The Culture of Drugs and Addiction: The reason and the Cure
The rampant use of substance and the increase in the culture of drugs in Campuses across the country is hardly a secret, every other week, we hear the news of Police busting rackets of drug dealers inside Campuses or we witness some report released by NGOs mentioning the alarming numbers of students (especially in Urban cities) getting addicted to all kinds of drugs which are widely available. But you would hardly see anyone raising the question that why a huge chunk of university and college going students are involved in such self-destructive habits, what is the rationale behind it?
To be fair, this culture of drugs is not just limited to the universities of our country but we witness this trend all across the Globe among teenagers and students. In the United States, alcohol is the most common drug consumed by teenagers and almost 2/3rd of students try alcohol when they reach 12th grade. In some surveys, it was reported that almost 90 percent of alcohol is consumed by High School students in the US. Vaping, Marijuana, Opioids etc. are some other commonly consumed drugs.
In Pakistan too, there is a rampant increase in the use of drugs (mostly marijuana) among University Students. Quaid-e-Azam university (QAU) in Islamabad is considered to be the country’s prestigious institution but often the only time it gets recognition in the mainstream media is when its name gets mentioned with the increasing number of its students getting involved in drugs. Even the Vice-Chancellor of the University, while speaking to the Standing Committee of the National Assembly on Narcotics Control, admitted that drugs were being sold inside the premises of the campus.
Redefining Addiction: An Emphatic Approach
Most of the discourse that revolves around this topic of addiction and the use of drugs, is mainly focused on how we can fix the individuals who are doing drugs? How do we bring more and more discipline in their lives? How can we restrict them? Etc. The problem with such discourse is, for one, it lacks empathy, and more importantly, it leads our policy makers and others to devise simplistic policies without seeing the nuances of the matter at hand.
Dr Gabor Mate, a Canadian physician, writer and academic trained in addiction and trauma counselling seems to be on a mission to “redefine” and “rethink” our approach towards all kinds of addiction and drugs. Gabor defines addiction as “any behavior which gives us temporary relief, comfort and pleasure but has long term negative consequences on our mental and physical well-being.” Addiction to anything, according to Mate, gives us a sense of control and a feeling of happiness. At the heart of Mate’s philosophy is the belief that there’s no such thing as an “addictive personality”. And nor is addiction a “disease”. Instead, it originates in a person’s need to solve a problem: a deep-seated problem, often from our earliest years that was to do with trauma or loss. Contrary to popular belief systems, especially in the Criminal Justice System, Gabor thinks that it’s utterly unfounded and unscientific that people chose to “be addicted” just like they chose to steal and to get involved in other criminal behaviors. He says that he had never met a singer addict in his lifetime, who a) was never sexually abused or b) was not traumatized, now who wants to be sexually abused or face trauma. Hence the argument of Mate carries much depth when he says that addiction just provides a temporary relief to a person who is suffering from severe childhood trauma, as nobody just wakes up in the morning and decides to become a drug addict, rather it’s just a response to the pain and suffering. And not only that, those traumatic experiences shape the brain itself. The physiology of essential brain circuits in a way that will bias that brain towards addictive behavior, including substances. Without going into deep neurophysiology of that, but it’s simply brain science and it is not even vaguely controversial. But the sad part is, not even our physician learns about it, so what can be expected from politicians, lawmakers and prosecutors who think that the only solution to fight the drug culture is just to punish people and make more strict laws about this whole menace.
The other part is, when we realize and understand what “addiction” is, we only reach to one possible conclusion that “drugs” are only one small part of the addictive spectrum. The addiction, as defined by Dr Gabor, says nothing about drugs, rather it focuses on “addictive behaviors.” It is possible that this behavior could involve substances like alcohol, cocaine etc. but this definition also includes people who are addicted to gambling, shopping, eating, to the internet, to power and to a whole lot of other human behaviors. It’s inhumane to even ostracize a single segment of the addicted population where almost all of us in this stressful environment are in some way or the other.
The Path Towards Healing
Human beings, in their nature are not solitary isolated creatures, either physiologically or psychologically, emotionally or spiritually and our physiology is deeply connected with our emotional and spiritual existence. The second reality about our existence is that we cannot separate these things from our social and emotional environment. Our relationships in early years and our childhood experiences shape our physiology and the way we feel about ourselves. And even before we are born, we are being affected by the emotional state of our mothers, and the emotional state of our mothers is being determined by the surrounding environment, by the social class they belong to and so many other things. So, at the time of birth, children of mothers who are stressed during pregnancy have biological marks of that stress in their body and they are born carrying that trauma in their bodies. According to Mate, we humans are biopsychosocial creatures, because our biology is not separate from our psychological and emotional experiences in a social context. And therefore, the nature of the world that we live in has much to do with our psychological health and mental wellness. So, the question that we really should be asking is, “Is the society making us sick and pushing us towards addictive behaviors?”. And when we look at statistics, we see that, anxiety is rising internationally, childhood diagnosis of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and other mental health conditions is also on an all times high all across the Globe, the rate of autoimmune disease is rising too. All these figures and data suggest that there are some prevalent qualities in the culture that is making us all sick. Some of those qualities are physical like the junk food we are so addicted to and the pollutants in the air that we breathe. Whereas, many others are emotional and psychological such as the ruthless competition that isolates people from each other, and we see that now children are developing diseases that only adults used to have. In the United States, 70% of the adult population is at least on one medication, 50% are on two medications. The record sales of Xanax should be an eye opener for all of us who want to solve these crises of drugs and addiction.
Now coming back to Pakistan, I think we can take a lot from the work of the likes of Dr Gabor and others who have professionally worked with the addicts and have helped their society to devise better policies and mechanisms to deal with the issue at hand. But I think we first have to acknowledge that people who get into this culture of drug abuse, are suffering from immense pain, some have troubled childhood, some are suffering from the loss of loved ones and they find temporary relief and happiness in drugs. So I would argue, before devising any policy or before making more laws around this topic of addiction and drugs, we first need to redefine and reevaluate our approach towards this topic and we need to have wider discussion around this whole issue, only the we would be able to heal, not only ourselves but the whole society.