There’s No Problem

By Mark E. Smith

Authors of online “blogs” are always tracking the statistics of their readerships. And, here’s a statistic of my readership that horrifies me: 25% of you will die of a drug-related death. No, I’m not talking heroin or cocaine or any illicit drug. Rather, it’s the prescribed medications – the benzos, the oxys, the hydros – that, statistically 50% of you are addicted to, will kill half of you. It’s a catch phrase known as “accidental overdose,” or more discretely, such conditions known as “heart arrhythmia.”

See, according to government statistics, those with disabilities are four times as likely to be substance abusers than the general population, and 50% of those with spinal cord injuries, for example, are addicts. Think about that: If you go to a disability event, every other person who you meet is addicted to prescription drugs – and half of them will die from it. As a population, we’re not WheelchairJunkies; we are just junkies.

Interestingly, there’s a scientific basis why those of us with disabilities are so prone to addiction. Modern research into addiction causation shows a direct link to emotional trauma – where we abuse substances to both mask and maintain trauma. On the one hand, substance abuse can be an escape, but it often also ties in to a deep-level psychology where we’re the only creature known that actually strives to “re-inflict” trauma unto ourselves, “maintaining” it throughout our lives (a simple – but tragic – example is that 76% of women abused by a spouse were abused as children, unwittingly “maintaining” the trauma throughout their lives by being drawn toward unhealthy relationships). Disability often has any number of emotional impacts attached, resulting in trauma, so it’s the prevalence of trauma surrounding disability that dramatically escalates the risk of substance abuse.

And, make no mistake, our culture and the medical community supports the abuse of drugs to address disability. If a crack-head walks into a doctor’s office, they call the police. But, roll in to that same doctor’s office in a wheelchair, with a spinal cord injury, multiple sclerosis, or cerebral palsy, and the prescription pad comes out. What would you like? Klonopin, Baclofen, Oxycontin, Soma? No problem. What – you want to up your dosage? No problem. And, no one questions you – not the doctor, not the pharmacist, not your family. Why? Because no one wants to doubt your physical struggles, and everyone wants you pain-free. But, they don’t know that you’re blazed out of your mind, that the drugs have bonded with your dopamine and endorphin levels, where the prefrontal cortex of your brain just drives you toward more drugs, more drugs, more drugs – and you are metabolically a full-blown addict.

But, what’s even more awesome is that you don’t think you’re an addict. From rationalizing in your own mind that your disability necessitates medication, to the legitimization of it all from the medical community, you’re right on course – there’s no problem. What’s more, we know that addicts lose the capacity to truly know that they’re addicts – the drugs literally crank up the denial chemistry in the brain. At best, addicts can dish-out victim mentality, “I’m fucked up.” And, in ways, they’re right. For decades, we’ve heard that the first step to recovery is admitting that there’s a problem. However, we know now, through modern addiction studies, that while addicts may occasionally voice that they have a problem, that they’re fucked up, they truly don’t have the capacity to recognize that they have a literal disease that’s killing them (and, it is a disease in that it alters your biology beyond your control) – it’s usually only after intervention, detox, and months of focused recovery that one truly realizes one’s addiction. So often a lack of willpower is socially equated with addiction (and it can be argued still that a lack of handling stresses in life, along with a genetic predisposition toward addiction can begin the process, itself). However, recent studies show that once addicted, the most instinctive drives of the brain are effected, and conscious volitional control is lost – that’s a disease.

And, so if you’re reading this, taking prescribed pills right on schedule, with them in neat rows, lined up on the kitchen counter, don’t worry, you’re not an addict. There’s no problem. The drugs are there just to help you function normally, as directed.

And, if you’re the loved one of someone whose medication has him or her agitated, nodding off, eyes glazed over, don’t worry, he or she is totally fine – just keep telling yourself that, due to disability, he or she needs the prescribed medication. It’s OK – it’s all normal, there’s no problem.

Yet, there’s nothing normal about any of it, and it’s a life-threatening health issue that kills – and, to top it off, there’s virtually no treatment. Tragically, even if, as an addict, you expressed your problem to most addiction specialists (which you would never really do because, again, addicts lie to everyone, especially themselves), even the specialists wouldn’t believe you. You’re a person with a disability taking prescribed drugs – there’s no problem. So, even if you or your loved ones strive to get you help with addiction, the medical community isn’t trained to offer it to you as one with a disability. In fact, even the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services publicly states, “Substance abuse prevention, intervention and treatment services are not physically, attitudinally, cognitively, or financially accessible, to persons with disabilities for many reasons.”

And, so the question becomes, as those with disabilities, when we start off with a lack of accountability by turning to medication, then use the medical system to become drug addicts, and the medical community legitimizes it, with no ability to treat it once it becomes a disease, what happens? Well… we die.

However, there are a few ancillary solutions. Firstly, toward those with disabilities, as a community – and especially within the medical community – we must all be aware of this health crisis, where the acceptance of use and prescription process must be dramatically curbed. We have to acknowledge the problem and stop it before the pen hits the prescription pad.

Secondly, if you’re the loved one of an addict with a disability, and your loved one’s addiction has become your family’s problem – and it always does – get help for yourself and your family, where you’re not a codependent to the addict. Addicts have a clinical narcissism where they lose the capacity to care about anyone but themselves and their addiction, and they will gladly emotionally, mentally, and financially destroy their families without an inkling of conscience. Addicts slowly consume relationships, and you have to break-free of that cycle, no matter how much you love that person (or, more aptly, how much you loved that person before he or she became an addict, as again, the brain changes so much under addiction that the original person no longer exists).

Therefore, as individuals and a community, let us stop addiction before it starts. If we have a loved one who’s an addict, let us have the strength to prioritize ourselves and our families to distance ourselves from the addict. And, if you’re already an addict – which you’re truly incapable of knowing – there’s statistically no U-turn for you: You’re simply buying time among the living dead.

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Following Fran

By Mark E. Smith

I recently participated in a San Francisco Chronicle newspaper debate over legalizing marijuana in California, and I quickly topped the debate as holder of the least popular position:

….As one with a severe disability, I’m constantly embarrassed that disability is used as a justification for pot use. The fact is, there’s no link between having a disability and using pot – and anyone who makes such a connection is simply using disability as an excuse to get high (and, arguably, avoid accountability in living with disability). No, living with disability isn’t always comfortable or ideal; however, it in no way warrants or justifies drug use. I assure you that many of us with disabilities have the self-acceptance and fortitude to live healthy, clear-minded lives, where we look at our peers with disabilities who use pot and call them what they really are: Drug addicts.

My “blunt” position was ranked by readers as the most disliked out of 40 or so arguments for or against legalizing pot – who knew there were so many angry, stoned people with disabilities reading the San Francisco Chronicle? …Based on their angry comments toward my position on the subject, you’d think that I was personally taking away their hash pipes.

However, all was not lost on me in the debate, as one pro-pot reader’s comment addressed to me particularly captured my attention:

Cannabis is used for pain relief, why should people suffer in pain unnecessarily? Do you think that suffering in pain is good for character development?

My answer is a no-nonsense one: Absolutely pain and suffering is good for character development – it’s among the foremost ways that we evolve for the positive as individuals. The fact is, adversity, pain, and suffering are intrinsic parts of human experience, and facing them in healthy ways is not only good for character development, but also strengthens the capacities of our humanity. After all, the only way that we truly develop resilience and fortitude is by facing adversities, not avoiding them. Adversity is like exercise: The more positive effort that we put into facing it, the more developed we become.

Even on seemingly superficial levels, it’s undeniable that adversity, pain, and suffering can serve us in positive ways. When we’re willing to study harder than our peers, we excel in school. When we’re willing to work harder than our colleagues, we excel in our careers. When we’re willing to push our bodies to the limit with exercise, we excel in health. And, all of these are character-building efforts, developing our tenacity and perseverance in spite of the discomfort that they require. In this way, there’s no question that one who avoids any discomfort has a less-developed character than those who expose themselves to hardships in order to live to their fullest potentials.

In a more literal way, there’s no question that embracing any physical pain of disability or illness – not masking or avoiding it – is a key to character development, an evolved skill set that will never fail us. One of my closest friend’s brother, Fran, has been going through among the most intensive cancer treatments, with massive doses of chemo therapy. However, to all of our amazement, he has barely slowed down his activity level, merely working his cancer treatment into his schedule rather than allowing it to dramatically effect his life. In fact, while most people are laid-up in bed, too ill to function at his level of treatment, Fran is out doing most of the activities that he’s always done, including helping others in any ways that he can. Sure, he told me that he feels like hell much of the time; but, he won’t let that get in his way. So, how does Fran defy conventional reaction to cancer treatment, not slowing down when others must, to where he possesses pain management skills that seem to contradict modern medicine’s understanding of it?

The answer is elementary: Some 48 years ago, Fran began building life skills by enduring a level of pain and suffering that very few humans have ever known. See, when Fran was 13, in 1961, working at a gas station, there was an explosion, setting him ablaze. Rather than stopping, dropping, and rolling – the technique that we all know today to extinguish flames – he ran in panic, further spreading the fire, burning his whole upper body, including his face, beyond recognition. A witness finally tackled him, putting out the flames; yet, Fran’s challenges had just begun.

Back in the early 1960s, the treatment methods for severe burn victims weren’t nearly as evolved as they are today. In fact, the post-burn treatment, such as soaked wound dressings, were said to be more painful than the burns, themselves – a striking contrast to such modern practices today as hydrotherapy. So, Fran not only went through the initial trauma of the explosion, but also endured the treatment of burns over his entire upper body, multiple surgeries, permanent disfigurement, and blindness in one eye. Yet, the experience ultimately made him all but unstoppable, going on to have a family and a dedicated career over the past 48 years, overcoming any adversities that he encountered, where he’s also been the go-to guy when anyone needs assistance or a helping hand – everyone just calls Fran.

As Fran proves, and as I’ve personally lived and witnessed time and time again, when we face pain and suffering head on – and when we’re even willing to pursue it when needed – we absolutely develop our character and strengthen our capacity to succeed in life, foundations of tenacity that serve no matter what comes our way. Indeed, we have the capacity to not just endure pain and suffering, but also to embrace it for our betterment.

I’ve never known anyone succeed in life from running from adversities. However, I can show you countless individuals, like Fran, who’ve succeeded by embracing the harshest circumstances with fortitude and perseverance – and true character, of course – where they’ve only become stronger and more successful. The way I see it, those pot-smokers with disabilities can keep at it in California – it’s their own lives they’re wasting. But, for me, I’m following Fran, where I’m glad to reap the life-long rewards of building character through embracing adversity, pain, and suffering. After all, the more we’re willing to endure, the more we’re willing to evolve as individuals.