With the opioid industry killing thousands of people each year from addiction and overdose, we as a society have turned our heads to solving the problem of how we approach managing pain and discomfort in our lives. We absolutely have to address and acknowledge the human suffering underneath the use, and the fact that most people do not know how to deal with feelings of sadness and loss, and feel profoundly alienated and disconnected from themselves and each other.
Inherent in the name “painkiller,” these drugs often represent an idealized solution to human pain and suffering for the person who later becomes addicted. Not only a drug that treats physical pain, but an answer to the wish to live without any kind of subjective pain. It is one step away from a wish to not live at all.
While less toxic objects and behaviors are available as substitutes to drugs, but the results continue to be the same: a deadly addiction to staying comfortable.
Instead of offering substitutes, we have to address the root of the problem, part of which I believe is our culture’s obsession with wanting to be happy.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but being happy all the time is not possible. We all have moments of feeling less than fine, feeling awful, “meh”, strange or just something. Being a happy person is merely an ideal based on imagined immunity against feeling the weight of loss and disappointment.
But look around you, and photos of happy people are everywhere, like the one above. Every day, we see and hear messages of people living life to the fullest, unlocking their unlimited potential, and surrounding themselves with friends. As if anyone can have this life.
I’ve witnessed the results of this propaganda in my office, where I often hear my patients saying they feel like they “should” be happy. It’s not okay to dwell on frustration, think only of the negative sides of things, or cry in front of your coworkers. It’s selfish and immature to complain when so many “others” have it worse than you.
As with anything you are not supposed to do, you only want to do it more. You feel more sad, more anxious, more stuck, more hopeless. The repetitive nature of your thoughts are paralyzing. By turning happiness into an imperative and personal responsibility, guilt and shame manifest as its ugly other half. And this is making more and more people depressed and worse, unable to cope. Instead of speaking about their angst with others, many people turn to addictive behavior and substances to relieve unwanted thoughts and feelings. They consume things that they know are not good for them, leading to more guilt and remorse.
This vicious cycle is by design; advertisers know very well that they can take advantage of your desire to be happy by ensuring that you are perpetually unhappy.
It’s no wonder we have an opioid crisis on our hands.
I think it’s time to offer a different kind of painkiller with more lasting effects, the kind that ignores the demand for happiness and tries to listen instead. A treatment that restores the mind-body connection and social participation, where discomfort can exist as it is and even become a catalyst for personal and social change. This is the radical and creative work of psychotherapy at its heart: making a place for your pain, and finding a unique way to live with it.