Name: Sophia Billharz
Trapped in a glass box, I am slowly suffocating. People look at me and shake their heads as they walk by, their hammers swinging from their belts. They could use those hammers to shatter the glass, but they won’t. “It wouldn’t be right,” they say. “He needs to break the glass himself.”
I see them, and they see me. So how do they not notice that I have no hammer? I have attempted to free myself over and over, but my strength is inadequate. I want to shatter the glass, but I don’t possess the necessary tool. I am surrounded, and yet I am completely on my own. Why will nobody help me? I wish this would all end and I realize death is my escape. So, while they all watch, hammers at their sides, I slowly release my last breath and hope for better on the other side.
These glass boxes have another name – addiction. It is a disease that affect the part of the brain responsible for self-regulation of behavior. With compromised ability to self-regulate, it is impossible to make choices with one’s own self-interest in mind. People suffering from this disease are trapped because the tool they need for recovery is the very thing afflicted. Others must help them before they can help themselves. This means they must sometimes be helped against their will. We know this to be true, but we have yet to change our laws to reflect that knowledge. Therefore, although we have pretty good tools for treating addiction, we are often prohibited from utilizing them.
My older brother is an addict. I wanted to help him, so did my mom, my aunts, uncles and grandparents. For years we sought help, begged for it even. But all help was denied until finally, after seven tumultuous years that ripped my family’s heart to shreds, my brother was arrested and sent to jail. Now he wasn’t just an addict, he was a criminal too. By this time, I felt nothing but resentment for him. He lied, he stole, he mistreated me and made my mom cry. At some point during those seven years I gave up on him so I could protect myself. I was happy that he was in jail and hoped they would keep him there for a long, long time. I certainly didn’t expect jail to magically deliver all the help he needed, but it did.
Today I have my brother back. Sometimes, when we’re having breakfast and talking about our plans for the day, it seems like a miracle. But I can’t just be happy because I’m furious for all the times help was denied. Why did we have to wait seven long years for him to break the law before someone would help him?
At the crux of the issue is our respect for individual rights. It is considered unacceptable to force medical treatment on an individual. But does that mean it is acceptable to watch helpless people die while knowing we could save them? Should we honor the individual rights of a person trapped against his will? I try to understand our system, but I cannot make it work. The pieces are fragmented and just don’t fit together.
The fact that a person cannot initiate or sustain recovery on his own does not mean that person does not want to recover! We know this to be true. Criminals forced into drug or mental health treatment are often extremely grateful once in recovery. Why do we treat criminals but no one else? Is it because the treatment seems too invasive? Consider this: My brother swears going to jail saved his life. He describes his addiction as the cage and jail as his liberation. He explains that while trapped by addiction, he had no power to choose in his own best interest. In spite of what he wanted, the drug always won. He needed to be contained – locked up – long enough for his brain to heal from the effects of the drugs. Only then could he choose recovery. Free will cannot be exercised when one is locked in a cage. It is time we recognize that addiction and mental health diseases are cages and act to help those trapped inside. As a society, we need to stop allowing those trapped by addiction and mental illnesses to die prisoners while we watch from the sidelines. We need to create a fair mechanism for rescuing those who, because of the very nature of their diseases, cannot rescue themselves.
To begin, the distinction between medical and mental health needs to be eliminated. We know that addiction, like cancer, is a biological problem. Even so, we allow health insurance companies to unfairly discriminate in their coverage. Legislation is clearly needed to insist that health insurance companies make no distinctions regarding health and addiction treatments. While mandating fair coverage doesn’t completely solve this complex problem, it is an important first step.
Next, a legal process needs to be created whereby people can request that loved ones be evaluated (and treated) if a history of self-destructive behavior can be established. The process should allow both parties to present arguments, and an impartial judge should make decisions regarding treatment. It is time we recognize that self-destructive behavior is a symptom of disease, not a choice or a character fault. We scoff at the past belief that seizures were cause by demonic possessions, but we don’t recognize our modern-day equivalent. It is more accurate to presume a person is suffering from an illness than to assume the person is choosing to self-destruct. By definition, healthy people don’t purposefully destroy themselves.
Legislation allowing society to force health treatment on individuals seems distasteful and unamerican. It can be very tricky to define the lines between free will and disease. Nonetheless, we know those lines exist and it is immoral to avoid defining them. No legislation or program will ever be perfectly implemented, but that does not excuse us from trying. From a societal viewpoint, fewer people would be harmed by such legislation than are currently suffering from the lack of it! For the sake of those trapped and suffering, we must acknowledge the unfortunate realities of addiction. We must start using our tools to help everyone afflicted instead of reserving them just for criminals. Addiction has been misunderstood for centuries, but now we know better and therefore must do better.