Yes we have talked about the term “psychopath” and I am not afraid of it as a dark term. It’s that disconnect of consequences and empathy as well. The largeness of my son’s inability to read the norms of outcome and needs of others definitely has the classic mental illness components. I feel so deeply for him about this, as that is awful for him. What I fail to grasp is ..in what way does the massive descent into drug addiction and the horrific world that accompanies soothe this pain? And is there a way out?
              There are too many questions. I know. And so love love love is the answer.
              You, and your blog community, are so kind to me. It is here that we can be well.

              • Marc January 20, 2019 at 7:08 pm #

                Hey, I just emailed this reply to Janet, then I figured I might as well share it with the rest of you, for whatever it’s worth:

                Hi Janet. Yes, I thought I remembered talking about this issue with you. Sigh.

                Look, drug addiction DOESN’T soothe his pain. You have to stop seeing this in terms of “positive reinforcement” — which I know is very difficult, because that’s such an omnipresent context for our thinking. It’s so built in. But let’s just forget about Skinner and think only in terms of Pavlov. Think about habitual responses, that are SEMIautonomous. And when I say responses, I don’t mean actual behaviours….I mean thoughts linking up with thoughts and emotions, a process of synaptic linking and triggering that goes on many milliseconds (a significant time lag as far as brain events) before the behaviour actually takes place.

                I tend to tighten my abdominal muscles and hunch when my lower back hurts. This of course makes it worse. It’s almost that simple.

                We can talk about this more tomorrow, over email or via Skype or on the blog. About ways to think about helping. For now I’ve got to get to bed. It’s after midnight here! (so what do I do? I focus all the more intently on sending out more emails…that’s my habit/reflex…presumably it (or its cousin) served me well once upon a time. Not now it doesn’t!)

                Warm wishes, as always,
                Marc

                PS. I’m going to post this as a reply on the blog as well. Others may find it relevant and there’s nothing that’s particularly private.

                • Janet January 20, 2019 at 7:37 pm #

                  Good Night, Marc. Self care…sleep. The best! I will re-read and reflect very much on what you have just written. It rings true loud and clear. I can get it in my head.. it struggles to fit in my heart… why would someone keep his hand on a hot stove? Sorry, another question. I think I can get this, though. Sleep well.

                  • Marc January 20, 2019 at 8:05 pm #

                    You sleep well too. I’m sending the moon your way…I guess it’ll still be full by the time it gets there.

                    Hey, I just read this on Google when I went to check on the moon’s schedule:

                    “On 20 January 2019, millions of people across Americas, parts of western Europe, and Africa will be witness to a super blood wolf moon. It is particularly important because it is going to be the last total lunar eclipse until May 2021. So, get ready to feast your eyes on this epic astronomical event.”

                    Didn’t seem to make the headlines here in the Netherlands (it’s always cloudy here anyway) but hey! Enjoy! (um, not sure whether the eclipse was to be tonight, even though it’s the 21st by now. I think that still counts)

                    The symbolism is way beyond me, but maybe it’s time for a change.

              • Karen January 20, 2019 at 11:40 pm #

                Janet I agree with Marc, it’s your decision to offer to spend time with your son in his world; just the fact that you offer, is a statement in itself, whether he takes you up on it, or not. Even if it was just for a few hours (a shorter time would be better for your safety I imagine).

                Reading what you wrote in 2012, made me realize what a long, long journey this must have been for you.

    • Marc January 18, 2019 at 11:43 am #

      That’s a great way to think of it, Annette, and a good start at correcting the principles that continue to justify the oppression of drug users.

    • CG January 21, 2019 at 8:33 am #

      Thank you, well said. I’m sorry for your loss.

  7. Richard Henry January 17, 2019 at 12:59 pm #

    We are accepting the need for naloxone here in Canada and even have out-reach workers that walk the streets with the life-saving kits. We have also adopted Injection sites at our Community Health centres, where people can get the drugs tested and inject their choice drug with a medical professional there on standby in case of overdose.
    For me… as I wrote on the back of my second book “Life in The Game of Addictions”
    A feeling is forever from a moment in time, it was my inner afflictions and unresolved issues, my emotional conflicts that affected my outer actions. My pursuit of peace and comfort have fallen short in Addictions. I was driven to avoid sadness and seek out rewards of happiness in all the wrong places when all along it was right in front of me, my family.
    Thanks for helping me reclaim my Love for Life. Forever and ever Amen.
    Respect Richard Henry
    P.S. My new early Childhood Educational Book is being released this month and can be found on LULU
    It’s called
    At Papa’s Where “Too Much” is not always good.
    All the best to you Marc

    • Marc January 18, 2019 at 12:43 am #

      Hi Richard. Good to hear from you and congrats on your second book. In the movie, a desperate mom (Julia Roberts) goes to a pharmacy window and begs for naloxone, figuring that her son is just about to OD. The pharmacist says, No, we don’t carry that anymore. Mom can’t believe it and asks why. The reply: Because our policy is not to encourage irresponsible behaviour. Jeez. It doesn’t take a linguistic genius to get the subtext: let the drug users die and we’ll all be better off.

  8. Joyce January 17, 2019 at 1:49 pm #

    After reading several of these posts, I feel so incredibly fortunate that my addict son has been in recovery for 15 months. In looking back at the 5 years he spent in his love affair with drugs, I never once made him leave our home, in spite of disapproval from other family members and sometimes well-meaning people at Nar-Anon and Al-Anon meetings. I always felt that I knew him better than any of these people, and knew he needed constant love and encouragement and a safe place to sleep. The ride was not pretty, but it was worth it. Of course I am not naive and sometimes feel like I am waiting for the other shoe to drop. I recall one night in particular where he asked me if he could invite 4 or 5 of his “friends” over to watch a pay-TV fight. I was hesitant, but allowed it. Afterwards, he said to me “Thanks for letting me have them over. It was the first time in a long time I felt like a normal human”. The constant fight with the demon was intertwined with such self-loathing, I just could never abandon him to the streets. I wish their were easy answers, but I firmly believe it’s such an individual effort to emerge from the bowels of this problem. I also believe maintenance drugs were the lifesaver for him many times. I sincerely hope all of your loved ones find the one thing that can spark their journey back to a drug free existence. It’s not quick and without work, but so worth it.

    • Marc January 18, 2019 at 12:59 am #

      What a courageous and effective solution you found, Joyce, mixing love and concern with practical (rather than wishful) thinking. I will refer people to your story. I think it exemplifies the sort of compromise that many parents should try to adopt.

    • CG January 21, 2019 at 8:40 am #

      Great! My parents never turned me away either. Some call it”enabling ” I like to think it was “unconditional love “. They did leave me in jail one time. If bonded out …my ex (husband) at the time filed a no contact order. I would’ve had no place good to go. My parents were 2 stars away. I’m not completely clean…. Once a month…or twice have a m binge. I’m much better though. The little things that make us feel human really help.

  9. Jane Maher January 17, 2019 at 3:08 pm #

    Thanks Marc for your review! I was hoping to hear from some alcoholics/addicts about this Hollywood portrayal. It really sounds pretty white bread. My husband and I met in AA, both have over 32 years sober. We used to take our son to meetings when he was a kid & yet we could not “make him sober”! Imagine performing CPR on your 18 year old? I saved him. That’s movie material…but so personal. When I first saw the ad for “Ben is Back” I just started laughing! Like, is that all? Just a drug addict kid? I remember in 2016 retrieving my son from another OD at the ER in CT. I had my 90 year old one legged mom with me who was still recovering from her amputation and heart surgery. We drove from Washington where my husband had just had a four organ transplant at Georgetown University hospital in DC. (Liver, stomach, pancreas, small bowel) He’s getting better. It has been a long recovery. My son is now committed to his sobriety. We are, and have always been, here for him. He is our life. He is our favorite person.
    In the movie ad Roberts’ hysteria with the cops crying, begging, does no good, and her tear filled eyes are nothing her 20 year old son wants to see on a regular basis! Hollywood…

    • Marc January 19, 2019 at 3:38 am #

      What a wild story, Jane! Definitely movie material. And with a happy ending?!

      You’re right that the mother’s desperation and tears do no good and probably some harm. Based on my own experience, they amplify the guilt and the urge to self-punish. But that’s life, and it takes a lot of learning for parents to find the balance between self-protection and unremitting care.

  10. Janet January 19, 2019 at 12:56 pm #

    My beloved child,
    Break your heart no longer.
    Each time you judge yourself you break your own heart.
    You stop feeding on the love which is the wellspring of your vitality.
    The time has come, your time.

    To live, to celebrate, to see the goodness that you are.

    Let no one, no thing, no idea or ideal obstruct you…
    If one comes, even in the name of “Truth” forgive it for its
    unknowing.

    Do not fight.
    Let go.
    And breathe….into the goodness that you are.

    by Babuji

    • Marc January 20, 2019 at 7:09 pm #

      So beautiful!

  11. Eric Nada January 20, 2019 at 12:10 pm #

    I, too, was shooting heroin at 20 years old. And I, too, am so disappointed at the depiction of addiction and recovery that is continuously painted in American media and film. I understand that all films must be somewhat formulaic, but it seems like the addiction story loses itself in most films, especially if they attempt to tell the story of recovery and present it as a deep redemption. It almost invariably becomes a narrative that demonizes drugs and venerates recovery. This works well for film but doesn’t tell a realistic story. I don’t mean to bash on Hollywood but there is such a strong relationship between it the black and white/ disease/ 12-step story that is keeping us from finding deeper more nuanced approaches to the problem. Of course mainstream films must be somewhat stereotypical and rely on archetypal presentations of these themes, but I think the truth is not as dramatic and not as movie worthy.

    • Janet January 20, 2019 at 6:01 pm #

      Powerful, Eric, and so to the point. There has to be that soft place. Right? We just can’t seem to find it. Why can’t we get this? Can big Pharmas restitution to society be a middle ground of sanctuaries for users??

    • Janet January 20, 2019 at 6:07 pm #

      Powerful, Eric. Well said. Why can’t we find that softer middle ground? Maybe big Pharmas restitution to society could be hugely funded, well-run sanctuaries where users can use safely without judgement and without the “recovery as redemption” you so well wrote. That invisible high wire from the streets to “recovery” just isn’t working.

  12. E stone January 22, 2019 at 10:22 am #

    My 26 year old Cousin Overdosed this past Sunday 1/20/2019. He was found and supposedly dead for 5 hours before he was found. He was found with his 1 year old son in his dead arms all alone. The night before that his wife overdosed and was in the hospital at the time of him overdosing. The State has taken custody of his son and my family is fighting to get him back .He has overdosed dozens of times in the past year . I cant imagine what would have made him do this with his child in his arms. Did his son crawl to him after he used? Did he use in another room and make his way to the living room ? Did he struggle ? His Wife and that side of the family dont even have the money to cremate him never mind provide a memorial service for him they are trying to crowd fund it i guess. Im left feeling guilty , shocked, and slightly responsible for my lack of help I provided my cousin . Struggling with my own personal life issues and Depression I never even sat down to think about all the people like my cousin I have pushed away from my own life .

    As i’m sitting here crying listening to my cousins playlist that he created on Youtube. He was 26. A year ago he got married to a substance abuse counselor and had a baby last year. Lukas Graham’s ” 7 Years ” is on his playlist. Not exactly something I would choose but got to admit its frighteningly horrifying to listen to in the present context. The Lyrics must have resonated with my cousin the same way they are with me today because the rest of his playlist is all Rap music.

    ” 7 Years Old ?” Me and my Cousin Grew up together. Sharing cribs, sharing toys , sharing birthdays as his his only 2 days apart from mine. We were a year apart but we might as well have been twins growing up .

    Both of our moms (sisters) were drug addicts. We have both been through the system ourselves . We both went through foster care and bounced around from house to house. Most of the time seeing the adults using drugs in front of us . It was normal for our moms , aunts and other family members to use and talk about hard drugs in front of us. At about 7 years old was around the time we were split up due to our mothers drug use. I went to live with my father and he was adopted by a family friend. My cousin never had a chance in life with the cards he was dealt . I still seen him frequently but it wasn’t the same for us as it was growing up.

    His new family took care of him but I never felt he was loved. His bed was in a hallway but he made the best of it. He was amazing at sports I remember always being jealous of how good he was whenever I went to his games. He never really found himself . Never went to college . Never kept a steady job . After school days never played any sports again . The last time I saw him was probably about 4 years ago . He came to my house to visit and meet my newly born daughter. I could tell he was in rough shape but we had a great week hanging out and vacationing together in Florida. I wish i could remember the last thing we talked about or the last thing we did but I cant. I am left with an overwhelming wave of guilt struck over me . Why didn’t I call him? Why didn’t I sign up for that stupid Facebook account so I could stay in touch ? Could I have helped him ? Why do I alienate everybody that doesn’t fit my picture perfect cutout of what a person should be ? Did my cousin know how much I loved him and how much im proud of him ? Probably not . Call Your relatives . Call your family . Tell them you love them . Nothing is permanent . Everything is temporary .

    Cant help but Replay this same song now. ” Soon Ill be 60 years old ” . I wish you could have got to live to see your 60th Birthday Cuz. Maybe See your Sons 60th Birthday . I wish I could have done something or at least told you how proud of you I was . Don’t worry we will take care of your son and make sure he had a better chance at life then we did . I will stay in touch this time. Im sorry i didn’t do more, I love you .

    To anybody struggling with addiction please read this and know your family cares. Even a distant cousin that you haven’t seen in a while. Your parents. Your neighbor . Somebody Cares. Theres always somebody that is willing to help you and pick you up off your feet. Life is tough it was never meant to be easy . Dont struggle all alone, Dont Die all alone. You deserve better. And please get help . I know this is the hardest thing you have ever done in your life but you can do this I promise, Get Help .

    https://www.gofundme.com/yhjt3-in-memory-of-aaron-cosgro

    • Janet January 22, 2019 at 12:43 pm #

      E Stone. Heartbreak. And so much grief to bear. There is only one way for you to survive this and that is to forgive yourself. Your love for your cousin never wavered and now you can transfer that love to his baby child. And you need to thank yourself for getting to where you are so that you are now able to do this. What an incredibly awful set of circumstances you, and your cousin, have endured. You wrote so honestly about that. This honesty will help you heal. And it will help this baby as time moves on. Keep loving, keep hurting… Your cousin’s death is now unchangeable. But it is not the end. I admire your honesty and courage. You will not fail. Love from the whole world… I hope you can feel it.

      • E stone January 22, 2019 at 12:48 pm #

        Thank You So Much. I seriously appreciate your kind words.

  13. Ezequiel January 27, 2019 at 4:51 pm #

    Hello Marc, I’m new to this space and I read your publication carefully and the paragraph that came to me was “It shows that people who take drugs are occupied by some demonic force (or disease, or whatever) that makes them another They do not look like normal people at all. “The truth is that I had friends and family members who went through many of those things and it is as you describe it, it is as if they do not know you when they are under the influence of one of these substances. , the truth is that I only had addiction with cigarettes and thanks to a not very expensive program (I’ll leave the link in case any help: https://bit.ly/2Rk2dEZ ) I’m recovering many things from my life before entering in the addiction of cigarettes because it hurt me in life and I did not feel well until one day I said enough! and I started looking for help and online. Today I feel much better and I can even think with better clarity. Thanks for sharing the movie, tomorrow I’ll be watching. regards

  14. Carlton January 31, 2019 at 9:02 am #

    Carl, glad this resonates, and if you, (or anyone), know of people in the recovery field that this idea would resonate with, please let me know, I can offer a lot of notes and thoughts on this.

    I have approached a few of the current leaders in the recovery field, but each is understandably focused on their own ideas.

    Although I am corresponding with one of the researchers of, “Love-related changes in the brain”, (see link below), her focus is not specifically addiction/recovery.

    I think if an identical study is done with people that have recovered, ( where the feelings for the addiction have changed), a new understanding, model, and approach to the treatment of Addiction could be discovered.

    Here is the link:

    Love-related changes in the brain: a resting-state functional magnetic resonance imaging study

    https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnhum.2015.00071/full

    It is not easy reading, but you can get the gist of the research and findings I think.

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