Nothing New Under The Sun


“Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has contentions? Who has complaining? Who has wounds without cause? Who has redness of eyes? Those who linger long over wine.” So begins a verse from the Book of Proverbs that is estimated to be at least five-thousand years old. Likewise, the Buddha, who roamed the earth 2500 years ago, also warned against the use of intoxicants by stating: “Furthermore, abandoning the use of intoxicants, the disciple of the noble ones abstains from taking intoxicants. In doing so, he gives freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression to limitless numbers of beings.” 

 Are these just the antiquated warnings of ancient killjoys or is there wisdom in questioning why spiritual teachers warn about the dangers of mood altering substances? Ask anyone who lost a child to the opiate epidemic if warnings about drugs are overblown and I’m sure you’d get a straight answer. At the same time, I know that most people in this country can socially use alcohol and marijuana with no adverse effects. Should these people have to give up their glass of wine with dinner because about ten percent of the population have the propensity for chemical addiction? I don’t think so. But I do believe that part of the problem is that we don’t tell the truth about how alcohol and drugs affect our society and our bodies, leading to a warped sense of reality, where friendships are built on Budweiser, and Bob Marley’s cancer had nothing to do with his marijuana use, despite the fact that smoking increases the chances of skin cancer by fifty percent.

Here are just a few statistics about crimes related to alcohol and drug use from the Bureau of Justice: Victims of violent crimes said they believed there attacker was under the influence of alcohol and drugs 36% of the time. It’s estimated that perpetrators of sexual assault are intoxicated 38% of the time. Two-thirds of domestic violence incidents occur while the abuser is intoxicated. Again, I am not saying it is the only factor, but to ignore how much alcohol and drug use contributes to violence and crime is negligent at best. I know that most people convicted of partner abuse are mandated to some type of anger management class, but unless they are referred to drug and alcohol counseling as well, there will be very little improvement.

Alcohol and drugs impair the healthy functioning of the super-ego, that little Jiminy Cricket inside all of us that is in charge of executive functioning and decision making. When it is impaired or put to sleep by intoxicants, actions which were once considered taboo or dangerous, become possible and actualized. For those suffering with addiction, the repeated deterioration of their moral compass leads to guilt, shame, and crippling self-hate. When clients tell me that before they got sober they’d look in the mirror and not recognize themselves, they are rarely talking about their physical appearance, they are talking about the things they did while intoxicated, and the things they did to get intoxicated. Anyone who has ever wanted to put their fist through the mirror understands what I am pointing at.

Again, I am not a crusader against the use of alcohol and drugs, nor do I think its time to revisit Prohibition or declare another failed War on Drugs. But if we have decided that tobacco companies must tell the truth about the dangers of their products, and restaurants have to disclose calorie content in their food, why does the alcohol industry get to paint such a pretty picture about the use of their products? What if when you sat down on your favorite bar stool there was a sign that said:


Would signs like these keep an alcoholic from drinking? Of course not, addiction is far too complicated, and I haven’t met someone yet who stayed sober long-term because of fear. But I often tell my clients to finish the story when they talk about what they love about their addiction. Telling half the story is not the whole truth. I was taught that lies of omission didn’t get their own category, they are full blown lies.

I’ll turn to Thich Nhat Hanh, who says it much better than I do, a modern spiritual voice, speaking to our time, our culture.  “One could believe that if you don’t smoke or drink alcohol, you will not have any happiness at all in this life. This kind of advertising is dangerous; it penetrates into our unconscious. There are so many wonderful and healthy things to eat and drink. We have to show how this kind of propaganda misleads people.”

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