We interrupt our ongoing South Carolina primary coverage to cover a recent controversy in Blogdonia over--DRUGS.
George Carlin used to joke about the signs once visible on city street corners, notably absent in the last decade or so. We now have Walgreens and CVS selling baby formula, hair goo and toilet paper, but once upon a time, the drug store was a drug store, just like Mr Gower's in It's a Wonderful Life. Maybe you could get a banana split while you waited for the druggist (as we called them) to fill your prescription. You could buy cokes and root beers and hang out. Lana Turner would be "discovered" in a Hollywood drug store, according to myth, which made the drug store cool.
And as George Carlin joked in the 70s, go into any self-proclaimed drug store, which prominently featured a huge DRUG sign, and ask (insert stoned voice) "Hey man, gotta any DRUGS?" and the proprietor would likely bark, "Not THOSE kind, go away!"
"Hey, it said DRUGS, okay?"
Indeed, it did. And so we learned: there are good drugs and bad drugs. (As Glinda memorably asked Dorothy, are you a Good Witch, or a Bad Witch?)
The line between the "good" and "bad" drugs was always very shaky for me. As a youngster, I witnessed progressive addiction in the members of my family. My grandmother became dependent on various and sundry pain meds, Valium, and Miltown, which she would periodically swear off, only to relapse. Such events were not called RELAPSE then; there was no such language available for addiction to prescription drugs. This is why Valley of the Dolls was regarded as such a scandalous, truth-telling book, almost as important as The Feminine Mystique, and certainly, out-selling that book by millions. No one had dared say it out loud in polite, middle-class company. And the word, DOLLS. We love our dolls, we play with our dolls, we dress up our dolls and display them. Calling drugs DOLLS laid the whole enterprise bare. ("Not THOSE kind, go away!") My mother had a seemingly bottomless Rx for Dexedrine 75 mg (gonna let that dosage sink in a minute: 75 mg), which I started pilfering regularly on test days in high school. And my mother never lost a pound, it seemed.
I caught on fast: Dexedrine didn't have shit to do with weight loss. This had to do with her day-job, hard work requiring intense concentration. And then her night-job, her true love, music. She was a singer and musician; amphetamines allowed her to sing late into the twilight after a hard day's work. Songs by Kitty Wells, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Wanda Jackson, Tammy Wynette, and so many others...which seemed to go so well with the Dolls. (Maybe because several of these recording artists were also quite attached to the Dolls?) My mother's green eyes glittered, as John Lydon's, Keith Moon's, Natalie Cole's, Linda Ronstadt's and Elvis's used to twinkle and shine; an unmistakable chemically-glazed glitter that I can still spot anywhere. (Although, interestingly, I didn't seem to notice it when I looked in the mirror.)
My mother began dosing me with supplements and drugs at about the same time, further messing up my already-blurred natural/chemical boundary. She discovered Selenium, Vitamin E, Gotu Kola, and insisted I take these, which I dutifully did. And then, she tsk-tsked over my weight, my thighs, my ass. She took me to her diet-doctor to be properly dosed with the magic skinny-making concoction, the nectar of the gods, Dexedrine. And I took it, as I was told. I didn't need prodding.
My mother was born physically disabled, a fact that she blamed for not being able to become a Big Star. And I believe this has some basis in reality, since she was once asked to sing and play back-up at the Grand Ole Opry by some Nashville talent-scout; the request later withdrawn when her disability was discovered. (I also believe my mother's ferocious drive was partly DUE to her disability and attendant feelings of inferiority, a fact she often confessed to me in her more vulnerable, teary, alcoholic moments.) The Grand Ole Opry debacle plunged her into extreme self-hatred; she took more lovers, she piled her platinum hair even higher on her head, she lopped several alarming inches off of her already-short dresses. And, she decided, she needed to DO SOMETHING with ME: Goddammit, fix your hair, put on make-up, you can't go out like that. At our house, it was hillbilly vs. hippie couture, every day. Lacquered, sprayed, Clairol-bleached hair vs. untamed hair flying in the breeze. Miniskirts vs. jeans. Pointy-Laura-Petrie-bras vs. none at all. She was perpetually furious with me. She believed my hippie-fashion was a personal insult, directed at her, mocking her.
Similarly, my mother couldn't believe I did not want to go onstage, did not want to marry rich, did not want to do the things she believed she could have done if non-disabled: What's the matter with you? she would scream in her many alcohol/amphetamine-induced rages, Don't you understand you could have the whole fucking WORLD?
The whole world? Talk about delusion. I was a pretty average kid, I made average grades, I could sing in harmony if it wasn't too hard, but that's about it. I could write well enough, but you can't be a star doing that. ("Men can, but women can't," she told me.) I didn't realize until years later, how these rages were drug-induced. By then, of course, I was having them myself.
And finally, the weed. My mother found the weed. The rage, the insanity, the screaming, the smashing of delicate objects, the gnashing of teeth, the threats and the reality of violence. I won't dwell on the details. But I confronted her at last: Excuse me, but you have been plying me with DRUGS, you realize? "This is a much less harmful drug than the ones you are taking every fucking day!"
Marijuana, I loudly, proudly and correctly informed her, is an HERB.
My years in the counterculture continued blurring the drug/herb boundary. I had one of the most profound, spiritual and mystical experiences of my life (and that is saying something) under the influence of a plant, peyote. I also puked my guts out and thought I was dying, which centers the mind amazingly. Consequently, I began to educate myself about the medicinal qualities of herbs, and began a job filling up bulk herbs at the local co-op. I visited communes, and talked about herbs with the back-to-the-land people. And all the while, I never stopped taking drugs. And my focus narrowed. My favorite drug of all? The legal one: alcohol. Which, you will remember, is made from plants, fruits, herbs.
Of course, you all know the story by now. Pretty typical Movie Of The Week stuff: it caught up with me. Down and out in various places... New York City, Oakland, Berkeley, San Francisco, Fort Myers, rural Indiana, urban Ohio... like the expression goes, wherever you go, you take yourself with you. Oh Mama, can this really be the end?
And so, like a convert, I went the other way, seemingly overnight. Straight edge. I was a zealot for recovery. I think this is often necessary for people in trouble, so I won't apologize for it, but I can see the humor in it now... engaging in major self-recriminations and existential angst over whether I should take a wayward antihistamine or single Tylenol. (Usually, I would end up refraining.) I even gave up coffee and tea, although it took me several years to stop smoking tobacco (but yes, I eventually did that, too). And during this time, I also refused all herbs, remembering that yes, marijuana is an herb. Herbs ARE drugs.
And that's the thing...many, many drugs come from herbs. I realized at this point that my boundaries were blurred for a reason. There is no boundary... there is no spoon.
You are ALTERING YOURSELF. With whatever substances you choose, be they "natural" or "unnatural"--and I was zealous in my recovery, in being UNALTERED.
Perhaps it's because one of my endocrine glands failed on me in my late 30s, and I then needed (deep breath) DRUGS, that I changed my mind. Possibly, just age. Also, a weariness of dogma, as I tried hard at one point to be a doctrinally correct Catholic, and failed at that too. Suddenly worried that I would have a baby in my 40s (not my idea of a good time), I went and got my tubes tied. And then I confessed, like a good Catholic.
"Why are you telling me this?" asked my very cool priest, shocking me. He was supposed to yawn, look at his watch, and wave me out of the confessional while simultaneously making the sign of the cross, like he usually did.
"Huh?" I asked, "Aren't I supposed to tell you?"
"You are supposed to be honest," he sounded tired. I could tell he was weary of parishioners deliberately doing stuff and then scurrying in to tell him about it.
Was he saying I was dishonest? I suddenly felt shame, and then I WAS honestly contrite.
Ashamed of what?--I thought later. And then I knew. Having my cake and eating it too. Having my tubal ligation and fancying myself a "good Catholic." Availing myself of medical science, and then bragging about being ALL NATURAL.
There is not one righteous, said the Apostle Paul, no, not one.
And so we get to the current ideological scuffle in Blogdonia. In this corner, we have Elaine Vigneault, holding forth on antidepressants. The argument started on FEMINISTE, where she stated:
And in this corner, we have several people who believe she is behaving like a sanctimonious prig. Plain(s) Feminist writes:
My theory is that many people’s depression is anger turned inward. Anger is a powerful emotion that can be both destructive and constructive. Anger that is unjustly aimed inward becomes debilitating depression, but justified anger aimed outward towards things like injustice can be a powerful motivator. I think if more people embraced this view and used their anger as a motivator, we’ve have a revolution and possibly a better world.
There’s a saying, “if you’re not mad as hell, you’re not paying attention.” And another one “ignorance is bliss.” I think both are true. I think happy people are people who wear rose-colored glasses and don’t see reality clearly. That’s not to say happiness is ignorance; I’m saying that constant bliss can only be achieved through drugs, ignorance, or some other form of blurred reality. Occasional bliss is available for anyone willing to accept it: puppy pictures, flower bouquets, a compliment to or from a stranger, a familiar tune, a tickle, a love note, a memory… But constant bliss… that’s not real.
Look - I am skeptical when it comes to the medical monster that is our health care and pharmacological system. I have had anti-depressants practically forced on me and refused them all the same. But I would never take my own experience and decide that it is universal and that everyone else is completely deluded, which is what Vigneault is doing here (to a commenter who says that anti-depressants helped them, she replies "I’d argue about whether they really did the trick or if you just believed they did..."Life is never Either/Or, except when people make it that way. It doesn't have to be. We all expect to be able to have our tubes tied, our broken bones set, and our nasty tumors surgically excised. Expecting not to cry every minute or cower in the closet of a Motel-6, is a very basic matter of survival, on that level. And yet, we don't quite see it that way, do we? Our modern life causes these problems, Elaine (and many herbalists I have known) like to say. Well, stop the presses. The broken bones, the tumors, the cholesterol, my thyroid, are likely the same. Our environments shape us. Every day, I talk to old people who had their health destroyed in the textile mills; they have odd cancers, tumors, and mesothelioma. Fibers are forever lodged in their bodies. I suppose we might say our modern life, the need for clothing, has caused this, as it surely has. And Elaine is wearing clothes right now, too, as you are, as I am. Someone, somewhere, is paying for that. Their eyes squint and strain; they develop strange spots on their lips from licking dyed threads, every day. Do we deny them health care? Of course, many people would like to. But right now, the American policy seems to be, do it to Julia, don't do it to me. Destroy the health of the people in Mauritius, Mexico or China, do not destroy ours.
Our modern life has messed us up, no question. But only a cruel philosophy denies comfort to those afflicted, for whatever reason. Yes, we must clean up the system; BigPharm is corrupt, money-grubbing, and lying. But I use it, too. As we all do.
As Dorothy Day said, I am here to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. And with all due respect, Elaine, as well as many other people in my own profession, have it very confused.