By Dave Pritchett, Wilderness Way Community (Portland, OR)
Addiction and Systems of Isolation
Every morning I walk into the addiction medicine center where I work, and scan the crowd attempting admission. Every morning, the faces of people hoping for treatment mimic the national trend of opiate addiction–overwhelmingly white, young men, in their 20’s and 30’s. While it is true that people struggling with mental health as well as people living in rural settings are statistically more susceptible to opioid pill addiction, heroin users tend to be urban men in their 20’s.
Because of this, my role in addiction medicine often feels similar to the men’s work I do.
In an anti-patriarchy group I co-facilitate, we look at the intersection of racism and patriarchy, and learn together how to actively mobilize white men against these interlocking systems. During the course of our organizing, we have discovered just how deeply into our psyches patriarchal culture runs. We cannot begin to mobilize other men until we ourselves have named and grappled with the ways patriarchy and white supremacy have formed us–we are too often emotionally stunted, socially isolated, and floundering to offer basic relational support to one another or the ones we love. Like the patients I see at work, we need recovery.
Why have opioids made such a large comeback?
Why are young white men leading the country in addiction to opioids?
Why are young white men so susceptible to being organized by white nationalists, white supremacists, and the alt-right?
As an addiction medicine provider and anti-racist organizer, these questions sit at the core of my everyday work. In the following essay, I draw out the link between isolation, addiction, and seek to understand why young white men are so prone to both opioid addiction as well as white supremacy.
Deaths of Despair
What I see in my work in addiction medicine has made patently clear that our culture is isolating and killing us. Opioid overdose is the leading cause of death among middle-aged Americans. In 2016 alone, over 64,000 people died of opioid overdose, a two-fold increase in just a decade. However, overdose risk is not spread evenly across the country. A study from Harvard and Baylor Universities shows that counties with the lowest level of social capital–the network of resources and people that work for the common good–had the highest numbers of overdose per capita. This shows that the vulnerability of the addict–from the latin root “vulnus,” or wound–is magnified by the painful wound of social marginalization. Many people who do not receive the connection they need seek feelings of warmth and acceptance from other sources. Research shows that opiates relieve separation distress among animal young, indicating that opiate addiction is intimately related to pain, stress and isolation. Contrary to popular belief, addiction is the symptom, rather than the cause, of alienation.
Our disintegrating forms of connection are not enough to override the loss of social and economic well-being lost to the marketplace. A Facebook friend cannot give you a hug. The small interaction with a store clerk replaced by the click of a button on Amazon may not be felt in the moment, but has a cumulative effect. We have outsourced romantic connection to Tinder. A swipe to the right is not the same as the squeeze of a hand. Meanwhile, that same isolation has led to sites like Reddit and gamergate where white men have fostered associations based on hatred of other identities.
This alienation, resulting in “deaths of despair,” is the end product of late capitalism. Like a snake oil salesman, the market has given us both the disease and the cure. The disease–isolation wrought by consumer culture. The cure–heroin and opioids shuttled by the black market. The acute pain of loneliness becomes blunted by the bitter pill of oxycodone. Meanwhile, the demographic tables of opioid addiction have turned since the first recognition of an opioid epidemic a century ago. While the trend is becoming more egalitarian, today it is white men who are the most susceptible to heroin addiction. Perhaps white men–historically the beneficiaries of the system–have finally become its prey as well.
Recent studies show that opioids are intricately involved in the neurobiology of attachment in humans and other mammals. Oxytocin, the neurochemical involved in bonding between parent and child and between mates, reconfigures the opioid receptor system in the brain. When prairie voles, who mate for life, had their opioid receptors blocked, they did not develop pair bonds. A study in mice showed that when their opioid receptors were removed, they did not exhibit preference for their mother the way normal infant mice do. These studies show us that love really is like a drug–an opiate, to be precise. When a person snorts a pill or draws black tar heroin into their syringe, could they be driven by a search for love that they have not gotten elsewhere?
Whiteness, Masculinity, and Love
In my work organizing men for gender and racial justice, I have become aware of how the interlocking system that bell hooks calls white-supremacist-capitalist-patriarchy has socialized white men like me towards isolation. White Supremacy tells us that we are the only group that matters–the irony is that we have clambered to the top of the system, and found ourselves alone. Capitalism tells us that our value is not in our relationships but in our upward mobility and buying power in the marketplace. Patriarchy tells us that expressing loneliness is weakness, and that the only connection worth pursuing is sex.
To be clear, the way the system hurts white men is not the same as the way it hurts people of other genders and races. For instance, Dr. Carl Hart, a neuroscientist and researcher at Columbia University, has written elsewhere about how racism affects the response to drug use in the black community. However, it hurts white men nonetheless, and it would behoove us to recognize this, both in our work within addiction as well as antiracism organizing. Hurt people hurt people. Wounded white men often respond to their isolation by propagating rape culture, join the resurgence of overt white supremacy, or, if all else fails, turn to heroin to feel strong (“heroisch”).
Often, the men I see for medical exams are too intoxicated to feel much of anything. But occasionally, their psychic pain ruptures through the high and tears seep out. Rarely, in those moments, a patient will ask for a hug. This brief interaction cannot replace years of trauma, pain, and isolation, but it can begin to rebuild a neurocircuitry of nurture needed on the journey from addiction to recovery, and from isolation to belonging. A hug is not a panacea, but it is a place to start.
In a recent interview, Ruby Sales lamented the need for a “liberating white theology,” one that speaks to the young white man injecting heroin in Massachusetts, or to the white person in Appalachia disaffected by the system. Such a liberating white theology for men would start with learning to love both ourselves and those around us. We must rekindle connection.
This cannot be a repeat of the standard white-patriarchal theologies–abstract, bereft of pathos, and without the grime of life on its pages. The last thing we need is more theology without connection, adrift in the intellect. Liberation for white men means learning the hard tasks of connection and love. Just as isolation can lead men into addiction, white supremacist movements, or both, so too, could nurturance and connection lead more and more white men from isolation to what Dr. King called “the Beloved Community.” The nurturance necessary to heal white men–as blogger Nora Samaran reminds us in a post called “The Opposite of Rape Culture is Nurturance Culture”—needs to come from men.
Connection cannot come from a theology, even a liberating white theology, and it cannot be systematized. It must ultimately be practiced. In the Wilderness Way Community, we call this the Skills of Loving. These skills set a community standard for how we might interact in ways that transcend manipulation and self-loathing. While love is not explicitly mentioned in these practices, we call them the skills of loving because when we do manifest them in our interactions with others, it is experienced as love:
Seeing others in their uniqueness, not how we want or assume them to be, as well as allowing ourselves to be seen.
Hearing what others are truly saying, not what we wish they were saying, as well as speaking our own truths with kindness and respect.
Honoring others’ feelings and ideas, recognizing others’ right to think and feel as they do, as well as our own.
Choosing to have good will for others and self, regardless of differences or difficulties.
Responding to needs and “being there” for others, within the limits of our value systems, when those needs are made known; as well as taking the responsibility to make our needs known.
Love is a difficult task. To remain connected means to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable exposes us to both belonging and pain–both of which are feelings modified by the opioid receptors of our brains.
If the opioid epidemic is indeed a crisis of love and belonging, our communities might best respond by remembering the wisdom of Dorothy Day: ”We have all known the long loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love, and that love comes with community.”
Scientific American, “The Social Life of Opioids.” Maia Szalavitz, 9/18/2017.
Panksepp, J., Herman, B., Connor, R., Bishop, P., and Scott, J.P. 1978. The biology of social attachments: opiates alleviate separation distress. Biological Psychiatry 13(5): 607-618.