Of drugs and juggling

As long as I can remember, I’ve had a deep fascination with addiction and drugs. The neighborhood I grew up in, though not necessarily a terrible one was surrounded by communities ravaged by drug addiction and the associated violence. The crack wars were raging and there were often spill-over effects into my usually peaceful neighborhood.

I remember the “troubled” kids at school, and the stories about their drug-addicted parents. There was the occasional death by overdose, leaving a child motherless or fatherless. I remember playing with friends in the park and discovering crack vials and hypodermic needles nestled in the grass. They often spooked us, since they indicated the presence of drug addicts in the park. We naively believed this drug paraphernalia and the drug addicts responsible for them weren’t supposed to be in our suburban park – this isn’t the south Bronx, this is the “safe” north Bronx.

The exact borders of that the hell-on-earth called the south Bronx was and still is disputed. Us kids who grew up painfully close to it always liked to think of it as being very far away, though it always crept a bit closer each year. We always knew not to walk too far toward it, lest our souls get destroyed, since we always heard horrible stories about it which indicated an absence of civilization there. I remember many childhood friends moving upstate to escape from the horrific violence and social decay that appeared to be crawling closer.

In response to this, the schools did all they could to terrify us kids so that we would never do drugs. They told us how bad drugs were, never to use them, and to say “no” to smoking since it is a “gateway” drug(yet so many adults, even the ones against drugs smoked, which confused us children). Anti-drug messages were plastered almost everywhere – it is a “war” after all. “Drugs” already struck terror in me due to a neighbor I knew who died from an overdose. And every now and then a celebrity would die from a drug overdose or get arrested for possessing drugs. It often seemed that all celebrities were drug addicts, for some perplexing reason, as if you needed to do drugs to be a celebrity. These “glamorous” celebrity drug addicts were in very sharp contrast to the filthy homeless drug addicts we regularly encountered around town.

I never did take any drugs and my friends for the most part were drug-free, but by high school I would witness kids bringing drugs to school and even smoking pot in the bathrooms. And so many students smoked cigarettes.

I always wondered how otherwise intelligent people could become addicted to substances that rob them of their health, and in a large enough dose, their life. It’s like these substances “trick” the mind in some ways, to get a person to do something that is not in their best interest. The “trick” is that drugs tend to make people feel wonderful; it’s an escape, its empowering. The anti-drug crusaders in grammar school tended to leave this out of their anti-drug diatribes(they seem funny in retrospect), which made drug addiction very mysterious to us.

There still is a certain element of mystery in all of this, even if we can understand how substances like cocaine or nicotine trigger the pleasure centers(especially on dopamine) of the brain. Science helps us understand addiction, but it currently offers little hope to people who want to overcome their addictions. Addictions are nowadays labeled “diseases” by the medical establishment, which always seemed bizarre to me.

Whatever it is, it is obvious that some people are more prone to addiction than others. Some people can snort cocaine occasionally and never become addicted. Most people who drink are not alcoholics. Some people are so hopelessly addicted that even the best detox and addiction treatments fail to help them. People like this are looked down on by society, and are often alienated from friends and family, especially if they turn to crime to support their addiction.

People who manage to overcome their addictions often do so by “fixing” the underlying psychological issues that drives them to do drugs as a form of “self-medication”. Indeed, psychiatric problems are often co-morbid with addictive behavior. If their psychiatric problem is treated properly, it is often much easier for them to overcome their addiction(except perhaps their doctor prescribed medication, assuming they need medication). It looks like replacing one addiction with another.

Another way some addicts become drug free is through religious rebirth. It’s almost a cliche: The addict has hit bottom, their entire life is one big hopeless mess. Even their families and friends have given up on them and they have no reason to live. But then they have this epiphany. They see the light. They hear or feel God, and they regain their strength and will to live. They manage to give up drugs by devoting themselves to God. In some ways, these religious feelings approximate the “high” they experienced through drugs, so this in turn may be another case of replacing one addiction with another addiction.

Some other addicts may overcome their addiction through sports or physical activity. It’s well known that vigorous exercise can cause a drug-like “high”, so this may be an ideal approach to overcoming addictions. This doesn’t mean it can help everyone. Yet again, this is replacing one addiction with another, though this is a much healthier, life-affirming addiction.

IMG_0823Which brings me to the subject of juggling. Can it help people overcome addiction? It is a physical activity and it can bring about a “high” if done long enough. It does require intense focus, to the point that a juggler can get lost in the activity and keep doing it for long periods of mine. Sort of like an addiction! I know of a few jugglers who can juggle for several hours straight with little to no breaks. Sometimes this includes me. But is this a kind of addiction, or do we only use “addiction” to refer to compulsively doing something that are detrimental to our health? Can juggling be a helpful replacement addiction to overcome deadlier additions?

As a person with a passion for juggling, I always run the risk of over-stating its benefits. It’s certainly not bad for you, but it is hardly a panacea, and there is little to no evidence it may be beneficial for your mental health in a manner different from other forms of exercise. What I mean is that the benefits of juggling may very well be generic effects, since it is a form of exercise, and any form of exercise that significantly raises your heart rate has benefits. We do know that exercise can be addictive for some people, and since juggling does count as exercise, it can also be addictive.

The brain is such a magnificent organ. No computer can come close to doing what it can do. Yet it still has serious flaws that can lead a person to do self-destructive things, regardless of how “smart” they are. Trying to outsmart an addiction is really just another way of saying we should try to outsmart ourself. Unfortunately, the smarter a person is, the easier it might be for them to rationalize their addiction.

Whatever you want to call it that is in the brain that leads to addiction, a “flaw” or “genetic predisposition”, it’s a part of being a complete human, and it’s a part of being uniquely you, and could just as easily be used to do good as do bad. For as François de La Rochefoucauld once said: “Our virtues are most frequently but vices disguised.”

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3 responses to “Of drugs and juggling

  1. Great post! As one who has struggled with a nicotine addiction for nearly two decades, I can completely relate to several of your comments. I’ve heard that smoking is a harder addiction to break than heroine (having a family member who had been addicted to heroine but still smokes hardly qualifies as scientific, but there you go).

    I would say that each time I feel the urge to smoke, there is, indeed, some vacuous longing that I can’t identify yet know needs to be filled. Smoking has, unfortunately, often been the stuffing.

    I started running, biking, and swimming on the recommendation of a personal trainer who suggested, as you, that the “runner’s high” can be so addicting that it can become a replacement drug for tobacco. Upon hitting my first Mile Nine atop a bridge spanning across Sarasota Bay, I knew exactly what he was talking about. I think I might have even muttered, “This is even better than sex,” upon which he turned to me and said, “I wouldn’t go that far!”

    Like anyone with an addictive personality, genetic or otherwise, I often can go months without smoking and then, when a stressful situation arises, I grab a pack at my national pharmacy chain, where they are often on sale.

    Here’s to your insightful post and to those kids in the Bronx and elsewhere living on the other side of the invisible fence of drugs and violence. May the fence be removed, not in an inclusionary manner, but that danger no longer lurks on the other side.

    • I appreciate your comments. You’re a fighter so I believe you can overcome this nasty addiction. I also hope, like you that the day comes when the core of too many American cities are no longer plagued by drugs and violence. And I also look forward to your book.

  2. Nice post. Please keep up the good work.

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