TCN, Episode 8 – Electricity and Corruption

India’s Prime Minister, Modi, came here not too long ago and was hugely popular.  That has changed now the high caste owned media allied with the high caste politicians is blaming India for the blockade.

Modi was popular because he kept getting out of his car to talk with ordinary Nepalis.  Politicians don’t do that.  He was popular, too, because he said India would make big investments in Nepal to stimulate its economy.  He said that was in India’s best interest as well as Nepal’s.  Increased trade between them would be good for everyone.

In particular, he promised massive investment in hydro power generation.  India would buy some of the electricity.  Much of it would be for Nepalis.

An engineer friend of Nagendra’s who works for the electricity company told him why that will never happen.  A new higher capacity distribution network would be necessary.

It would also, by the way, be good to upgrade the “last mile” part of the grid that looks like this, but that could wait.

Electricity Pole

The higher capacity transmission lines would need new towers.  Each of them would need a small parcel of land and buying that land is why the network can’t be built.  Payoffs for every parcel to leaders of the three major political parties and each local party would make the venture cost-prohibitive.

Can’t the legal system be used to overcome such corruption?  I hoped the new Constitution would restructure the judiciary to be independent.  I should have known better.  If the judiciary was not controlled by the politicians, they would risk prosecution for corruption.

Democracy is impossible in a society like this.  Everyone knows the politicians’ promises are empty.  The culture overall, not just in the political sphere, is to tell you what you want to hear so you will be happy.  You will not be happy when it doesn’t happen, but you never really counted on the promise, anyway.

The security guard for the bank beside Nagendra’s shop who is Tamang like Doma’s family explained how he voted in the last election.   The Congress Party promised 3,000 rupees for his vote.  He was going to vote for them, but then the Maoist Party promised 5,000.  Neither of them would do what they promised if elected so he went with the higher price.

Kathmandu was a paradise when Nagendra moved here in 1980.  He got his drinking water from the Bagmati River.  The result of ongoing failure of government?  It is now a sewer.

Bagmati River Kathmandu

Kathmandu’s population is now over a million yet fully 95% of its waste water is untreated and is dumped directly into rivers.  Garbage collection is an equally sorry story.  Much of it is disposed of haphazardly along the river banks.  That also ends up in the water.

This afternoon the three kids and I will cross the bridge where that picture was taken and move back to Doma’s mom’s rooms.  She doesn’t like to but maybe she will have to cook with wood on the roof.  Doma’s aunt enjoys doing that and wants us to stay but we’ve been burdening her long enough.

TCN, Episode 7 – Confusion Dawns as Wisdom

Oct 28 – A famous saying in the tradition I’m practicing is: “Confusion dawns as wisdom.”  That is truly skillful phrasing!

The practices I’m learning aim to disrupt misunderstandings that we crystallize in words whose meaning we no longer question.  Words that point in more than one direction can shake us up, help us to see multiple truths simultaneously.

“Dawns” directs us to recognize that just as night’s darkness is replaced at dawn by the light of day, the confusion in which we live will be replaced by lucid awareness when the result of our training dawns.

Dawn

The same word also directs us to recognize that while at first light we can see wisdom, confusion reigns in the full light of day because we bring our perspective and assumptions to everything.

My experience is very much of both meanings.  Sometimes there’s a sudden clearing in the fog.  Other times I suddenly recognize the fogginess of what I thought was clear.

I’m committed to this training because I’ve seen its inspiring results in others.  But it is indeed confusing!  The practices are either so simple that they don’t look like they could have any effect, or so complicated as to seem incomprehensible. And they’re hard to do.

Try creating a highly detailed and colorful movie in your mind while chanting Tibetan sentences over and over again, remembering when to ring your hand bell, what melody to use when, and what gestures to make with your hands at what points while narrating a story.

And try understanding the changes you’re working to make in your mind and its resulting behaviors while you’re doing all that.

This is why the teachers are always telling us: “Slowly, slowly…”  It’s a long and arduous process breaking up the mess our minds have gotten into over the whole of our life to this moment.

I’m thrilled to find it working a little bit.  So thrilled that I must show you this picture I took a few years ago in upper Mustang near the Tibetan border even though it has nothing to do with what I just said!

Horses winnowing barley

One of my teachers says we are all baby Buddhas. That’s very reassuring.

Recognizing a few days ago that we are simply a locus of cognizance within an energy field has now enabled me to understand, in a foggy way so far, how the ever-changing energy field that manifests as us while we’re alive can survive our body’s death.

The ever changing waves and particles that manifest as “me” will be disrupted when my body dies but they will not cease to exist, just keep changing.

It was the same when my body was born.  The sentient being that I think of as “me” did not come from nothing.  The waves and particles of energy that manifested as “me” already existed.  They just manifested in a new way when my body emerged.

But in the everyday world here in Nepal I see no signs of confusion dawning as wisdom.  Now the big festival is over, violent protests have resumed on the border. Vehicles torched, people beaten up…

Newspaper editorials call for politicians and protesters to talk to each other.  It’s not talking but listening that’s missing.  Nepal will not become a functioning democracy just because its Constitution calls for that.  It could take three or more generations for dawn to manifest in Nepal’s  governance sphere.

Now, back to the monastery for the afternoon class.

TCN, Episode 6 – How Ritual Practice Works

Buddhist metaphysics as elucidated by Nagarjuna 1,800 years ago explains the world in a way that is, as Alan comments, amazingly consistent with modern physics.

One of the characters in our cranium, Mr. Intellect, loves to explore such ideas, but he does not drive how we act, and Buddhism’s purpose is not intellectual entertainment but better behavior.

Ritual practice helps Mr. Intellect recognize that while his concepts can be useful, they filter reality, and it also helps his roommate, Mr. Ego, who has so many ideas about things we can do, to abandon his lazy emotional habits.  It works like theater except the experience is of existence as it really is.

Acting on a stage, speaking, gesturing and using props, we can experience life with different pre-programmed responses.  Sitting in the audience, we can feel how preconceptions and emotional habits lead to farce or tragedy.  Maybe we recognize some of those same habits in ourselves.

Theatrical performances require carefully designed sets.  It’s the same for ritual practice.  This is the set for the practice I’m learning:

IMG_1871

The bowls in the foreground are offerings of sense pleasures.  They originated in India as a replacement for earlier sacrificial offerings.

Pairs of offerings called torma in metal bowls behind them are specific to Tibetan practice.  The noun form of torma means “offering”, its verb form “discarding”.

Torma are offered to deities that embody the perfect form of qualities we want to develop and to demonic forces in us that impair our progress.  They are made from barley flour and butter, are usually conical and are painted and adorned according to their specific purpose.

Here is the torma we’re learning to make.  Lama says it takes only a few months to get good at it 🙂

IMG_1890

Our generosity and other beneficial behaviors are imperfect because we are misled by preconceptions and negative emotions.  In these rituals we practice how it feels to manifest these behaviors perfectly.  We imagine being deities that perfectly embody the behaviors.

We practice how it feels when nothing masks our natural goodness.  We imagine requesting our obstructive demons to leave and giving them offerings.

We might want to keep the statues we work so hard to perfect, but such clinging amplifies our selfishness.  We practice discarding them without regret.

Here is one of my classmates getting feedback:
IMG_1483

In the world outside, politicians continue to jockey for positions with good payoffs.  Ours make big money after they leave office, Nepal’s via corruption in office.  There’s almost no cooking gas, many restaurants have closed, those left have limited menus, and people cook outside with scrap wood.

But it’s such a blessing to be alive!

TCN, Episode 5 – Gas and China

Oct 27 – Violent protests in southern Nepal continue along with the blockade.  The border can only be policed at major road crossings so men are still bringing food in by bicycle the same way they always do, but fuel tankers and trucks with raw materials can and are being blocked.

Only about 10% of the usual gasoline is coming in.  Black market gasoline bought for 100 rupees per liter and brought in small containers from India sells for anywhere up to 1,000 in Kathmandu.

Occasional trucks come in with cooking gas.  People queue for days on rumors of a delivery. [photo: Nepal Mountain News]

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But a neighbor of my friend Nagendra showed him how, if you are well connected,  you can drive to the back of the depot and get as many tanks as you want.

A few black market tanks brought in from India by bicycle are selling for 8,000 rupees or more versus the usual 1,450.  Everyone assumes the illustration below shows the source of all the others.

Nepal Cooking Gas

Industrial activity ceased almost three months ago.  Factory workers aren’t getting paid, customs revenue is down 27% this quarter, VAT is down 16% and bank lending has stopped.

Life is growing a lot harder for all but the wealthy or well-connected few.  Doma’s grandmother has no cooking gas left and must pay heavily for wood from the jungle.  Yubhan Tamang in the picture below in the kitchen at Bir Hospital, one of the busiest in Nepal, has been cooking with firewood for around 300 patients daily for a month and a half. [Photo: Gopen Rai]

Cooking with Wood

This is the time of Nepal’s great annual festival.  Visiting friends and family is a big part of the celebration but people are not doing it this year because they would have to be offered food and hot drinks.

The economy will be devastated if the blockade and strike continue.  Some private sector leaders are calling for the government to issue a White Paper at least saying what they propose to do.

China has made Nepal a gift of several tanker loads of gasoline, seeking to increase their already growing influence here.  They will stop at the border where Nepal’s political leaders insist the gasoline must be transferred into Nepalese tankers.  Only small tankers can be used because the roads on this side of the border are so poor.

Many Nepalis have fallen for the government’s claim that embracing China’s friendship will propel Nepal rapidly into great prosperity, the end of all problems.  Geography in the form of the Himalayas makes that unlikely.  70% of Nepal’s international trade is with India.  The US is its second biggest trade partner at 7% and China is 6th at 2%.  The explanation?  Transportation costs.

China will not make the investment to supply Nepal with large amounts of gasoline on a regular basis unless the cost of gasoline from India is raised to equal its cost from China.  If India’s gasoline is cheaper, China’s will have no market.

Nepal could equalize the costs by increasing  customs duties on gasoline from India.  That would have the side-effect of benefiting the politicians.  It would also seriously hurt the people.  I’m not betting against it because it’s impossible to overestimate the systemic corruption here.

TCN, Episode 4 – Momos and Missionaries

Oct 26 – I’m downstairs as usual this evening in the restaurant at Ti-Se Guest House, my Tibetan Buddhist home during my classes.   Tibetan butter tea is already purifying (hah!) my bloodstream and my veg momos have just arrived.

Momos alone at Ti-Se

The momos are perfect!  As I savor them, five young Nepalis come in with an elderly Korean man and two middle-aged Korean women.  The young Nepalis start talking enthusiastically about a Christian seminar they’ve been attending.  After listening to them with a smile for five or ten minutes, the kind-looking Korean man ceremoniously places a $100 bill in front of each of them.

The conversation continues.  I’m not really listening but I hear mention of David from South Carolina.   Maybe he is one of the three groups of Americans who were here for breakfast on different days last week. They were from the South.

The first group was obsessed with football results back home.  Very loudly obsessed.  I was distressed by their sense of entitlement about dominating the room.

It was only when one responded truculently to being asked what he would do after breakfast by saying he would go to his room and read his bible that their purpose became apparent.  Perhaps they were being careful?  Nepal’s new Constitution makes it illegal to attempt to convert anyone to another religion.

I was pleased they were not around the next day.  Breakfast was peaceful again.  But later that week there was a new group.  Their breakfast conversation was all about the logistics of their plan to spread the gospel here.  They spoke quite loudly making no effort to hide why they are here.

And at the end of the week a third group appeared.  I didn’t pay much attention to them because the presence of Christian missionaries no longer seemed surprising.  It did seem odd that they would all have chosen to stay in a Tibetan Buddhist guesthouse, though.

I asked my Nepali classmate about Christian missionaries.  A few used to come alone or in pairs but more come now, often in groups.  They give money, especially to the poorest who are happy to call themselves Christians to get money.  Nepali culture strongly encourages behaving respectfully to anyone who might give you something .

Then as I walked to my class yesterday morning I realized that Nepalis roaring down the narrow passageways on motorbikes honking at pedestrians also have that sense of entitlement.  My embarrassment about the behavior of my fellow Americans was misjudged.  Furthermore, I recognized the mote in my own eye — prejudice about missionaries.

Where does that prejudice come from?  There’s a story I tell myself.  It’s about people who tell others what to believe.  “This man seized on a concept about his own existence” I say to myself, “and now he’s trying to get others to believe it, too, to make himself feel more safe.”

It is wrong to use power over others.  It’s a form of violence.  But my story about “the kind of people who” means I see a concept of missionaries not real ones.  I make a judgment about them for which I have no evidence and which will in any case, simply because it is a judgment, cause me to act badly.

And last night I encountered my own sense of entitlement.  A mosquito was buzzing round my head as I lay in bed.  From lifelong habit, I felt entitled to kill it.  But I’m a Buddhist now.  I’ve vowed never to do violence even to insects.

I tried to think it through.  The mosquito had to bite me to get its food and that would cause me discomfort.  It would be impossible for me to drive it away and even if I could, it would go on to bite someone else.  My choice, then, was either to end the mosquito’s life or suffer short-lived discomfort.

What I should do was obvious, and I had anyway committed myself to that choice.  But even after I saw the decision clearly, I still kept having to arrest my lunging hand as it tried to end the annoyance.  At last I went to sleep.  Surprisingly, there was no sign of biting when I woke this morning.

Sad to say, I just ate the last momo and the Tibetan tea is finished.  The Korean man went to his room a while ago.  All the others just left with elaborate good byes.  I go to the front desk and ask the young woman if the missionary groups are associated with each other.  They’re not.  The Korean man was giving a week long training class to Christian Nepalis who will spread the gospel.  The loud Americans have gone on a trek.  She doesn’t know what the others are doing now but they all booked separately.

Why can’t we just all agree, I think to myself, to give up violence, stealing and lying?  Why do we have to have all this divisive extra stuff?  Then I remember what I’m struggling to learn in these classes, such complicated visualizations, chanting and whatnot.

It’s easy enough to know that killing and so forth is negative but it’s very hard to stop doing such things.  That’s why we need training programs.

TCN, Episode 3 – Metaphysics and Quantum Physics

Oct 20 – The cook is missing. “He come five or ten minutes.”  But in Nepal that’s an aspiration, not something to depend on.  I do need breakfast — I just had to make a new hole in my belt.  Less food, no meat or beer while I’m receiving teachings, it always surprises me how fast the result comes.

But results from classes come much more slowly.  Tibetan Buddhism is an enormous range of training programs among which we search for one that resonates.  Then we must do it, over and over and over again.  They all have the same purpose, to help us grow more kind.

We have so many ideas and habitual responses, and because we misunderstand the basic reality of existence, our ideas are misguided.  That’s why we keep creating suffering.  The only way to stop that is to recognize then discard our delusions and habits.

I can’t say what I’m learning in these classes because I don’t understand it well enough yet, but I will in another post say how ritual practices work, including the role of the dough statues (torma).

For now, I’ll just introduce our teachers, Lama Sherab, whose teaching is so clear, Ani Laura, whose translation makes them that way, and our so skillful and patient torma teacher.

My Teachers

The mental clouds parted for an instant just now.  Such a blessing!  I glimpsed reality not obscured by concepts but as it really is.  So hard to communicate such glimpses though, because no matter how skillfully words try to point toward reality, what they bring to mind is concepts.

I’ll try to show what I recognized.  Nothing we can observe has a fixed intrinsic nature.  Everything is composed of smaller parts that came together and everything we can observe is changing.  Each of us is changing in every instant but because we have what we think of as a personality, a unique face and so on, we imagine we have an unchangeable core that is not made up of parts.

I remember the scary suspicion in my late teens that my personality was fake, that I was fabricating it from no real base.  When suspicion turned to certainty, I told myself it was a good thing because I could choose what to become — a businessman, a good man, maybe both and more!

But, self-centered as I was, it never occurred to me that nobody else had an intrinsic nature either.  I wasn’t ready for Buddhism fifty years ago.  I was for Physics but it was not taught well at my school.  I knew e=mc2 but had no sense of the implications.

Energy and matter are different manifestations of the same thing.  That’s the step I didn’t take to see the true nature of the world.

Our sensory apparatus and brain provide us with the experience of matter.  It’s only if we change focus that we can recognize the other view, that there is nothing other than the flow of energy that manifests to us primarily as matter, things we can see and touch.  What is this galaxy; matter or energy?

Galaxy

Our body, the vehicle for our life journey, is the manifestation of a highly complex and ever changing flow of energy.  It is nothing but energy flowing within a gargantuan ever changing energy field.

What I think of as “me” is a locus of awareness in an energy field like the weather system.  The air is still where I am now but there was a breeze at the monastery.  Further north it’s snowing but it never snows here because the conditions are different.  The weather is changing in every instant everywhere, but within limits created by conditions that change more slowly.  Changes in the world in which the weather changes trigger more changes.  The interplay of flowing forces shapes their flow.

That’s how it is with you, me, with everything that appears to be a thing.  The appearances are real, but they appear as they do only because our mind works that way.  They have no intrinsic nature.  It’s just our concept that they do, and that they are separate from each other.

When we reach that understanding, we feel compassion for all the suffering that results from misunderstanding.  We want to bring it to an end.  That’s not a response from logic, it’s just what happens.   Interacting with people who do a lot of this training, I’ve seen it to be inevitable.  People who train diligently just do grow more happy and kind.  That’s why I know it’s worth persisting.

Brain Scan

Look at the energy flowing in that brain!  It is part of the universal energy field and somehow cognizing the flow.  Like the butterfly whose flapping wings spark a tornado, its every action is shaping the future.

Ah, breakfast has arrived. The cook never did, so others took over.  He’s probably celebrating Dashain, the big annual festival.

Today’s Chaos in Nepal (TCN), Episode 2 – Politics and Blockade

Oct 14 –  The blockade continues and yesterday there was yet another earthquake aftershock.  My Buddhist classes cannot now be held in seclusion at the cave where Guru Rinpoche meditated before bringing Buddhism to Tibet because no cooking gas is left out there.

What is the blockade about?  The Constitution reverses a commitment made when the Hindu monarchy fell.  Electoral districts in the new secular, democratic republic were to be based on population.  Close to half of Nepalis, the Madhesi, who live in the south (the Tarai) where most of Nepal’s food is grown had never been represented.  The Tarai was operated like a colony.  And hill people who, like Doma’s family, are not Hindu were also always marginalized.

The Constitution set by men in the high caste minority who are determined to remain in control defines electoral districts not by population but geography.  They gerrymandered the districts to include enough territory north of the Tarai so all but Province 2 will have enough high caste voters.

Nepal Electoral Districts

The Madhesi began protesting when rumors about the broken commitment emerged.  Their protests turned violent when the Constitution was published.  They began blockading trucks that bring fuel and other essentials from India.

Nepal’s politicians promptly blamed India.  All Nepal’s fuel comes from the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and they are filling only a small percentage of Nepal’s tankers.  The IOC must be acting on orders from the Indian government but its officials say truck drivers just decided it’s too dangerous to cross the border until Nepal’s politicians subdue the protesters.

Why would India do that?  Partly because they believe Nepal’s marginalized people should be granted equal rights.  More pragmatically because if Nepal suppresses the protests by force, the country could be destabilized and China’s influence on Nepal greatly increased.

The Nepali politicians’ appeal to patriotism – India is threatening our sovereignty! – is proving quite effective, especially in the Kathmandu Valley where there is a long history of prejudice against Indians.  Diverting the blame enables them to focus on jousting for position in the new government.

The “gentleman’s agreement” among leaders of the three big parties to form a coalition government broke down when the leader of the India-friendly traditional party began campaigning for a government of his own party led by him.  The two China-friendly, nominally Communist parties made a new deal resulting in one of them being elected Prime Minister.

In the absence of a government that can act on the blockade, only 10% of the usual supply of gasoline is coming in.  These people were told they could buy 5 liters today.  They queued overnight and into this afternoon.  It looks like they will get none.

Empty Kathmandu Street

That street is usually jammed with vehicles.  Now, motorbikes are lined three deep along the roadside as far as the eye can see.  The white taxi almost hidden behind the pedestrian walking down the road must have queued for hours to get ten liters.  There are no buses to be seen.

So why do I love it here?  Nothing works dependably, it’s poor, dirty, crazy crowded and corrupt.

Doma’s mom’s Tibetan astrology calendar says I have much in common with my long deceased mom. Life was hard for us with very little money when I was a kid in England right after WW2. My mom made our life happy, though, in that tiny remote house with no water, electricity or gas. The cheerfulness of people here in face of constant difficulty must remind me of how she made that time happy.

Classes start tomorrow.  Even the less intense schedule and environment we’ll have instead of 6 am to 9 pm in the sacred cave will be transformative.  And I’m ready!

Today’s Chaos in Nepal (TCN), Episode 1

I was going to call these posts “Chaos in Nepal” but that implies chaos is unusual here.

Oct 2 – Doma’s mom meets me at the airport in a taxi and we speed off to where I’ll stay until classes start.  There’s so little traffic!  That’s because almost no gasoline is coming from India.

What damage was done by the earthquakes?  I see no damaged buildings on the way from the airport.  Most buildings in Kathmandu are relatively new reinforced concrete post and beam construction with three floors or less and most of them survived with at worst a few cracks in the single layer brick walls or the ground floor.  This undamaged one is getting an additional story.

Post and Beam

But it’s very different in the villages higher up.  Most houses there have traditional wood frames and mud walls.  Almost every building in Doma’s grandmother’s village was destroyed.

I check in to the Tibetan-operated Ti-Se Guest House then walk over to the great stupa.  The top must be rebuilt but the buildings around all seem OK.  People are walking reverently round the stupa as usual, and the pigeons are being fed.

Boudha 1

Boudha 3

A blind Sherpa with his Tibetan style guitar in one of the side roads is singing that all of us are in the light while he is in darkness.  He seems accepting.

Sherpa Singer

Oct 7 –  The kitchen is dark when I come downstairs for my dinner of steamed veg. momos (similar to Chinese dumplings) and Tibetan butter tea — it’s not a conscious decision: I just don’t eat meat while I’m here for Buddhist teachings.

I assume it’s dark because hydro plants that accounted for 12% of Nepal’s theoretical capacity were knocked out by the earthquakes and will not be repaired soon.  The rainy season only just ended and there’s already no electricity 8 hours a day. There’ll be none for 16 hours a day when the rivers run low a few months from now.

The young woman at the front desk says the generator will be started soon and takes my order, then we chat.  She recently got a psychology degree in India and very much wants to help women and children here.  Mental illness is very stigmatized in Nepal, though, so how to start?  She will try offering counseling to schoolchildren without pay for a few months to demonstrate the value.

She says Nepal is a mess that’s growing rapidly worse, which makes it all the more urgent to help.   She is especially troubled that people now identify themselves by their religion and regard followers of other religions as enemies.

There has been no progress on the blockade. Private citizens can’t buy gas at all now, taxis get 10 liters per week, microbuses 15 liters every other day.  The politicians are doing nothing but jostle for position in the next government.  They say they can’t do anything because there isn’t yet a government, they were only elected to develop the Constitution.  Meanwhile, the shortage of daily essentials is fast growing worse.  I’d be worried about rioting but Nepalis are all too used to suffering.

 

Depression: Suicide

I mentioned my own close approach to it in Out of the Closet, and how I reacted to my friend’s suicide in this comment.

Eric shared more details of his heart-wrenching story.  

I too was severely depressed and was saved from killing myself by Beethoven.

“I had decided to do it and stayed out very late thinking about ways.  I got home and decided to listen to The Emperor concerto for the last time.  I lay on the floor with my ear to the speaker with the volume very low so as not to wake my mother.  

“When the second movement started, the notes were so lovely that I could feel the combination of Beethoven’s depression combined with great hope and that hope spread through me and changed my mind.  

“Life became even more difficult and I dropped out of high school and took up lots of very dangerous behavior.  But I was a fighter at that point, and just kept on digging myself out.  

“I am still undergoing that process today.”

I’ve pointed out before what courage it takes to reveal such a story, especially when the battle still has to be fought every day.  Now I have something to add.

Eric and I were lucky.  I was weakened by pacing back and forth along the river bank, unable at last to decide if I had the courage to drown myself.  Eric’s strength was restored by Beethoven.  We were saved by something unintentional.

We had hidden our decision from those who loved us most.  Only something unintended could have stopped us.

Our parents would have been devastated if we had not been stopped.  They would have felt such guilt because they had not noticed our suffering, or had under-reacted.

We fear for our loved ones, our children most of all, and we rightly try hard to keep those fears to ourselves.  But while banishing fears of imaginary harm, we must remain alert to what can be very subtle signs of another’s pain.

We must learn how to ask, gently and with enough insistence when we sense a loved one’s pain so that we will get the chance, if they are lost in misery, to try to help while help is still possible.

Depression: Addiction

Many who have felt the utter desolation of depressive episodes are compelled to help their fellow-sufferers.  Mike and Michael’s stories in Depression: The Willpower Delusion and other stories in previous posts illustrate the compassion that arises from what they learned.

Those who have experienced depression know that willpower alone is not a cure, and they know what makes treatment even more elusive.

As Katie wrote in Depression: Help for Young People:  “Our culture teaches us that mental illness is something we must keep to ourselves … something we should feel ashamed of.”

By stigmatizing it, our culture amplifies the pain that comes directly from depression.  And there’s something even darker.

A friend who lost a family member to drug addiction, which stems from and is a form of mental illness, points out that addiction is far worse stigmatized.

I said little in Out of the Closet about my self-medication with alcohol, not because I want to keep it secret any more but because I did not become addicted.  Enormous numbers of us are not so lucky.

Overcoming addiction takes both enormous courage and the right kind of support.

My friend wrote: “Drug addiction is condemned by our society and abused by the insurance industry.  This person was sent home after 5 days of detox to an outpatient program that met three times a week for 3 hours.  The insurer said they would pay for an inpatient program if the person failed the outpatient treatment.

“He failed.  The insurer did not have to pay.”

That’s heart-rending…

Systems that result from our culture can be bewilderingly cruel.   We don’t usually reflect much on culture.  When we examine its results, it can be startling sometimes to see how very far things have gotten from being OK.

We don’t choose to become depressed, or become addicted, or get cancer.  We might act in ways that put us at higher risk, or it might just happen.  What is best for society in either case is that we get cured.

But recovery, or at least mitigation of the symptoms, is something we must choose.  That can be an agonizing truth when a loved one is addicted.

Addiction can only be overcome by someone who has arrived where every other alternative, even suicide, feels worse.  We may be able to help them arrive, but feeling cannot be commanded.

And there is a second agonizing truth.  They may reach that feeling but be unable to get treatment.

We must end addiction’s stigma.  That will make it less difficult to seek treatment, and it will make it no longer “acceptable” for insurers to deny coverage.