Tag Archives: addiction

Living in the Aftershock of Someone Else’s Earthquake

Illustration by Zoe van Dijk

Ashley Abramson | Longreads | November 2017 | 16 minutes (3,939 words)

 

Springtime, just after my parents’ divorce: My dad had moved into a musty one-bedroom set in the corner of a cluster of white, rundown apartment buildings, the exact inverse of the impractical three-story he’d bought us just two years earlier after his promotion to district manager. My mom, who shuffled between jobs frequently, had been front desking at a doctor’s office in the next town over, down the street from the Tastee Freez. Que sera, sera, we would croon, our lips painted white with soft serve, whatever will be, will be. The two of us, singing, on either side of innocence.

The day my mom got busted at a pharmacy called Drug Town, I was 9, almost 10, the same age she was when the river swallowed her twin brother. I, too, would be devoured, inhaled by a force beyond my control. But that day, I was careless, browsing the drugstore’s collection of Easter candy while my mom picked up a prescription, one of the dozens of pills she took for reasons which, to that point, had remained just outside the confines of my life. She wasn’t yet sick enough for me to notice, or maybe she was, and I just hadn’t had a reason to peer beyond my love for her into her world, a place where she could do wrong. Not until that day.

First, two police officers, then me in the drug store’s break room, surrounded by teenage employees just old enough to understand what my mom had done and distract me with knick-knacks from the toy aisle. Still, I heard it from behind the closed door: My mom’s frantic bail phone call to my dad, his irate footsteps minutes later, her excuses in shards, the word “felony.” Que sera, sera. Her life and mine, slowly and suddenly eclipsed by her pills and whatever it took to get them. Whatever will be, will be.

And what, exactly was that day, but a mirror doing its job, reflecting back what had been true all along? On the surface, my mom, being accused again by my dad or someone more powerful than him. Below that, someone who had clearly done something wrong — broken the law — to get the thing she wanted. Another layer beneath that one: A woman who had been betrayed by her body. And at the core, the pain, always radiating, penetrating through, convincing us all that whatever she did wrong was just a glitch, as if her suffering had taken the wrong shape.

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The Sacred Right of Universal Narcotic Entitlement

Julie Rinaldi, left, and Lynn Locascio, right, both of Tampa, Fla., react as names are read of people who have died from OxyContin abuse. Rinaldi's daughter, Sarah, died at 17 from taking OxyContin. (AP Photo//Bristol Herald Courier, David Crigger)

The Sackler family funds top-tier museums (the Met, the Tate, the Smithsonian), universities (Princeton, Cambridge), and scientific research institutes (the Mayo Clinic, the National Academy of Sciences). Where does their cash come from? Writing in Esquire, Christopher Glazek tells us: pharmaceuticals — these days, largely OxyContin, which generates over a billion dollars in sales each year on the back of a campaign built on misleading both doctors and the public about its addictive potential. Over 200,000 people have now died of OxyContin overdoses, and many more from heroin after first becoming addicted to opioids via Oxy.

The Sacklers have experience turning an addictive drug into a household name. In the 1960s, family patriarch Arthur Sackler did it with benzodiazepene:

In the 1960s, Arthur was contracted by Roche to develop an advertising strategy for a new antianxiety medication called Valium. This posed a challenge, because the effects of the medication were nearly indistinguishable from those of Librium, another Roche tranquilizer that was already on the market. Arthur differentiated Valium by audaciously inflating its range of indications. Whereas Librium was sold as a treatment for garden- variety anxiety, Valium was positioned as an elixir for a problem Arthur christened “psychic tension.” According to his ads, psychic tension, the forebear of today’s “stress,” was the secret culprit behind a host of somatic conditions, including heartburn, gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, and restless-leg syndrome. The campaign was such a success that for a time Valium became America’s most widely prescribed medication—the first to reach more than $100 million in sales. Arthur, whose compensation depended on the volume of pills sold, was richly rewarded, and he later became one of the first inductees into the Medical Advertising Hall of Fame.

Later, the company would do the something similar with OxyContin and pain, when it “rebranded pain relief as a sacred right: a universal narcotic entitlement available not only to the terminally ill but to every American.”

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Immature Architects Built the Attention Economy

SMKR / Barcroft USA / Barcoft Media via Getty Images

A cadre of young technologists at Google, Twitter, and Facebook admit it: they didn’t think making smartphones addictive would make smartphones this addictive. Come to think of it, any negative consequences of the persuasive design they concocted in their twenties never really occurred to them.

Take Loren Brichter, the designer who created pull-to-refresh (the downward abracadabra swipe that prompts new app content to load). Brichter was 24 when he accidentally popularized this ubiquitous 2D gambling gesture. Of course, analogies between pull-to-refresh and slot machines are only clear to him now — in retrospect, through the hindsight bestowed upon him by adulthood.

“Now 32, Brichter says he never intended the design to be addictive,” Paul Lewis reports in the Guardian‘s latest special technology feature. Yet even the tech whiz behind the curtain has since fallen prey to some of his old design tricks. “I have two kids now,” Brichter confesses, “and I regret every minute that I’m not paying attention to them because my smartphone has sucked me in.”

As if these compulsions weren’t hollow enough, push notification technology rendered pull-to-refresh obsolete years ago. Apps can update content automatically, so swiping and pulling and user nudges aren’t just addictive, they’re redundant. According to Brichter, pull-to-refresh “could easily retire,” but now it’s become like the Door Close button in elevators that close automatically: “People just like to push it.”

So they do — over and over and over and over. In cases of addiction, people “just like to” touch their phones more than 2,617 times a day. As the opportunity costs of all that frittered attention really start to add up, Brichter and his peers find themselves fundamentally questioning their legacies:

“I’ve spent many hours and weeks and months and years thinking about whether anything I’ve done has made a net positive impact on society or humanity at all,” [Brichter] says. He has blocked certain websites, turned off push notifications, restricted his use of the Telegram app to message only with his wife and two close friends, and tried to wean himself off Twitter. “I still waste time on it,” he confesses, “just reading stupid news I already know about.” He charges his phone in the kitchen, plugging it in at 7pm and not touching it until the next morning.

“Smartphones are useful tools,” he says. “But they’re addictive. Pull-to-refresh is addictive. Twitter is addictive. These are not good things. When I was working on them, it was not something I was mature enough to think about. I’m not saying I’m mature now, but I’m a little bit more mature, and I regret the downsides.”

Lewis spotlights several designers who’ve come to similar ethical crossroads in their 30s, many of whom have quit posts at household-name technological juggernauts in the hopes of designing our way out of all this squandering.

If the attention economy is just a euphemism for the advertising economy, these techno-ethicists ask, can we intelligently design our way back to safeguarding our actual intentions? Can we take back the time we’ve lost to touchscreen-enabled compulsions, and reallocate that time to bend it to our will again? Or have we forgotten that human will and democracy, as one of Lewis’ “refuseniks” reminds us, are one and the same?

James Williams does not believe talk of dystopia is far-fetched. The ex-Google strategist who built the metrics system for the company’s global search advertising business, he has had a front-row view of an industry he describes as the “largest, most standardised and most centralised form of attentional control in human history”.

Williams, 35, left Google last year, and is on the cusp of completing a PhD at Oxford University exploring the ethics of persuasive design. It is a journey that has led him to question whether democracy can survive the new technological age.

He says his epiphany came a few years ago, when he noticed he was surrounded by technology that was inhibiting him from concentrating on the things he wanted to focus on. “It was that kind of individual, existential realisation: what’s going on?” he says. “Isn’t technology supposed to be doing the complete opposite of this?”

That discomfort was compounded during a moment at work, when he glanced at one of Google’s dashboards, a multicoloured display showing how much of people’s attention the company had commandeered for advertisers. “I realised: this is literally a million people that we’ve sort of nudged or persuaded to do this thing that they weren’t going to otherwise do,” he recalls.

If the attention economy erodes our ability to remember, to reason, to make decisions for ourselves – faculties that are essential to self-governance – what hope is there for democracy itself?

“The dynamics of the attention economy are structurally set up to undermine the human will,” he says. “If politics is an expression of our human will, on individual and collective levels, then the attention economy is directly undermining the assumptions that democracy rests on.” If Apple, Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat are gradually chipping away at our ability to control our own minds, could there come a point, I ask, at which democracy no longer functions?

“Will we be able to recognise it, if and when it happens?” Williams replies. “And if we can’t, then how do we know it hasn’t happened already?”

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Taking Up Smoking at the End of the World

John Sherman | Longreads | September 2017 | 9 minutes (2,250 words)

 

I started smoking this year. In Berlin, where I lived before recently returning to New York, almost everyone seems to smoke, almost everywhere, almost all the time. It’s like a 1970s game show, but in German and with better hair.

It wasn’t the ubiquity of smoking that sold me as much as the opportunity to become excellent at rolling cigarettes — a simple task that is wildly impressive when done well. The most practiced rollers can assemble a factory-grade filtered cigarette in about ten seconds, packing it casually against a thumbnail while your own attempt looks like a slightly crumpled, pregnant snake, leaking tobacco from both ends.

I’ve watched Berliners roll cigarettes walking, standing up in a moving subway car, and even once while biking through traffic on Karl-Marx-Straße. A German friend claimed her father could roll a cigarette inside his pants pocket, which, bullshit or not, puts the bar for trick-rolling higher than I can even imagine.

Aside from being a cheap way to smoke — about €5 for a bag of decent rolling tobacco, plus €1 each for filters and rolling paper — it’s an excellent sideline for fidgeters, people like me who can’t help but curl straw wrappers into intricate fiddleheads, or peel the label off their beer bottle to fold origami fortune tellers. Cigarette rolling is a mini-craft project unto itself, repeatable and perfectible. I probably enjoy rolling cigarettes even more than I enjoy smoking them.

***

I don’t mean to be flip about the health hazards of smoking, which are illustrated in full color on every side of every tobacco product I’ve ever purchased, and rattled off by every serious smoker I’ve ever talked to about it. I was born in America in 1989; the only thing I know about smoking is that it’s bad for me.

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West Virginia: Still High on Hope

Dr. John Aldis holds a naloxone nasal spray kit with the instruction sheet in Martinsburg, W.Va. Aldis trains people so that they can administer naloxone to an individual in the midst of a heroin overdose. (Jenni Vincent/The Journal via AP)

At The New Yorker, Margaret Talbot reports on the opioid epidemic in West Virginia. There, the overdose rate is the highest in the United States and many are fighting to help loved ones, friends, neighbors, and sometimes complete strangers get healthy: An emergency paramedic who routinely sees multiple overdoses a day, sometimes the same people on repeat. A team of moms called “The Hope Dealers” who drive addicts hours away to get the treatment they need. A 71-year-old doctor offering free public classes on how to administer Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of these now-commonplace overdose. All this in an opioid epidemic fueled by cheap highs and small-town despair over limited prospects.

We were driving away from Hedgesville when the third overdose call of the day came, for a twenty-nine-year-old male. Inside a nicely kept house in a modern subdivision, the man was lying unconscious on the bathroom floor, taking intermittent gasps. He was pale, though not yet the blue-tinged gray that people turn when they’ve been breathing poorly for a while. Opioid overdoses usually kill people by inhibiting respiration: breathing slows and starts to sound labored, then stops altogether.

As we drove away, Barrett predicted that the man would check himself out of the hospital as soon as he could; most O.D. patients refused further treatment. Even a brush with death was rarely a turning point for an addict. “It’s kind of hard to feel good about it,” Barrett said of the intervention. “Though he did say, ‘Thanks for waking me up.’ Well, that’s our job. But do you feel like you’re really making a difference? Ninety-nine per cent of the time, no.” The next week, Barrett’s crew was called back to the same house repeatedly. The man overdosed three times; his girlfriend, once.

But a larger factor, it seems, was the despair of white people in struggling small towns. Judith Feinberg, a professor at West Virginia University who studies drug addiction, described opioids as “the ultimate escape drugs.” She told me, “Boredom and a sense of uselessness and inadequacy—these are human failings that lead you to just want to withdraw. On heroin, you curl up in a corner and blank out the world. It’s an extremely seductive drug for dead-end towns, because it makes the world’s problems go away. Much more so than coke or meth, where you want to run around and do things—you get aggressive, razzed and jazzed.”

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Nyet to Harm Reduction: Russia’s HIV Epidemic

Julien Behal/PA Wire URN:6698749

At Gizmodo, Josephine Hüetlin (writing under the pseudonym Emma Lantreev) reports on how Russia’s aversion to harm reduction as a strategy to combat drug addiction has led to an HIV epidemic. In Yekaterinburg — the fourth largest city in Russia, with a population of 1.5 million people — one in 50 are HIV positive. In Russia, addiction is considered a “moral sickness” and methadone is illegal, “a despised ‘narcoliberal’ idea.” The country has gone so far as to assert that drug addiction and homosexuality are notions imported from the West in a bid to corrupt ‘Russia’s “conservative ideology and traditional values.”’ For those who are suffering, the prospects are grim.

The government’s primary strategy for dealing with people struggling with addiction is “making them feel miserable,” Sarang says. “As if the social pressure will make them stop using drugs.”

In a country with the largest population of injection drug users, methadone therapy is illegal. Methadone distribution is punishable with up to 20 years in prison. Heroin addicts— “anti-social elements,” as they’re called—are expected to quit cold-turkey, perhaps in one of the jail-like “treatment” centers.

Those suffering from both addiction and HIV complications face a torturous dead end. According to several reports by the Rylkov Foundation, doctors have often refused to treat HIV patients who use heroin, on the grounds that they won’t be able to follow their treatment regime.

The City Without Drugs organization is still active, as is their YouTube channel. It features hundreds of videos of drug addicts being dragged half-conscious through the street, their faces not blurred, or confessing their alleged worthlessness, their hopelessness, their shame.

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Pills and Thrills and Daffodils

AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Eva Tenuto | Longreads | April 2017 | 9 minutes (2,181 words)

 

It was the summer of 1997. For my 24th birthday, Rachel, one of my best friends, bought me the best present I could imagine receiving: a ticket to see Prince at Jones Beach Theater—on my birthday, July 23rd, no less. A full-on Prince fanatic, I was out-of-my-mind thrilled.

The plan was for me to drive down from Rosendale, where I was managing a bed and breakfast that had just opened, and meet Rachel and her boyfriend Andre there.

Rachel and I had become best friends in high school drama club, then both moved to New York City to study acting, eventually sharing an apartment on Avenue A between 9th and 10th Streets, across from Tompkins Square Park.

But after a few years, I decided to move back upstate, where I’m from, and take the job at the new bed and breakfast. I had been partying too much in the city. In fact, because of our out-of-control debauchery, once I decided to leave, Rachel wasn’t able to renew our lease.

Prince’s latest album, Emancipation, played a role: after nights of heavy drinking, Rachel and I would stumble up the four flights and blast our favorite song on the three-disc compilation set, an eight-minute track called Sleep Around. We would crank it at top volume and have a two-person dance-off right there in our living room. What we loved about the song was the build and the crescendo. Around minute five there’s a fierce drum solo that never failed to throw us over the edge, inspiring Rachel to bust out her bongo drums. Obviously, this was not something our neighbors appreciated at 4 a.m.

I thought relocation to the country would help calm me down. Maybe there, living in the middle of the forest, it would be easy for me to switch to from shots of tequila and cheap beer to fresh green juices and herbal tea.

But the bed and breakfast didn’t draw much business. With no guests, and many bottles of wine in the cellar, I was left to my own devices, and I partied, well, like it was 1999. Read more…

‘Smoking freebase has pretty much been my job for the past year.’

Writer Cat Marnell speaking on a panel in 2012
Cat Marnell speaking on a panel in 2012. (Photo by edenpictures via Flickr, CC BY 2.0).

In the New Yorker, Naomi Fry writes about Cat Marnell’s new memoir, How to Murder Your Life. Fry’s piece is part review, part analysis of women’s addiction stories.

In the familiar eschatology of addiction memoirs—David Carr’s “The Night of the Gun,” say, or Bill Clegg’s “Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man”—an ambitious protagonist is bested by the wearying force of substances, only to later conquer his dependency and return, relatively unscathed, to the more wholesome business of achievement and success. But both “You’ll Never Eat Lunch” and “How to Murder Your Life” are remarkably honest in foregrounding the invidious parallelism of their subjects’ multifarious drives. It turns out that, for some addicts, drug use doesn’t just subvert ambition—it also mimics it. For Phillips, the deal-making stops, but the same desires that fuelled her career trajectory continue to animate her addiction. “Smoking freebase has pretty much been my job for the past year,” she writes of a particularly extreme period. And even after she quits cocaine, she begins exercising compulsively so as not to become a “fat tub of goo.” “Had she figured out a new and exciting addiction?” she wonders after injuring herself working out, describing the pain in a swollen ankle as “little jolts all along the way . . . painumb, painumb, painumb,” beating rhythmically like so many ticks on a never-ending workday clock.

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Moved by Kim

Seth Davis Branitz | Longreads | March, 2017 | 16 minutes (4,085 words)

 

My parents had said it aloud many times, and I had shushed them.

I was guilty of sometimes thinking it.

“Just kill yourself, or get killed quickly, and end all the mayhem.”

My older brother had been barely surviving on a destructive path for so long that sometimes I wished he would just finish it off already.

Really. It just sometimes seemed the easier way for him, and for all of us.

I had no idea how much worse his death would actually make things—how alone his death would leave me, as it hastened the additional deaths that would leave me the only remaining member of my family. Read more…

Peanut Butter and Jelly: The NBA’s Secret Addiction

Photo by Connie Ma (CC BY-SA 2.0)

At ESPN, Baxter Holmes reports on how the lowly peanut butter and jelly sandwich fueled the 2007-08 Boston Celtics to an NBA title, becoming the sweet and salty stuff of superstitious sport legend that has spread like an addiction across the league.

But as the Garnett-Paul Pierce-Ray Allen Celtics steamrolled to a 66-win season and an NBA title, the secret to their success, so cleverly disguised between two pieces of white bread, was eventually leaked.

At the time, Doo notes, the Celtics not only didn’t provide lavish pregame spreads, they didn’t offer much food at all. But he soon found himself slapping together 20 PB&J’s about three hours before every tip-off, the finished products placed in bags and labeled with Sharpie in a secret code: “S” for strawberry, “G” for grape, “C” for crunchy. Of vital import: Garnett was an “S” man, and woe unto he who did not deliver him two S’s before every game. “If Kevin didn’t get his routine down, he’d be pissed,” Doo says. “Even if he didn’t eat them, he needed them to be there.”

The Trail Blazers offer 20 crustless, halved PB&J’s pregame — 10 of them toasted, a mandate ever since an opposing arena prepared them as such and Blazers guard Damian Lillard approved. They’re composed of organic fixings, save for white bread, which Portland’s assistant performance coach Ben Kenyon notes is a high-glycemic carb that easily digests to provide a quick energy jolt. Typically, all 20 vanish well before tip-off; sometimes the Blazers double their order.

The Rockets make sure the PB&J is available in their kitchen at all times, in all varieties — white and wheat bread, toasted, untoasted, Smucker’s strawberry and grape, Jif creamy and chunky — and offer 12 to 15 sandwiches pregame, with PB&J reinforcements provided at halftime and on postgame flights.

The Bucks might boast the NBA’s most elaborate PB&J operation: a pregame buffet featuring smooth, crunchy and almond butters, an assortment of jellies (raspberry, strawberry, grape, blueberry, apricot), three breads from a local bakery (white, wheat and gluten-free) and Nutella. The team scarfs 20 to 30 PB&J’s per game and travels with the ingredients, which rookies prepare on the plane and in visiting locker rooms.

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