Puritanical America: Why Mind-Altering is Natural

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

In the previous two articles we addressed the fears that moderation programs give permission to alcoholics to continue drinking (part 1) and that already sober alcoholics will jump at the chance to drink again if moderation-training is offered (part 2). The final myth is, to my mind, one of the most common in the field and is an oft-cited reason for abstinence-only in addiction treatment:

Myth: People should not be turning to quick fixes, like substances, to affect their mood and state of being.

While the story sounds good and we in the addiction treatment industry have been taught to make sense of it, it flies in the face of common sense.

When it comes specifically to substances, their existence as part of human culture for over 10,000 years (the time frame for some of the earliest evidence of alcohol consumption) should be the first indication that mind-altering is an ingrained part of our existence. My guess is that earlier substance use existed but is difficult to document since we traveled constantly in very small groups leaving little behind to be found.

But focusing this discussion on drugs alone misses the point. In reality, humans have been mind-altering constantly and have been doing it for the entire duration of recorded history.

Mind-Altering is Not Only About Drugs and Alcohol

Shamanistic rituals and religious ceremonies have always been, if nothing else, opportunities for individuals to let go of their trouble and become immersed in an out-of-body experience that is meant to bring them joy, release and even ecstasy. The preachers in Baptist congregations are some of the modern examples of this, but tribal Shamans have been pushing the experience to its limits for thousands of years. Sometimes drugs are involved but rarely for spectators and never as a “recreational” experience. Instead, these substances are considered tools to contribute to divine and spiritual connections.

Literature, especially fiction, is one of the oldest and most common forms of escape – from campfire storytelling to Shakespeare.-Adi Jaffe

And we don’t even need to go to religion for experiences that are designed to make us feel differently. Literature, especially fiction, is one of the oldest and most common forms of escape – from campfire storytelling to Shakespeare.

True, there is often mind-alteration involved in its creation (Hemingway and Carol come to mind) and many Alternatives clients cite creativity as a reason for their substance use. However, from a very early age, children use books to change their experience of life without any external chemical influence. Fantasy novels are used as an escape for dependent, weak and wishful little creatures we call kids. They crave feeling all-powerful and magical, even if only for a few hours, while they are engrossed in The Hobbit or some other such book. The recent flourish of vampire tween books is just another iteration in kids’ search for power and control in a world that offers them little of either.

But kids are far from the only humans looking for some external influence over their state-of-mind. How many times have you personally searched for a just-released comedy or an old favorite movie to lift your spirits after a worse-than-usual day at work? Or how about a love song to connect with after the end of a serious relationship? What are these experiences if not mind-alteration? When we visit comedy clubs we are looking to someone else to make us happy by offering up a talented combination of pain, timing and socialization. We want to laugh and we need some outside help.

The Curious Case of Hot Sauce

If substances are still somewhat sequestered in your mind as an inappropriate way to influence how we feel about the world, let me challenge your notions with some hot sauce! You may already know that eating hot sauce releases capsaicin, a chemical that stimulates heat in specialized receptors. This is the obvious origin for the naming of the now nearly endless varieties of hot sauces so many of us love and crave. But even if you were aware of the heat generating chemical-reaction fact, you are probably not aware that the same capsaicin molecule brings about the release of endogenous-opioids – little brain-chemical messengers that are meant to reduce our perception of pain (see here, here and here for some sources).

Eating hot sauce releases the same brain chemicals that heroin emulates and that marijuana and alcohol depend on for their pleasure effects…-Adi Jaffe

If the word “opioids” sounds familiar it might be because it is, by design, closely related to opium – the natural source of morphine and heroin. Yes, eating hot sauce releases the same brain chemicals that heroin emulates and that marijuana and alcohol depend on for their pleasure effects, meaning that hot sauce consumption indirectly leads to drug-like physiological activation in specific brain regions. At least now it’s clear why so many people claim they’re “addicted” to hot sauce!

We can’t escape mind-alteration no matter where or when we look at humanity.

Looking at the Bigger Picture

I believe that the issue shouldn’t even be whether mind-alteration is appropriate. To my mind that question is moot – mind-altering is unavoidable. The real question is how do we make sure that our proclivity for mind-alteration and mood-control doesn’t interfere with our health and our social functioning.

In this way alcohol, heroin and marijuana are no different than sex, sugar and an amazing book or movie (or spicy burrito). These are all tools to be used with respect, mindfulness and moderation, to provide us with a rewarding and full life-experience. Removing, by force, any of these tools is more likely to lead to over-dependence on others and, in extreme circumstances, to inappropriate and unhealthy utilization of some.

Contrast this with Portugal’s brave decriminalization experiment undertaken 11 years ago resulting in a 50 percent reduction in addiction rates…-Adi Jaffe

All we need to do is look to past American efforts at curbing use. The passage of the Volstead act during Prohibition brought about a roughly 40 percent increase in marijuana use while pushing alcohol use underground. The result was increased crime and a movement to then-legal forms of mind-altering. Making opiates difficult to obtain in 1914 did little to curb opiate addiction but instead increased alcohol use and created the first “junkies” by driving their use into an underground black market. Contrast this with Portugal’s brave decriminalization experiment undertaken 11 years ago resulting in a 50 percent reduction in addiction rates and one of Europe’s lowest drug use rates. See here and here for more analyses of the impact of our approach to drugs (although note that even these make some basic assumptions about “good” versus “bad” drugs).

As one of the most basic laws of physics states, “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This rule works for human behavior just as well as it does for inanimate objects. If we accept that humans will always want to have tools to control their mood, it is up to us to provide them with an appropriate system for doing so; trying to eliminate it will lead us down a rabbit-hole we know all-too-well. Just ask Alice…


Photo Source: pixabay

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