Just look at the label

There areĀ  two kinds of non-comedic drug movie. The first is not only familiar, it’s incredibly common: nothing more nor less than the model of demonic possession, and how one’s strength or weakness of character leads to redemption or tragedy. I won’t spend much time on it, except to say that it entails that you can “just know” the difference between narcotic-induced vs. “real” feelings. Easy enough right? One is fake and one is real, so how hard can it be? The story implies that anyone who says different, or goes back to using once clean, well, that’s evidence of being insufficiently morally staunch against the demon drug.

The second kind is, well, only one movie I can think of: Drugstore Cowboy (1989), directed by Gus Van Sant. It contains the point I’ll dwell on here:

Most people don’t know how they’re gonna feel from one moment to the next. But a dope fiend has a pretty good idea. All you gotta do is look at the labels on the little bottles.

This should, I hope, inspire the same “deep horror” underlying Shivers, as I discussed in Passion. That chemistry is chemistry, and our emotional or experiential response is rather removed from the causes, and not able to identify the causes based on “sincerity.” The familiar separation between alien, Other, wrong, unnatural and self, Us, natural, safe is exploded. It’s part of the shock, or as I call it in my book, Prendick’s gaze, of biology, which provides us with this useful terms set:

  • exogenous: introduced into the body from some outside source
  • endogenous: chemically produced within the body

See? The thing is the same, or similar enough; the distinction is its current location and source, not “essential nature.” Let’s work with that a little bit. The chemistry in, say, poppy plants isn’t precisely the same as one of the neurotransmitters found in your synaptic junctions, but it’s very similar. Crudely put, the exogenous plant substances imitate specific, existing functions or activities of one’s own endogenous nervous system. The general and widespread physiological effect of this class of chemicals, the opioids, is to inhibit stressful stimulus, hence pain relief and a variety of down-regulated autonomic functions; the specific brain effect involves the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-aminobutryic acid) concerning pleasure and addiction.

With that in mind, the source-and-location terms within the chemical class opioid break down like so:

  • endogenous
    • endorphins and others
    • special case: GABA (neurotransmitter)
  • opiate (roughly, plant-based)
    • opium
      • morphine, isolated in the very early 1800s
      • diamorphine, refined from morphine in the 1870s (“heroin” was originally a trade name; now it’s the common name)
  • synthetic analogue
    • oxycodone, methadone, and others
    • (in the movie, the product Dilaudid contains hydromorphone)

It was an interesting quarter-century, teaching biology of this sort (including in addition to opiates, cocaine, alcohol, nicotine, THC, and a variety of hallucinogens) in the context of the War on Drugs, especially in my age bracket. I was among the very last American kids to graduate high school before that policy kicked in at the schools. “Just Say No” was not part of my curriculum. Looking at those graduating in the five years afterward, we thought it was pretty much a joke, until it became clear how entrenched and harmful it was.

Call me a hippie, then.

Harmful, really? Tell you what, I’ll explain philosphically and intellectually, no buzzwords. An example: the rarity among students, to the point of absence, of knowing what the terms drug, narcotic, controlled substance, addiction, overdose, withdrawal, and (as it pertains here) legal/illegal even mean – knowing only that they better not ask. Given the un-parsed mess that they’ve constructed, no fault to them in the face of constant loaded signals, it’s an easy hop into the Naturalistic Fallacy, such that “drugs are really OK” is presumed to be at stake when discussing how they work, or in terms of discussing a film, whether it’s “pro or anti.” Yet again, biology class is forced to be a necessary blowtorch session. And the biology is necessary but only the beginning of the long, long road to questions of I do it vs. I don’t, it’s wrong to do it vs. it’s not, and people can have it vs. no they can’t, which are themselves very different things. What the War on Drugs did at this level is prevent even the beginning of actual policy discussion.

I might as well bring in the TMI as well, that I prefer to teach from a position of frankness and also of sensitivity to students’ circumstances. They’re not adoring little vessels to be filled; they’re people who’ve lived with alcoholism, anti-depressants, addictions, and disorders of all sorts, sometimes first-hand, more commonly via family and friends – just like me. Nor is recreational use foreign to them; it’s a bit of a relief to everyone when a student feels comfortable enough to ask what I may have tried, and I respond by reminding them of my age, and that I’ve done drugs that they can’t spell. (This isn’t something I hint at or solicit; it crops up occasionally, not in every class.) So a class which includes this material tends to be a bit flexible regarding exactly what we talk about, biologically.

But to the point: heroin, and its reasonably accurate depiction in the film. We can go ’round and ’round on whether heroin itself, through the intense need it generates, ruins lives simply by entering them, or whether so aggressively criminalizing something which generates such a need is the problem. I simply want to look at the need, and the rather prosaic, unhappy realities that one doesn’t wish it away with the power of love and family, or purge “the demon” to fix everything. A lot of my students are surprised that withdrawal occurs in the substance’s absence, not its presence (they were often a bit confused about overdose vs. withdrawal). I’d even say the most trenchant physiological issue isn’t either of these two, but the state of drug-free post-withdrawal. Why isn’t that called “cured?” Why is “getting clean” only a piece of the puzzle – given the exorcism of the demonic presence, why is staying clean the real issue?

Because being entrained to opioids is ordinary endogenous physiology. It’s strong, too, with two mechanisms, one of generalized stress-and-pain relief, and one of pleasure-surge. Mechanisms of value and desire are looped right into them via learning and experience. We are, if you will, born addicted already. When you find things that get you there, you seek them out. And crucially, you’ll do it again. Endogenously, this mostly means food, comfort, sex, and social ease. Although all of these are nuanced and physiologically multiply-factored, good ol’ endorphins are strong players in there.

There’s a bit in the film that I find very strong about that, when Bob is talking to a drug counselor who quite rightly spots him as a potential effective counselor. I think it’s way more important than the meme’d-out Burroughs cameo. He tells her,

… nobody, and I mean nobody, can talk a junkie out of using. You can talk to ’em for years but sooner or later they’re gonna get ahold of something. Maybe it’s not dope. Maybe it’s booze, maybe it’s glue, maybe it’s gasoline. Maybe it’s a gunshot to the head. But something. Something to relieve the pressures of their everyday life, like having to tie their shoes.

But wait. This isn’t the standard line that junkies are losers who can’t tie their shoes, thus turn to junk ’cause they’re so lame. The something to relieve the pressures of everyday life is not what the drug is doing to you, but rather what you do which, in this case, a particular drug is rather good at providing. The decision to stay clean is not to live free of addiction, but rather to accept the lower and less reliable endogenous dose, in the context, one hopes, of outstanding social and emotional support. Without the latter, bluntly, I don’t see how anyone can be expected to do that.

There is considerable reason for pause in this. The urge for stress relief, or if you will, for endorphin rush, is a primary feature of our psychology and daily life. I may go so far as to say that it underlies the vaporous talk of “the satisfaction of a job well done,” “the bliss of parenthood,” and quite a lot of other indicators of virtue is its own reward. No, virtue isn’t its own reward – your own little horse factories are doin’ that job. Going exogenous is exactly that – outsourcing it, and no more.

You can’t be too smug about feeling, literally knowing, that you have done well today, feeling good in the most fulfilled sense of that term. ‘Cause that feeling really is available in a bottle.

Links: The brain from top to bottom (McGill U); also, did you know about the novel the film’s based on? Learn about James Fogle

Next: Announcing Adept Learning


3 thoughts on “Just look at the label

    • I was careful to phrase it as “don’t be too smug” rather than “don’t feel good.”

      Consider the rhapsodies frequently expressed regarding the colors of sunsets and our ability to perceive (some) of them. That’s a correspondence between one set of stimuli which, arguably, has nothing to do with our immediate physiology and another set which, presumably, does (how we see/use colors up-close).

      Perceiving the sunset as something right and good which we should not only take time to do, but appreciate in some way, is an extremely widespread outlook. You’ll find it couched in every imaginable phrasing and even those who profess hard atheism may be caught off-guard in calling it “spiritual.” To point out its literally coincidental quality is considered a buzzkill, even small-minded, and possibly only understandable as a sneaky-nasty putdown (i.e. social).

      I submit that we have very little vocabulary to discuss things which affect us neurologically (the sunset provides an endorphin rush, as does the social act of watching it together when that applies) without falling into the trap of “oh the grandeur of reality which includes us in its embrace” or the trap of “it’s nothing, your feelings are invalid, don’t be stupid” (or being perceived as saying that). What is the term for feeling the feeling and liking it, without shifting into spiritualist or metaphysical concepts?

      Perhaps some of the scariness, or gap, in the possible discourse is found in recognizing that judgments upon the sunset as good and heroin as bad are not based on ineffable metaphysical qualities but rather on social consequences of all kinds, some of which are rather deeply rooted in mammalian/primate terms. But that would mean one’s feelings are not a secret tap into the cosmos. No one ever got paid or became socially privileged by saying that.


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