Understanding Highs

Pop music these days is, well, poppy.

Most of the music that makes it to the charts is fun, and little else. That’s fine, right? Surely nobody’s looking for insight, guidance, or commentary from a pop star with whipped cream cans coming out of her bra.

But in the midst of all of this mindlessness, there’s something that’s a little off. The songs that we’re hearing, even the ones in the pop charts, are picking up on it.

One song, Chandelier by Sia, peaked at number 8 on the Billboard Top 100. On the surface, it sounds like a party jam, but when you actually delve into the lyrics, you’re seeing the sadness, shame, and dependency of the character. It’s a classic archetype of alcoholic, trying to come to terms with her addiction.

Alcohol, we know, has addictive properties. Part of the reason that brewers, distillers, and winemakers are everywhere is that a certain segment of their customer base is going to get addicted to it their product. In response, we regulate those industries heavily, support organizations that are meant to combat this addiction, and research modern techniques to help combat it.

We wrap our heads around alcoholism because it is an addiction to a specific chemical, accompanied by a physical compulsion. It’s the same for the ‘hard drug’ addiction, like heroin, crack, meth, and cocaine. But such addictions are portrayed dramatically. When you see an anti-methamphetamine ad, they’re not just saying that a kid shouldn’t do meth; they put a bleeding, diseased, horror movie version of a kid in a shower, begging their past self not to do it. As a result, we have an extremely muddled view of addiction.

Take Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello, one of my favorite bands: Hutz has said in multiple interviews that he never uses drugs on tour. In the same breath, though, he’ll say that he drinks alcohol while on tour, even though alcohol itself is quite obviously a drug. In fact, it’s the deadliest drug there is.

Hutz isn’t a sellout, a liar, or a fake; if anything, it’s admirable for an artist to come out and honestly say ‘I don’t do that,’ because hard drug use among musicians is almost an expectation. It does speak to the fact that our understanding of drugs, and addiction, is very hazy. It gets even worse when we talk about addictions that are not physical in nature, like sex, shopping, food, video games, internet, etc.

One thing we have to remember is that addiction was only understood as a disease worthy of study very recently. As a discipline, addiction medicine was only recognized by the American Medical Association in 1990. Further, many of the things we’re addicted to – hyper-palatable food, electronic devices, video games, prescription painkillers, etc. – are recent developments. Researchers are still in the midst of hashing out basic questions about them. This doesn’t prevent news outlets from reporting on that process, and doing a terrible job when they do.

For instance, CBS News printed an article about sex addiction. The article was citing a UCLA study. In the study, they looked at a cohort of 52 people who reported having problems controlling their urges to view sexual images. They did not actually report having sex addictions, but they did have responses to a questionnaire that were similar to those with sex addictions. While the subjects view certain images, their brains were scanned. The researchers were looking for an elevated response time, or P300 response, which was found in other studies relating to impulsive behavior and addiction. Those performing the study simply did not find a link.

Now you and I know that could mean any number of things that still require research. Unfortunately, the headline we got was:

 Brain Scans Suggest Sex Addiction May Not Be a Real Disorder.

Articles like this, with sensational headlines that misrepresent addiction and addiction research, are not hard to find. It’s true no matter which addiction you’re talking about. These stories are powerful because they’re playing on a very specific bias, of addiction as a moral failing, rather than a disease. This is a bias from which even doctors aren’t immune.

In one recent poll conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, only 22% of people would polled be willing to work with someone suffering from a drug addiction. Respondents were also much more willing to deny an addict health care, employment, and health insurance than those with mental illnesses, as well as treatment for their disease.

The authors of the study did note that years ago mental illness was something swept under the rug. Recently, that has shifted. The more people talked frankly about mental illness, the more they were willing to accepting they were of it, and the more likely they were to support treatment options for people with those diseases.

And artists have been talking about it in significant ways, even as people aren’t. Macklemore had a recent sleeper hit with Otherside. In it, you have an accurate message of what addiction looks like, and what drug use looks like, from a person who’s actually been there, and is in recovery. Tove Lo’s Habits (Stay High) is a song that deals not only in alcohol addiction, but sex and food addiction as well, and peaked at number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Even Lil’ Wayne, with his track I Feel Like Dying, is working with the subject realistically, if in an abstract way. What we see in these songs is a shift to a more modern, nuanced understanding of addiction.

With our cultural biases and relative lack of research on the disease itself, it is an understanding that we desperately need.

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