Drugs are bad.
That is what I was taught, growing up. Aspirin was for wusses. Tough guys handled pain. Anti-depressants, stimulants, SSRI’s, hallucinogens, opiates and anti-inflammatories … these were all things that other people did. Even though I certainly took part in some, it was still an others based activity. I didn’t like the idea of drugs.
Approaching forty, I feel differently. Not too long ago, I had open heart surgery. Now I have to take a daily regiment of blood thinners as a result. My life is saved because of drugs, daily. I also take drugs for attention. It works like a miracle.
For those of us who have had a similar experiences, maybe we’re wrong about drugs?
Dictionary.com defines drug as “a chemical substance used in the treatment, cure, prevention, or diagnosis of disease or used to otherwise enhance physical or mental well-being.”1 Like most things, our basic feelings on drugs come from our childhood and early experiences with the concept. From there, we are largely socialized in our beliefs about drugs.
When I was young, no one came and told me not to take Ibuprofen. But I saw my role models around me react and respond to being solicited drugs.
“I don’t take medication.” Was said.
The parents weren’t big partiers or drinkers.
“Beer? No, thanks.” My father would reply.
Also, I had personal experience with drugs. I was given Benadryl when I was a young kid and slept for days. Scary. Later, I listened my teacher’s suggestion that I had ADD (before it was called ADHD) and that medication could help. I had symptoms throughout my life that became major roadblocks. My parents declined.
Point being –I agreed with my parents. I didn’t need drugs.
And so I took on this “drugs are bad” attitude. Who needs this pesky medicine stuff!
In an undergraduate neurology course, I saw a scan of a person’s brain before anti-depressants and after.
I was horrified! I concluded that if you took Xanax, you ceased to be you. You weren’t physically the same, a different person altogether!
I saw taking drugs to help with depression (or really anything else) as a weakness because of this weak-ass connection I made (wow, I’m feeling embarrassment right now for ever thinking this). I made a quiet judgements on those who did drugs of any kind.
Attempting pre-med in college, I read the same page for the forth time. My racing mind just wouldn’t absorb the information.
I know, I know. This is common, but this was the norm for me. Best I could squeeze out was C’s. In the end, I decided I couldn’t cut it because I just couldn’t study. And of course … I’m probably not smart enough.
Maybe drugs would have helped.
For many, similar experiences helped shape thier feelings on drugs.
Opinions on Drugs
Studies show that people’s feelings on drugs are shaped by the media.2 In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s the “War on Drugs” mantra created Just Say No! and D.A.R.E. These programs taught children the dangers of drugs and drug abuse. Research now suggests these programs had little effect on whether children grew up to do drugs or not.3
Most now consider the “War on Drugs” a failure.4 Although, the idea of initially preventing young people to try addictive or harmful substances seems sound enough, not much success is attributed to these programs.
Then, the term “Big Pharma” may come to mind. Access to drugs and the social issues therein, complicates our calculus. In 2015, CEO of a large pharmaceutical company raised the price on a life saving drug 5,000%, pricing it out of reach for most who actually need it.5
What a dick.
A $1.2 trillion dollar industry6, Big Pharma is the gatekeeper to necessary drugs for many of us. This can often lead us to a fork in the road where we have to decide if it is something we want to support or be a part of or not.
The perception of people who use drugs feeds our feelings. “Crackhead”, “Junkie”, “Pothead” and other derogatory titles come to mind. This social distinction certainly feeds in to our negativity on drug use.
There is a growing effort to change the perception on drug use and dependency. The Federal Bureau of Prisons reports that more than 45% of incarcerations are due to drug offenses.7 Our societal perception of drugs manifest in this statistic. At least the idea that incarceration may not be the proper way to address drug use is being discussed.
To illustrate how perceptions of drug use have changed in recent history, a survey conducted in the early 20th century found that 75% self-identified as addicted to drugs.8 This is before the opiate and cocaine-based drugs were made illegal and the current stigma placed on them. These folks also had steady and respectable jobs. There was a time when our current stigma was not the norm.
How Drugs Work
Drugs change or enhance the natural chemical factories inside our bodies. These chemicals affect the cells in our bodies in two ways: natural agonists produce a response when they bind to the receptor of a cell causing it to activate. And natural antagonists block the receptor causing activity in that cell to cease.
So, there are two ways a drug functions: as an unnatural agonist or an unnatural antagonist. Endorphins are natural agonists for the opioid receptors. Activation of these receptors creates a euphoric response. Our natural “high”. Morphine is an artificial agonist that causes the cell to activate in the same way.9
An antagonist blocks the receptors to inhibit a cell response. Caffeine is an antagonist that works by blocking adenosine receptors, which makes us sleepy. 10
It’s all very complicated beyond this point.
In sum, drugs mess with the chemical reactions in our bodies which change the way our bodies function and many times, feel.
Stimulants produce dopamine in the body, which is a pleasure causing chemical. In a 2006 study, it was found that ADHD drugs (IE. Ritalin, Adderall) seem to enhance activity in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This area is responsible for attention, decision making and expression of personality .11 The downfall, is that stimulants are very addictive.
I guess we all want to live in a dopamine soaked world.
At the ripe old age of 39, I have finally officially been diagnosed with ADHD and now take medication for it.
I notice that whatever I am now doing, I like to finish it to completion. This has not historically been a cornerstone of my personality. The medication helps me feel engaged in my work.
There is a Madmen episode in which Draper reports something like I feel like I’m scratching my at my life trying to get in, but I can’t. This is how I felt before taking meds.
However, if it came down to addiction or going off the drugs, I’d like to think I’d choose going off the drugs.
Narcotics are drugs that dull the senses, take the edge off. Opioids and Narcotics are, for the most part, synonymous. Agonists, they are used to treat chronic pain and are highly addictive. Eighty percent of the world’s prescriptions are consumed by Americans and up to one third of patients who take opioids become addicted to them.12
I have NOT had any good experiences with narcotics. Upon waking up from surgery, I was so worried there was going to be pain that I clicked that fentanyl pump immediately. Simply put, I did not like what I experienced.
Flames shot up from the both sides of the bed in the step-down facility. At the end of the hellish tunnel of flames, my mother and my ex-wife were trying to kill me and get my life insurance money!
Of course, that was a hallucination.
NEVER AGAIN did I click that pump.
For the rest of my recovery, I used aspirin.
Opioids are bad news. I had a friend pass from a heroin overdose. He was clean for years. The night before his birthday, he died, needle in arm. Perhaps the scariest thing about addiction to opioids (and addiction in general) is that it does not go away.
If you know someone battling Opioid addiction, call the American Psychological Organization 888-881-6729.
Hallucinogens are drugs that alter a person’s perceptions of their surroundings and thoughts. Generally, they are split into two categories: hallucinogens and dissociatives. Hallucinogens such as LSD, Psilocybin and DMT work through disrupting chemical communication throughout the brain. Disassociative drugs, such as PCP and Ketamine, disrupt glutamate, which regulates pain, emotion and response to surroundings.13
Even though it remains a schedule 1 FDA regulated drug (that means its illegal), current research is suggesting that psilocybin may help with depression, anxiety and addiction. Micro-dosing (taking small, managed doses) psilocybin appears to increase productivity and creativity.14
Personally, I hadn’t tried hallucinogens until later in life. At one point (you can consider me crazy, here) I had an experience during one of these “trips”, remembering what it felt like before I was born. There was a before.
I can’t do a better job explaining it.
It was a truly wonderful experience and one that changed many perspectives that I had previously.
Addiction and Danger
Of course the trouble with many drugs is that they are addictive and dangerous. Drugs, especially the most addictive types, release chemicals in the brain normally released when taking part in activities required for survival (IE exercising, eating or bonding).15 When our brain is healthy, it rewards these types of behavior with dopamine or other chemicals that make us feel good. When this is threatened, often our brains will release stress inducing chemicals in order to tell us: “Hey, this is real bad and…yeah… you could die“. Ceasing to do addictive drugs can cause the release of these stress chemicals. This could be perceived by the brain as a survival threat. This causes such severe stress on the body, it literally feels like the choice is life or death until the drug is taken. This is called withdrawal. This reaction is the biological root to addiction.
Opioid overdose can lead to death, overwhelming the opioid receptors and slowing the body the point of respiratory failure. One hundred and thirty people die everyday from an opioid overdose.16 Opioids are also extremely addictive. A double-dangerous drug. A third of folks prescribed opioids, end up addicted to them. It literally may feel like they’ll die if they don’t take the drug. And that’s dangerous.
These fairly new understandings suggest there should be a reconsideration of our drug enforcement policies in our country. Again, A LOT of people incarcerated were most likely experiencing addiction in the terms above.
So… some drugs are bad?
I guess my parents were essentially sharing their fears regarding drugs. Perhaps they didn’t understand and only knew the real bad stuff – like opioid deaths.
So … because we didn’t understand, we demonized?
How human of us.
Listen, opioids scare the hell out of me. No thank you, opioids. But, I think many drugs, when properly prescribed and understood by the person taking them, are both life changing, helpful and in many cases so much more than that.
It’s important that we culturally adjust our perceptions on drug use and addiction. It is not a sign of weakness to become addicted to drugs, but akin to an illness. The choice to use drugs is a personal one, and can be a powerful tool in living a meaningful and productive life.
2. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2017. “The World Drug Perception Problem 2017” https://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/reports/changing-perceptions Pg. 26.
3. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2017. “The World Drug Perception Problem 2017” https://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/reports/changing-perceptions Pg. 24
4. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2017. “The World Drug Perception Problem 2017” https://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/reports/changing-perceptions Pg. 20
8. The Global Commission on Drug Policy, 2017. “The World Drug Perception Problem 2017” https://www.globalcommissionondrugs.org/reports/changing-perceptions Pg. 24
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