French philosopher Michel Foucault once observed that the way sick people are treated in western culture is subject to scrutiny. People were misguided in the old world. They often believed that sickness came about as the result of a person’s own moral failings.
This led to people making judgments about sick people because they were sick. “That person has cancer, so they weren’t loved enough,” or “That person is immunocompromised, so they must be weak”. As a culture, we abandoned this way of thinking because it is victim blaming.
But what Michel Foucault pointed out, which Tzvi Heber echoes in contemporary language, is that our modern understanding of sickness has its own shortcomings. Less often are sick people treated as being responsible for their own sickness. We view sickness as a bad thing that can happen to a good person through no failing of their own, either moral or practical.
And yet we still subject the sick to systems that leave them isolated and othered. The sick are sent to hospitals, the mentally unwell are sent to institutions, and drug addicts are sent to rehab.
All of these places are, in one way or another, similar to prisons for how they separate people out. Whatever the cause of their illness, the ill are set aside from society. Is there a better way?
We Do Not Have to Think of Addicts as the “Other”
Tzvi Heber, who has worked from Miami to New York City to help people detox, is looking to rethink how we are looking at addiction and, more importantly, how we look at the addict.
What he observed, as far back as August of 2020, was that COVID presents the same kind of hopelessness addiction presents. Just like addiction, it can hit anyone. And just like addiction it did not (at the time) have a vaccine or set treatment that always works.
No one can be inoculated against addiction. No race, religion, sex, or age demographic is naturally immune to it. And when you are under the thumb of addiction, you become isolated.
This bears a striking resemblance to COVID. Tzvi Heber goes on to point out how similar COVID’s preventative measures are similar to preventative measures against addiction.
The Metaphor of COVID
In order to avoid COVID, you have to wash your hands, wear a mask, wear gloves, social distance, and stay inside. These five steps are similar to both the 12-step programs that alcoholics undergo to deal with their dependency on alcohol.
You use your hands for everything. People even use their hands to talk, Heber points out. So, washing your hands is very symbolic of dealing with your past and sorting yourself out in the way an alcoholic has to in order to manage their history of substance abuse.
Wearing a mask is even more straightforward. Alcoholics have to be forthcoming about their alcoholism. If people offer them a drink, or even make a suggestion that would put them adjacent to a trigger, they have to be ready to state that they have a problem and should avoid that sort of thing. If you put a mask on, you are broadcasting a similar desire.
The same goes for social distancing. Alcoholics are acutely aware of the fact that if they go out, they could fall off the wagon. Most things that they could do could make them fall off the wagon.
Even if the activity is fun, it runs the risk of building stress that they only know how to deal with using alcohol. Much in the same way that activity, good or bad, runs the risk of COVID.
Addiction is on the Rise as a Result
Something that Tzvi Heber points out is that their detox program in New York had a period where they were having to turn people away due to being so full (don’t worry, they directed the applicants to other programs). This is hardly a surprise for anyone who understands addiction.
It does not take much stress to make an addict turn to their addiction. Like we said earlier, even fun things have the potential to generate stress. A baseball game with friends can get a bit too competitive, a movie with the family can lead to an argument over basically nothing.
But now, everything has an undercurrent of stress. A movie night that goes perfectly still might spread an infectious disease. The possibility of an outbreak in a public space means that even going grocery shopping presents the risk of catching a disease that will isolate you.
And while we’re on the topic of isolation, everyone has spent two years being more isolated that ever. It is no wonder detox programs are mostly full.
These Struggles aren’t Hopeless
Heber mentions how when you are a recovering addict, no one congratulates you for recovering. If you choose a night at home alone over going out to a bar with friends, no one pats you on the back for taking the possibility of a relapse serious.
But two years ago, the world suddenly learned that everyone was going to have to take similar measures. Not everyone did. There is a skill involved to taking personal responsibility for your actions. And, as Heber indicates in many of his talks, addicts know all about this.
There are ways of dealing with the isolation necessitated by COVID, just like there are ways of dealing with the risk of both addiction and relapse. The way is not to treat people with either like they are some sort of failure. But to recognize that anyone can be in that position.
Tzvi Heber is currently the CEO of Ascendant New York. There, he directs the detox program where people learn how to overcome drug and alcohol addiction. Unlike most detox programs, they do not consider the people that come there to just be patients.
They are also clients; people that Ascendant is there to help as equals. Visit their website to find more info.
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