A few months ago, I was packing for my fifth move since 2008. I emptied every closet, box, and drawer. With every move, I’d shed belongings— a full twelve boxes of books in move number four— so why, I wondered, am Istill knee-deep in useless things?
The answer was that, in true academic fashion, I’d redefined “useless.” Turns out “keep,” “store,” and “toss” are unstable categories: I classified our household belongings entirely differently after reading the New York Times article on Marie Kondo, a home organization expert with a devoted global following.
Kondo has a best-selling book and a robustmediapresence, but her most famous piece of advice could be summed up in a tweet: Touch every item you own; if something doesn’t “spark joy,” discard it. I applied this method to my packing process, and a lot of things I’d been storing went out the door. (I also made a few personal archival discoveries— see below).
The process got me thinking about Americans’ warped relationship with material possessions, an entanglement that has grown more dysfunctional over the past several decades. Even as the middle class flounders, easy credit, cheap foreign labor, and larger home sizes have made it easier than ever for the average American to acquire far more possessions than he needs or can use. Since excessive, compulsive consumption factors into most definitions of addiction, it’s unsurprising that Americans’ increasingly acquisitive habits have led to cultural anxieties about purchasing (and hoarding) behavior.
Alcohol and drugs historians have long lamented the archival limitations of studying past substance users. Substance users typically enter the historical record through retrospective oral histories, the archives of hospitals or prisons, or popular books and media. All these sources have shortcomings: oral histories are riddled with the errors of human memory, institutional archives are usually limited to clinical and criminal records, and popular culture is distorted by sensationalism or artistry. As Bob Beach, Miriam Kingsberg, and Joe Gabriel have argued on Points’ pages, finding the “user’s perspective” is historically difficult.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Need a last-minute gift for your favorite alcohol and drugs historian? Or something to do on your winter break? Have no fear! Points editors have tons of suggestions for books, movies, TV shows, music and digital distractions. Read on for a breakdown of some of the best alcohol-and-drugs-related media we’ve consumed this year.
Twelve-step sponsorship is so twentieth century—or so The New York Times would have us believe. In an article published last month in the newspaper’s Fashion and Style section, author Marisa Fox made the case that “recovery coaches,” “once consigned to Hollywood entourages to keep celebrities on the straight and narrow,” are currently trending among upper-class women “from the Upper East Side to the beachfront homes of Boca Raton.”
Last weekend, NPR’s All Things Considered followed the trend, offering a more inclusive description of recovery coaches’ clientele (the stock image that accompanied the report was still a view from the beach).
The historical angle adopted by both news outlets was obvious. The old-fashioned practice of sponsorship—defined by Alcoholics Anonymous as the process by which a person “who has made some progress in the recovery program shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety”— presents shortcomings in today’s treatment marketplace. The women featured in the Times have the ability to buy their way out of the social awkwardness and fear of exposure that twelve-step meeting attendance invites. The NPR piece notes that people in early recovery don’t always gravitate toward the most adept supporters— coaches, who are trained to provide practical as well as spiritual guidance, can help solve this long-standing problem.
As historian and clinician Bill White explained, coaches are not sponsors (they don’t do voluntary twelve-step work on “paid time”) and they’re not quite counselors (they don’t diagnose or probe underlying psychological issues). They occupy a new niche in the service economy that employs more than 75 percent of today’s American workers. They are “the new Pilates instructors,” one coach told the Times. They are compensated to be both “cheerleaders” and “beacons of hope,” another told NPR.
Like NPR reporter Martha Bebinger, I think coaches can produce tremendous benefits, both for people in recovery and for the treatment system as a whole. But the proper role of recovery coaches in today’s health service sector also deserves a systemic critique—and not the trolling, “New York Times Style Suction” sort.
What is inspiring the relaxation of social mores regarding marijuana use? Today, theories abound. Perhaps anti-marijuana laws are too expensive to enforce. Or: a growing number of Americans have tried marijuana, and consequently, come to view its health effects as relatively benign. According to Nancy Reagan’s supporters in the mid-1980s, one driving force for pot permissiveness could be easily pinpointed: Cheech and Chong.
Reagan’s anti-drug campaign is welldocumented. Her campaign stops, speeches, and talking points are spread across more than three series in the Reagan Presidential Library (which was where I got the idea for this post). Likewise, manyauthorshavecovered the political debates about depictions of sex and violence in the 1980s, noting that media moguls almost always managed to outmaneuver their critics. Today’s post describes a forgotten episode in this moral epic: in 1985, Reagan’s anti-drug allies urged the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to revise its ratings system and return the silver screen to its substance-free, pre-Sixties glory.
Last week, I attended a panel discussion co-hosted by Texas Monthly and the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. The subject for debate was a recent article by Bill Martin, the director of the Institute’s Drug Policy Program. “War Without End,” published in the June edition of Texas Monthly, describes how Texas veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are successfully self-medicating for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with marijuana. (Trigger warning: their stories are not easy reading). The decision to opt for cannabis over the antidepressants, sleeping pills, or psychotropic medications commonly prescribed by Veterans Administration (VA) doctors makes these veterans criminals in the state of Texas. Although Governor Rick Perry recently said he plans to “implement policies that start us toward decriminalization,” the Texas Legislature hasn’t budged in recent years. Unlike Colorado or Washington, Texas does not have a ballot initiative or referendum process, so the Legislature is the state’s main route to reform. Majority support from the public and the best efforts of groups like the Marijuana Policy Project and local chapters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) have, so far, come to naught.
Enter the veterans. Reformers believe Texas legislators will listen to war heroes, and state Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston), a panelist at the Baker Institute event, seems to agree. Huffman told audience members that, in her opinion, a focused campaign for medical marijuana legislation for veterans diagnosed with PTSD would stand a better chance of success than broader initiatives aimed at population-wide medicalization, decriminalization, or legalization.
“When a guy has done four tours in Iraq, like some of our people, and been wounded in action, it’s hard to look him in the eye and call him a slacker pothead,” one veteran and activist toldTexas Monthly. This new depiction of the traumatized veteran as uniquely deserving of marijuana does more than challenge the stoner stereotype. It recalls many of the psychological, symbolic, and treatment policy developments associated with the Iraq War’s most frequently cited historical analogue: the war in Vietnam.
When I taught high school a little less than a decade ago, we teachers generally regarded Wikipedia as a kind of academic quackery. The site supposedly lured our stressed, overscheduled prep students by allowing them to tap an up-to-date—but intellectually suspect— knowledge base with just a few keystrokes. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched the open-source encyclopedia project in 2001, and its rapidly evolving entries vexed research teachers. We were still teaching the Robert Caro Writing Process, notecards and all.
We could take the same initiative with drug and alcohol history resources. And we try: Points compiles a list of approved online resources, and a good amount of our daily traffic is driven by historically motivated Google queries.
In Alcoholics Anonymous lore, twelve-steppers are taught to beware the “geographical cure.” The AA program imparts a common-sense lesson: when you move, your problems often come with you. The warning that changing locations doesn’t necessarily have the desired influence on habits runs contrary to the grand American ideal of re-invention. The maxim also harkens back to a historical tradition of vacation-like therapies—the sorts of escapist cures that it pithily dismisses.
Even so, AA’s own cure, in its early years, was geographic in other ways. Like any historical phenomenon, it was rooted in a time and place. And before the movement generated national press attention in the early 1940s, its spread relied on the mobility of members—mostly salesmen— who “carried the message” on their travels. The initial dissemination of AA’s solution to the problem of substance dependence reflected regional differences. As the first Detroit member claimed, “Psychiatry had not penetrated the Middle West.”
Jack Alexander, the author of the Saturday Evening Post article credited with making AA a household name, contrasted the recruitment strategies in the early chapters of Alcoholics Anonymous. While AA co-founder Bill Wilson trolled the halls of New York’s Towns Hospital in search of potential converts, “in the Middle West,” Alexander wrote, “the work [was] almost exclusively among persons who have not arrived at the institutional stage.” AA co-founder Bob Smith’s Akron home was hospitable to Protestant religious traditions and functioned as a halfway house for the hardest alcoholic cases. Recovering alcoholics from Akron eventually spread AA’s gospel westward to Cleveland, Indianapolis, Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis, and Los Angeles.
If, like me, you’ve spent the past several years studying the history of addiction treatment, then you might know why I can’t look at beachy treatment ads—they tend to resemble the image below— without thinking about the work of William L. White, the prolific addiction professional and historian.
White’s book, Slaying the Dragon, is a canonical text on the history of addiction treatment in the United States. While Slaying was written to give addiction professionals a sense of their own history, the book is also an essential starting point for any scholar who first approaches the subject. Early on, White describes the “rise and fall of inebriate homes and asylums.” At the turn of the twentieth century, White writes, “a national network of addiction treatment programs was born, was professionalized, and then disappeared—all within the span of a few decades.” In his analysis of the dissolution of the early addiction treatment industry, White finds parallels with the precarious position of treatment providers today: a motley of institutional models for addiction treatment, conflicting professional interpretations regarding the nature of addiction, and unreliable political support.
One parallel is evident in contemporary treatment ads. While a combination of forces led to the decline of treatment centers a little less than a century ago, one of the most salient factors, it seems to me, was the economics of Gilded Age addiction treatment. Despite significant changes in theories of addiction, drug policy, and treatment trends over the course of the last century, the pitch for ritzy, private treatment centers has remained remarkably faithful to its early rhetoric.