Stanton's Blog Archive 2005

November 1, 2005

Redemption or Corruption?
My Name is Earl questions AA verities

The famous 12 steps of AA include this 8th step: “Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.”

The new NBC TV series, My Name Is Earl, is based on such a list, compiled by a drunken petty thief (played by Jason Lee) who has suddenly come into some money and seeks to redo everything he has done wrong in his life.

But Earl isn’t quitting drinking – at least early in the series. Following his besotted marriage to a six-month pregnant woman, Earl says that this might cause some people to get off the sauce. But, for Earl (as he grabs for a beer while his head hovers over the toilet), it’s a reason to continue drinking.

Reference is likewise made to his brother’s excessive drinking (four drinks makes him a focused and useful assistant; 19 makes him a criminal liability), to painkillers and morphine drips as life aids, to prostitution and casual sex, and so on.

How are we to react to this casual depiction of crime, sex, and drinking at 8 PM? Are we to be alarmed at this attack on American social and sexual standards?

On the other hand, Earl certainly represents one segment of society, a group of people who badly need to reform their lives. But Earl’s idea of reform is very different, say, from that endorsed by AA. That is, Earl is trying to do good while continuing his drinking and anchorless, sketchy, lifestyle. (A motel maid makes the third party to Earl and his brother’s ménage – a woman whom the brother has marked with a “dibs,” but who comes on to Earl.)

Yet, there is something refreshing about Earl. After all, he has been moved to be nice to people through a personal revelation inspired by a TV talk show. This makes his decision to do good more voluntary than many, like Courtney Love (whose treatment for drug addiction was court ordered) or Pat O’Brien, whose treatment seemed to be a good PR move after his alcohol and drug ridden phone messages to a hooker went public.

Earl is simply trying to do the best that he can given his personal limitations. He doesn’t claim to be a saint – or even to have cleaned up his act. All he is striving for is to make up for all the bad things he has done to other people in his life.

Although My Name Is Earl is a humor program, it encourages constructive and independent thinking. It's useful to show this kind of moral struggle and development honestly rather than reduce it to formulas that keep people from thinking and figuring things out for themselves.

October 11, 2005

USA Today ran another article on the modern science of addiction: “Addicts' own stories confirm neuroscience.”

(Rita Rubin, October 10, 2005)

Modern neuroscience has changed our view of addiction, right?

According to George Koob, professor of molecular integrative neuroscience at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. Koob, “Thanks to advances in neurobiology, ‘we have enormous knowledge now of what's going on" in addicts' brains’.” Koob hopes that “new insights into the mechanisms of addiction will lead to new treatments and reduced suffering.”

That’s the standard view. But the article really tells us something different.

Nora Volkow, a distinguished neuroscientist, is director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "The inability to stop is the essence of what addiction is," according to Volkow. What does this include? Can it include gambling, sex, eating, shopping? Volokw considers these possibilities, but rejects them, “devotees won't risk jail time or divorce to feed their habit.” Oh, they do, under the right circumstances.

Volkow, studies the impact of drugs on the brain, including what she and others refer to as drug dependence. But Volkow makes clear that this is not addiction: "Addiction is much harder to treat. Everybody given an opiate (such as morphine) will become physically dependent, but not everybody will become an addict."

Why do some become addicted?

According to Koob, another distinguished neuroscientist, “For many, alcohol or drugs offer a quick fix. ‘You're using the drug to fix something that should be fixed by perhaps getting a good night's sleep or pacing yourself.’ But the drug eventually wears off, leaving the user feeling even worse than before, and the cycle begins anew, Koob says.”

This is the old story of addiction – not something neuroscience can actually tell us much about.