On October 24th, the science section of the New York Times ran an article about AIDS drugs and leprosy. The article states that AZT and other antiretroviral drugs have finally arrived in impoverished countries only to trigger painful facial lesions and loss of blood flow in the fingers and toes. In short, the ďcureĒ for one disease unleashes another. Celia Farber caught flak for writing a cover story for Harperís last spring that blames AZT and other toxic AIDS treatments for inducing AIDS in thousands of previously asymptomatic HIV positive patients.
AIDS drugs are an extreme example of questionable treatments in a quick fix, drug-obsessed nation. The same impulse exists in more trivial, everyday matters. Americans donít like problems. We like solutions. And if we donít have a solution, we make one up. We’re prone to throw rat poisoning at the problem and call it a success if someone survives. Dozens of drug companies manufacture hundreds of thousands of supposed elixirs for every nose twitch and throat sniffle, because Americans find suffering on any level abhorrant and unacceptable. Americans donít have time for suffering. Suffering distracts us from our most beloved activity of Getting Shit Done. We’d rather cover the problem up, disguise the disturbance as quickly as possible so we don’t have to think about it. We prefer to flood our bodies and brains with life-stripping chemicals than locate the source of our suffering, which often (but not always) begins with our behavior.
Lest you accuse me of making radical, absurdist claims, letís break the argument apart.
Physical pain. Of course there are times when anesthetization is necessaryó during surgery, for instance, when the pain is so bad the shock itself may kill a patient. But most of us who buy Alka Seltzer in bulk are not in that sort of distress. Most of us are simply hung-over. Most of us are fearful of distress, and unwilling to inspect the activities that caused our pain in the first place. If Iím hitting 300 tennis balls a week, ignoring the paper bomb in my office, feeling trapped in my relationship, and doubting everything from my career path to my salad dressing to the skirt I just boughtó itís no wonder I have a headache. No wonder I’d rather distract myself from my suffering, with booze and Mars Bars and a grab bag of drugs, than look at my problems too hard. Only now not only do I have headaches and a torn rotator cuff, but all those pills have burned a hole in my stomach and thinned my blood and made me so dizzy I fainted in yoga class and never went back, yoga being the only healthy thing I did for myself. In other words, I’ve acquired a new set of problems that further displace me from the original problem, which means my suffering is here to stay.
Hormones. The August 20th issue of The New York Times features a short piece on the rampant use of the human growth hormone among professional athletes and the grossly overweight (am I allowed to say that? Grossly overweight?) H.B.H. is being touted as the antidote to aging, the fast-acting magic potion that restores saggy muscles and increases skin collagen by accelerating cell growth in tired bodies. Dissenters holler about the nasty side affects: blood sugar imbalances (diabetes), thickening bone density (pain and arthritis) and high speed cancer. Sad that our time preferences are so short that weíll trash our future health for quicker muscle twitch and a sleeker profile. Predictable that weíre so vain, so rigid in our superstar lifestyles, as to battle the inevitable. Humans arenít meant to be nineteen forever. Athletes past their prime should be happy with their trophies and video-game voice-overs and get off the field already. Change is what makes life interesting.
Cortisone shots. Throughout the final matches of his career, Agassi took half a dozen hits of cortisone just to keep himself upright. Oh, dear. Cortisone may lesson inflammation and take the pain away momentarily, but an injury is an injury. Just because you donít feel it doesnít mean it isnít there, unraveling your back muscles like a pair of torn pantyhose. I know, I know, real athletes fight to win at any cost, which is the difference between winners and losers. But what happens when their athletic careers are over at 30? Should they roll over and die? Sure, lifelong athletes have a hard time believing that life goes over the hill, but it will be even harder for them to enjoy if they’ve runned-and-gunned themselves crippled.
Mental illness. Again, I’m not saying mental illness doesn’t exit. Some people are, in fact, born deranged and prone to seizures and tend to jump off of bridges because they think they can fly. But for the remaining 5.9 billion of us, SSRIs and mood stabilizers are like burning down a house to get rid of a cockroach. Drug testing in this category is hardly scientific, unless you call feeding chemicals to rats and watching how they react sound medicine. Sure, the couch potato rat might now be bouncing off the walls, but who knows whatís going on inside his little rat brain? Maybe the rat is trying to fly. No one knows for sure what serotonin does, let alone how meds affect serotonin levels, but one thing is for sure: SSRIís do not fix the source of your problem. Only you can fix that. To paraphrase the great pharmaceutical skeptic Dr. Thomas Szasz, it is not the absence of mental illness that allows people to make positive choices in life. It is the making of good choices in life that leads to mental health.
Iím not claiming that drugs are bad. God no. Iím claiming that Americans take too many, and expect them to do too much. Modern drug culture is to humans what the welfare state is to our pooróboth promote laziness and a general dependency on an outside force to save us from pain and suffering that most of us cause ourselves, either with bad diet, out of control behavior, or delusional thinking. Health is no guarantee, no matter how cleanly and consciously we live, but one thing is for certain: assaulting our problems with pills will only make the problem grow bigger, stronger, and more unruly. Kind of like war.
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