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Comfortably Numb

Matt Harris

Mark Gordon - published on 02/11/14

America's addiction problem is only getting worse.

Of all the deformations of character wrought by consumer society, perhaps none touches as many lives as addiction. New and recently updated studies show that Americans are self-medicating themselves in growing and alarming numbers.  In addition to the cumulative wreckage addiction wreaks on individuals and their families, there are huge implications for public health, as well.

In figures updated last month, the National Center on Drug Abuse (NCDA) estimates that there are 24 million drug abusers in the United States. This population is defined as persons 12 years or older who have consumed illegal drugs or illicitly consumed prescription drugs – pain relievers, stimulants and tranquilizers – within the past thirty days.  Overall, the study found that 9.2% of Americans regularly smoke, snort, shoot or swallow illegal substances. That number is up from 8.3 percent a decade ago.

A separate 2011 study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) shows that the problem is most acute in the Southwest, West Coast, Northwest, and New England, with Vermont coming in as the most drug-addled state in the Union. Fifteen percent of Vermonters who responded to the survey admitted to having been stoned in the past month, as compared with only 4.2% in Utah.

Then there’s alcohol. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently alerted medical professionals to be on the lookout for the estimated 38 million American adults who routinely drink to excess. Though many of these do not fit the classic clinical definition of an alcoholic – a definition so imprecise that it is always in dispute, by the way – they nevertheless regularly cross the boundary between sensible, social drinking and binging, which for most normal people would be definition enough. It should be noted that the CDC numbers do not include young people. They are captured in survey conducted by the Century Council, a nonprofit organization funded by the manufacturers of booze. It revealed that 26% of 12th graders had been drunk in the past thirty days, with 22% reporting that they had engaged in binge drinking. The numbers were lower for 10th and 8th graders, but still quite alarming when one considers the size of the teenage population overall.

Other booming addictions include gambling, pornography, and Internet gaming. Of these, gambling addiction is a recognized pathology in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) while the others are not. Nevertheless, together they afflict millions of Americans from all walks of life, a situation made worse by the fact that the largest pushers are government (gambling) and big business (porn and gaming).

In 1987, Blessed Pope John Paul II sent a letter to the head of the United Nations International Drug Control Program on the occasion of the International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. In his letter, the Holy Father wrote that “A correspondence has to be recognized between the deadly pathology caused by drug abuse and a pathology of the spirit which leads a person to flee from self and to seek illusory pleasures in an escape from reality, to the point that the meaning of personal existence is totally lost.” But the Pope didn’t stop with describing symptoms; he also diagnosed causes: “Factors such as the breakdown of the family, tensions in human relations, growing unemployment and subhuman standards of living all contribute to this estrangement,” he wrote. “In fact, at the root of these evils is the loss of ethical and spiritual values.”

So what accounts for that loss of values? The late historian and social critic Christopher Lasch, author of

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AddictionPope John Paul II
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