In the last five years we have solved the scourge of peanuts. When I grew up if you had a peanut allergy you were screwed. Now just mention to an airline that you have one and they’ll (likely) pull every peanut off that plane. Mention it at a conference, they might just ban it from everybody. So why are we so understanding when someone has a peanut allergy, which is a very real thing, but we are unable to wrap our head around how to help the 116,000 people that die each year and is the leading cause of death amongst Americans age 18 to 49?
The answer is the average person doesn’t think a peanut allergy is a moral failing. The average person doesn’t think “Can’t Uncle Sean just pull it together and not have a peanut allergy this Christmas?”
We won’t be able to truly have deep conversations about what is killing our children, our loved ones and ourselves, until we change the national narrative about what addiction and substance use disorder actually is at its core. In my opinion, the only way to do that is through the arts.
When Barack Obama ran for president, he was opposed to gay marriage. Nowadays you can’t repeat what he said and run for City Council as a Democrat. Was Barack Obama really against gay marriage or did polling tell him it wouldn’t be popular? The national narrative was that people weren’t ready for it. What changed?
The way national narratives on AIDS have changed can be a guidepost for what we could be approaching addiction.
I’d say the arts. It all comes down to the TV that we watched, the movies that came out, the books that we read. Ellen came out as queer and we all thought maybe her career was over. It wasn’t. “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” aired on TV and we thought it was amazing that perhaps men might actually look in the mirror before leaving the house. The conversation changed to acknowledging that the gay community is and has always been a part of who we are.
The narrative has changed. More people are out. There is less shame in our lifetime. We need the arts to do that for the 40 million Americans struggling with substance use disorder. The crisis that costs the U.S. economy 1.5 trillion a year. Yep, with a T.
In the 1980s Reagan didn’t want to talk about AIDS. So, Larry Kramer and the Public Theater staged “The Normal Heart.” At the end of each performance, Larry stood out front and handed out pamphlets with information about HIV. The conversation was unstoppable. Reagan eventually acknowledged it. Larry Kramer and the arts led the way and saved lives.
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The way national narratives on AIDS have changed can be a guidepost for what we could be approaching addiction. Thirty years ago, the guys in my high school thought if you got AIDS, it was your fault and it was a death sentence. I have very clear memories of my friends mourning the death of basketball player Magic Johnson on the night we learned he was HIV positive. He’s still alive (and hopefully reading this.)
The arts can break the national narratives around addiction by portraying the multiple and vast ways of recovery.
Addiction is very similar. Yes, if you don’t talk about it, and don’t get help, you will almost inevitably die. But just like AIDS, it’s not anyone’s fault, and you can live a full life. We’d all rather have Stage 1 Cancer than Stage 4 so the goal should be the same: early conversation, early detection, changing the national perception about what it means to be ill — so that if you’re one of the people that struggles with pills, or booze, you do exactly what every person does when they get diagnosed with cancer. You walk into work the next day, tell your boss, select family friends, get multiple doctors’ opinions and collectively, as a community, start figuring out a way to fight.
If you had cancer, friends would support you, people would bake for you, your in-shape friends would run marathons for you. Bless their hearts. Why? Because even if you are a smoker or even if you eat cheeseburgers all the time, like me, people don’t currently think of cancer as a moral failing. It’s hereditary, it gets a lot of people, whatcha gonna do? Interestingly, at one point we did paint cancer as the victim’s fault. Another narrative that has changed in our lifetime. It’s possible.
So, what should the arts be doing? They can break the national narratives around addiction by portraying the multiple and vast ways of recovery. When I was trying to get sober, TV had told me that if you wanted to get sober you had to go to a sad church basement where seven people would sit in a circle and chant your name.
I can’t imagine why the average person doesn’t want to do that.
Anyone that’s actually been to a series of AA meetings knows that despair is far from the truth. Yes, there is the occasional chant that still catches me off guard, but there’s also some of the funniest stories I’ve ever heard. There are people ready to help you. Smart, hilarious, great people.
Let’s also be clear: you can get sober, you can spend years in recovery, help save others and have nothing to do with AA at all. Not a lick.
But until there’s a conversation about addiction not as a moral failing, there won’t be a conversation about the many ways it can be fought.
Until there’s a conversation about addiction not as a moral failing, there won’t be a conversation about the many ways it can be fought.
Honestly, I can’t think of a single show I’ve ever seen where a person in recovery shows up and their relapsing isn’t a plot point. Admittedly, it’s a great way to end season one – or they take a drink right before intermission? Who saw that coming? Everyone. Because it’s the only narrative the arts provide. So, it’s what we expect.
We need plays, movies, books, operas, TV shows that show the many ways that people can make positive change in their life. People in recovery walk amongst you, California sober people (which means they don’t drink but they smoke pot) walk amongst you, people who have actively decided to ‘deal with the issues in their life in the order with which they may kill you’ walk amongst you. They need to be represented in the art the public consumes.
The arts can show the world the full breadth of recovery, the full breadth of humanity, and like gay marriage, change the narrative in our lifetime.
At the end of Tony Kushner’s “Angels In America,” a character says, “We won’t die silent deaths anymore.” The arts said that once, meant it, and lives were saved. People are alive because of that play. The next crisis is upon us, and it’s time for the arts to step up once again.
about substance use disorder and drug use