I recently witnessed a tragedy unfold that no mother ever wants to see or be involved with. I watched my daughter learn that a friend from her college had died of drugs and alcohol earlier that morning. His team had lost a big game the night before. Friends and family were in town and there was much partying after the game. He partied. He went to bed. He spoke to his parents at 8:30 the next morning and was found dead two hours later.
This was a Division 1 athlete in the middle of his spring sports season at a top-tier academic institute…and a well-liked, really nice guy. So why on earth and in what universe did he think it was ok to mix alcohol and street drugs? And more importantly, why did he feel the need to do it? I will grant that his team wasn’t having such a good season, but have we come to the point in our society that we are that unable or unwilling to deal with the challenges of life and must medicate the pain away rather than confront the ups and downs of what it means to be human? Or is it simply that there is no having fun on a Saturday night unless some kind of mind-altering substance is involved?
Meanwhile, just a few days earlier, Prince was found dead in his home, due to what we now know was an overdose of the opioid painkiller, fentanyl. An article from the Daily Mail in the UK published right after his death said that, according to his “drug dealer,” Prince had been heavily addicted to opioid painkillers for many years, using them, among other things, to overcome extreme stage fright when he performed. I can only imagine what he took in order to complete his fantastic Superbowl performance.
I am sad for Prince. Did he really feel so compelled to perform on stage that he had to use horribly dangerous drugs simply to confront the realities of his life? He chose to be a singer, songwriter, musician and performer, though perhaps the realities of that life were bigger and faster than his sensitive artist’s soul could handle and medicating the pain away, again, was easier than confronting the assorted challenges that I am sure he faced every day.
Now I know that drug use isn’t a new thing. Primitive cultures have had their mind-altering religious rituals from the beginning of time. In fact, one of my more interesting college courses involved explicit descriptions of those drug-induced rituals and photos of long streams of mucous running down the faces of participants thanks to what had previously been placed up their noses. Additionally, according to Shmoop, a learning-guide website for students, there were somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 morphine-addicted Civil War veterans who were given that new “miracle drug” to “relieve pain as well as to treat diarrhea and dysentery, which were common and deadly gastro-intestinal afflictions among the troops.” World War I Veterans all came home addicted to caffeine and cigarettes, World War II vets were addicted to alcohol, and Vietnam vets numbed their pain with marijuana and heroin.
In spite of the ancient religious rituals and the very real and very serious pains of war, there seems to be some other raw human need to mask life’s pains and instead indulge in altered states of revelry. The Bible has many references to the dangers of excessive alcohol use — and its all-too-frequent use. The Victorian Era had proper people all over Europe casually using an array of opiates for both home remedies and recreation. And in the 20th Century America, cocaine filled the void when alcohol had been banned by Prohibition.
So why should I be surprised or saddened by what is going on today? Because I believe there is more to life than numbing the pain. And that numbed pain does nothing to stop pain. Just as we talk about solving the root cause of disease vs. simply suppressing the symptoms of disease in our healthcare articles, numbing the pain and challenges of life does absolutely nothing to help you have a better life. If anything, it makes it worse: hangovers… poor performance on the job or at school…troubled relationships — and, at the basest level, it’s expensive.
I heard someone talk about a root cause of suicide being a lack of problem-solving skills — the assumption being that these poor people have some very real challenges and for whatever reason either don’t know what to do to change their situation, or feel helpless to do it. I might posit that people who are living on drugs and alcohol have killed themselves in an entirely different way. Surely they may be physically functioning and performing their tasks, but they are not LIVING life. They are not connecting their hearts to their lives and they are not creating a better life for themselves and their loved ones.
Babies enter the world pure, innocent and with nothing but possibilities ahead of them. Yes, some have more supportive families and environments in which to grow, but history has shown time and again that being born with a silver spoon in your mouth is not a presumption of success, nor is being born into the slums a guarantee of failure.
I challenge us all, instead, to realize that life really is full of all sorts of beautiful and horrible things. Even childbirth is the most beautiful and the most violent, filthy process and I think it is simply our first metaphor for life. But it was given to us to be felt and experienced… all of it. Ask anyone who has faced adversity and they will tell you it is what has made them strong, and it is from those challenging moments that they grew the most. Was it easy? Nope. Did they automatically know how to find a better place? Absolutely not. But for gosh sakes, the one thing that is guaranteed: Using drugs to simply mask away the challenges of life will in no way fix anything.