Flea, the legendary bassist for The Red Hot Chili Peppers, wrote an interesting essay on addiction for Time Magazine. It tells both his own experience of getting over his drug problems without professional help, and his own ideas about addiction. He has a lot of great things to say, but like so much of what we hear about addiction, some of the claims clash with the lived experience.
He calls addiction a “cruel disease”, but if you pay attention to his story you have to wonder whether he means the disease part literally or metaphorically. In his own story, here is how he describes that he got over his problem:
I saw three of my dearest friends die from drugs before they turned 26, and had some close calls myself. It was a powerful yearning to be a good father that eventually inspired a sense of self-preservation, and in 1993 at the age of 30 I finally got that drugs were destructive and robbing my life force. I cut them out forever.
I didn’t get clean through rehab or a 12-step program. I believe wholeheartedly in organizations like AA, but that was not my path. What worked for me was learning that the best way to grow is to consciously experience the hard times. I had a burning desire for good health and love, and found that I had to go through periods of suffering to get there. That realization was not easy, but it freed me up to have faith in myself. A clear head has allowed me to walk through to the other side of pain and addiction, and there I’ve found real success, joy and strength. [emphasis added]
Basically, Flea describes an internal process of realizing that quitting drugs would serve him and his goals better than continuing to use drugs. That’s just decision-making. It isn’t recovery from a disease. I suspect that if he had gone the treatment/12-Step route, his stated explanation might be different – he probably would’ve mindlessly attributed his changes to the help. Not having gotten the help though, he had to identify what was really going on, which was that he saw a better path in quitting than continuing. In my book The Freedom Model for Addictions, I attempt to demonstrate that this is basically what happens when people get over their substance use problems, whether they receive help or not.
Yet, Flea then endorses treatment, saying it should be offered to all who need it. He’d have been classified as needing it, yet his story demonstrates that he did just fine without it. It’s possible he might’ve done worse with treatment, since treatment teaches you that you’re in for a lifelong struggle against a disease. It frames the problem in terms that are far removed from what’s actually going on and what will actually solve the problem, leading people on a wild goose chase to battle a non-existent disease. But the answers are found in the individuals own internal processes and powers of growth and change – yet another point that runs throughout The Freedom Model for Addictions, and is reflected by Flea’s personal story.
Drugs as self-medication
Now let’s get to another and perhaps more important point about Flea’s views of drugs and addiction – the idea that drugs are a quick fix for emotional problems. This is a massively popular idea that doesn’t really have any basis in reality. It’s just part of the lore about drugs, which came out of our desperate desire to explain why people become attached to them. It’s politically correct to say that people use drugs because their emotional lives are in disarray, and so they need drugs as self-medication – because the alternative of saying that people just like drugs, seems negatively judgmental or moralizing. It’s not alright to publicly talk about people with substance use problems without casting them as some sort of victim. As such, the need for self-medication is a point people feel they have to mouth about drugs and addiction, even when it’s at odds with their own experience. And it is at odds with Flea’s experience, even while he expresses it.
Flea mouths the popular view of drugs as effective self-medication a few times, saying that:
Temptation is a bitch though. All my life I’ve gone through periods of horrific anxiety: a tightness in my stomach that creeps up and squeezes my brain in an icy grip. My mind relentlessly whirring, I can’t eat or sleep, and I stare into a seemingly infinite void of despair, a bottomless pit of fear. Ouch. Man, drugs would fix all that in a flash.
Once you’ve opened the door to drug abuse, it’s always there, seducing you to come on in and get your head right.
Life hurts. The world is scary and it’s easier to take drugs than work through pain, anxiety, injustice and disappointment. [emphasis added]
Now, I’m not saying he doesn’t really believe these things, but his actions speak louder than his words. He quit drugs in 1993 – and hasn’t used them as self-medication for 25 years. Yet he says he still has all the problems they’d fix in a flash. Obviously though, and he basically expresses this, he finds that dealing with his problems without drugs is more effective and beneficial. That is, he clearly does not prefer to take drugs when he has problems, although he prefer to wistfully hold on to the romantic idea that they’d help. Furthermore, he describes one recent episode where he had access to plenty of opiates, and even taking a small amount led to him feeling more depressed:
A few years ago I broke my arm snowboarding and had to have major surgery. My doctor put me back together perfectly, and thanks to him I can still play bass with all my heart. But he also gave me two-month supply of Oxycontin. The bottle said to take four each day. I was high as hell when I took those things. It not only quelled my physical pain, but all my emotions as well. I only took one a day, but I was not present for my kids, my creative spirit went into decline and I became depressed. I stopped taking them after a month, but I could have easily gotten another refill. [emphasis added]
His reported experience is mixed, as he describes a sort of numbing of all emotions, but it shakes out as ultimately making him feel worse. I don’t believe that substances really numb emotions at all – but it is an extremely popular narrative. Day to day experience explodes this narrative though, as you can see all around you that substance users have can often have wild emotional swings while under the influence. You see drinkers seeking to relieve their stress who end up “crying in their beer.” You see drug users getting angry, depressed, having outbursts. There is no consistent emotional response to substances, which tells us the substances don’t pharmacologically numb our emotions. For example, when the NIAAA had a researcher review the available evidence on alcohol and stress relief, the results were inconclusive – at some times and places it seems to relieve stress, at others it doesn’t, and even increases stress.
I wish we could put the myth of substances as self-medication to bed, because when believed, the myth can increase desire for substances. It’s such a shame to live your life desiring substances for things they can’t really do, and feeling deprived because you’re not using them for that purpose they don’t really serve. This is yet another myth we explain in great detail throughout The Freedom Model for Addictions, so that people can happily move on from troubling substance use without feeling like they’re missing out on a wonderful medication for all of life’s troubles. I also recount a similar story from my own life, where I had to take a massive amount of opioids for a few weeks after a tonsillectomy. Like Flea, I did not find the effect of the drugs attractive enough to attempt to keep it going. In fact, I just didn’t like the feeling at all except for the fact that it was relieving the physical pain. I wanted to be off them, so that I could be clear headed and get back to my work – which I promptly did as soon as my surgical wounds sufficiently healed. I too am I former “heroin addict,” but I no longer find the feeling of opiates to be a boost. Whether drugs seem to be helpful or not in emotional matters is a product of your mindset, not the drug.
Finally, Flea warns that doctors should be careful about giving people opiates. Yet again, his experience clashes with this popular narrative. He used them as needed, and easily stopped – even though he is a former “opiate addict.” People aren’t getting “addicted” because doctors are giving them pain meds – the data refutes this narrative as well. A Cochrane review found that about one quarter of one percent of chronic pain patients became “addicted”, and another recent study found that six tenths of one percent of surgery patients became “addicted” to their pain meds. Both of these rates are lower than the rate of opioid “addiction” in the general population. You will hear a lot of people say they “got addicted” in this way, but it’s just not true most of the time, and where it seems to be true, it still isn’t because of some quality of addictiveness inherent in the drugs, it’s because they want to get high. Doctors have become a convenient scapegoat as the gatekeepers to these drugs. They provide a convenient target for reformers who want a simple answer, and it is in the interest of any opiate user who’s being harassed to about their usage to blame the doctors. But this narrative isn’t helping anyone. In the 19th century, before anyone needed a doctor’s permission to get these drugs, the rates of “addiction” to them were actually lower.
Flea’s essay, while very good, insightful, and valuable in many ways, falls into the common trap of presenting evidence that is directly at odds with the accepted talking points it espouses. This is a constant in the realm of addiction. As my prime example, I’ll offer up a piece Stanton Peele regularly mentions – a popular viral video of Chris Christie discussing addiction and the need for more treatment. To make his highly emotional case, Christie discusses two examples of people who received every treatment available, yet still died as a result of their substance use habits. Once you get beyond the emotions and realize this, you realize he actually made the case against treatment. Flea’s story shows what really works: decision-making, based in the belief that a change in your drug habit will be more beneficial to you. I hope people take that lesson from it, which is why I wrote up this blog, with all respect to Flea and his valuable experience.