The Eagle

The Student Newspaper of American University


February 28, 2000



Addiction is not a choice

Terry Kester


I remember walking on 42nd Street in New York City a few years back, before Disney swept all of the crack addictions some place else, heading to my mailbox in the Port Authority.  It was Mother’s Day.  Blocking the doorway I chose was a large, filthy homeless woman sprawled on the gum and urine covered pavement.  She was about the same age as my mother.  Her glasses hung askew on her tortured drool covered face.


     Empty beer and wine bottles lay around her soiled clothes, bags and covers.  Crack paraphernalia lay on the sidewalk.  I did what I could for her.  Gave her a bit of food and some money and went about my business wending my way through the blocks and blocks of derelicts, panhandlers, addicts and mentally ill, of the homeless in NY City during the late 1980s.  I gave them food or money whenever I could simply because having been with them at one time in my life, having looked into their eyes daily, I knew that not one of them had chosen this as their life.


     Sophistry is a choice.  Speciousness is a choice.  Creating controversy for one’s own notoriety is a choice.  Addiction is not a choice.


     Am I accusing Jeffery Schaler, a fellow instructor of sophistry, speciousness or of creating controversy for his own gain?  No I am not—not yet anyway.  If we find the chance to meet, to discuss this issue, perhaps to debate it in a classroom or a public forum—to which I hereby challenge him—I just might.  I do know this.  I know he is wrong.


     It is a principle of Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for any alcoholic or addict to “maintain anonymity at the level of press, radio and television.”  And out of respect for those principles, I will not announce that I am or am not an alcoholics, recovering or practicing.  Let’s just say for now that “I’ve been around the block” and starting 20 years ago, through, yes, the grace of God, I found a way to make fewer trips.


     I will right now accuse my fellow instructor of momentarily embracing the irresponsible to announce from his position in the classroom and in The Eagle that “Addiction is a choice,”—that “addiction is an oxymoron”—the former is actually the oxymoron.  At best Schaler has an opinion—in my mind, a dangerous opinion.  An opinion that is not, in fact, shared by the AMA or by any recovering addict or alcoholic I know, and certainly not based on science or first hand experience!.


     Oh, I will defend his right to his opinion, and I will even fight for our academic freedom to state opinion.  I will even agree with Schaler “that people are being 9too often) conditioned to believe that they cannot help themselves.”  And I will state my opinion that Schaler is not himself an addict or an alcoholic;  and further that his pronouncements stem from a deep-seated bias.


     First, his very notion that “People are being coerced into adopting religious-like principles in these classes (Alcoholics Anonymous) (is) a clear violation of the first amendment, must be specious.  Here he contradicts his first premise;  that people always have a choice!  As a matter of fact, I have known a number of alcoholics who attend AA regularly, participate completely, are accepted completely and remain solidly agnostic or atheistic.  Besides, if as he claims, he is opposed to drug use and particularly to drug abuse, why in an atheist’s heaven’s name would he oppose people finding freedom from drugs or alcohol by any means that they chose?


     Second, his sophistic assertion that “we are all addicted” is absurd, and again contradicts his other points.  If, as he says, “many people use drugs and are okay,” can’t I be “devoted,” even “passionately dedicated” to my work or my school, or my love, and “be okay” without being “addicted”?  At the very least Schaler is being very careless with words.


     But perhaps, Schaler’s most grievous irresponsibility to his students, readers and particularly to the drug abuse councils that he has served, is to state that the “they [the addicts] should be allowed to destroy themselves.”  Maybe they should.  Butit is never just themselves who are destroyed or damaged—just ask the friends, the classmates and the families of AU student Matt Odell.  I wonder exactly what Island Schaler thinks he is?


     It does seem that Schaler seeks controversy, seeks “becoming a regular” on television programs—maybe he’s addicted to notoriety.  And that’s fine too.  But I, with the White house Office of Drug Control Policy, wonder, what in the world are you teaching your students (at AU)?  I hope that he will at least allow me or others to present a strongly opposed viewpoint to his classes.  Mine is based on 19 years of personal experience—not on 18 years of judging other people’s experience.  As every responsible instructor knows, college students are a wonderful challenging mixture of courage and vulnerability, or ignorance and intelligence.  It is our job, our hope, that while in our classes they will gain a bit of wisdom, as well as an ability to use, to savor, and to protect their talents.  Our job is to offer our student’s facts, perspective, perhaps some opinion, and then choice—in both their social as well as academic lives.


     At least one in eight (maybe as many as one in six) of you, our students, will lose that ability to choose—will become addicted.  One in eight of you will throw away that opportunity as you screw up your lives, your families and your potential with alcohol and drugs.  We can all see these tragic addicts at the parties, the bars and in the classroom already.  If you happen to catch one of them before they leave or before they die, ask them if they choose to vomit their guts out night after night:  if they choose to rape their girlfriend while in a black out;  if they choose to scar their bodies, their minds, the friendships with stupid ventures after a night of drinking or drugging;  if they choose make every single problem they have worse, to deepen their depression, their fears, their doubts;  if they choose to wind up killing others as a drunken drivers;  fi they choose to abuse their kids as drunk parents;  if they choose to wind up in a filthy heap, sleeping in their own vomit on the streets of NYC on Mother’s Day?


     Anytime you want to go out and discuss this further Professor Schaler, your drinks are on me.


Terry Kester is a professor in the Department of Performing Arts.


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