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Can't Get Enough

A drug-and-alcohol problem in his own family prompts Bill Moyers to point his camera at America's pervasive culture of addiction.

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Old-fashioned television journalism -- honorable, scrupulous, even leisurely -- makes a splendid comeback in Moyers on Addiction: Close to Home (Sunday, March 29, 9 to 11 p.m.; Monday, March 30, 9 to 10:30 p.m.; Tuesday, March 31, 9 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13). In case you’ve forgotten, these are the basics: Here’s a social problem; here are people trying to do something about it; now let’s go see if what they’re doing works. In Bill Moyers’s case, his oldest son had an alcohol-and-drug problem. When he started looking around, Moyers noticed that much of the country had similar problems, amounting to “a culture of addiction.” So he went out and talked to addicts trying to get clean, people running programs to help in the process, scientists investigating the psychological and the physiological mechanisms of dependency (“the biography and the biology”), and public-policy analysts and activists who want to change our laws and our attitudes to encourage a compensatory “culture of recovery.”

Addiction here is broadly defined, to include, most emphatically, nicotine. Close to Home doesn’t have much use for distinctions between legal drugs like alcohol and cigarettes, which are seductively advertised, and illicit drugs, which are socially and legally stigmatized. Tobacco contributes to the deaths of 400,000 Americans every year, alcohol to 100,000, heroin and cocaine to 9,000. We are a country of 61 million smokers, 11 million heavy drinkers, 5 million potheads (daily use), 2 million cokeheads, and 600,000 heroin addicts (weekly). We are also a country where only one in three addicts has access to a publicly funded treatment program. The wealthy, says Moyers, go to Betty Ford; the poor go to jail.

Where you connect to these five and a half hours over three nights will depend on what you already know and whom you’re worried about. If, like me, you’ve spent some time yourself in hospitals and rehabs and twelve-step meetings, the remarkable range of recovering alcoholics, pill poppers, crackheads, and speed freaks will come as no surprise. Crossing color, class, gender, and generational lines, the communities of addiction and recovery are as democratic as America gets. Twelve-step meetings are in fact downright radical: nonprofit and nonhierarchical, with a fierce etiquette of listening to and caring about everyone who wanders into the rooms. Nor will the nine stories told in talking-head montage in the first hour of Close to Home -- about suburban drinking, morphine at an Air Force base, skinpopping on a South Bronx rooftop, the undercover narcotics cop who loses herself on the job -- seem all that surprising, either. It’s one story, anyway, of lost children in a black forest of bad chemicals. The astonishment is that, with some help from the friends of their affliction, they’ve survived to become counselors and actors and journalists, novelists and computer technicians.

Similar hours are devoted to visits to treatment facilities and recovery programs like the Ridgeview Institute in Atlanta; Hazelden in Minnesota; Project Safe in Rockford, Illinois; trust in Dade County, Florida; and Focus on Families at a methadone clinic in Seattle. We sit in on group therapies, go to uneasy high schools, meet families brought up in the welfare system, and worry about the fearful and neglected children of addictive parents. Sharon Gless shows up from Cagney & Lacy, and we are made to realize that the story line of Cagney’s alcoholism, followed by her A.A. meetings, was the personal made programmatic. On Cagney & Lacy, Cagney’s father had also been an alcoholic and died from it. Close to Home tells us that the children of alcoholics are four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves than the children of non-alcoholics, and that 6.6 million children under the age of 18 live in households with at least one alcoholic parent.

But to me -- after choosing eleven years ago not to follow my father into an early grave -- the most provocative segments of Close to Home are a Sunday-night hour on “The Hijacked Brain” and a Tuesday-night hour on “The Politics of Addiction.” In “Brain,” Moyers talks to researchers who track the blood flow of “the reward circuit.” It’s neuroscience as archaeology: By taking pictures of a mind on drugs, they map feelings, locate “craving,” and find “the image of desire in the brain.” All these drugs are natural plant products that take over the ordinary work of dopamine, a neurotransmitter released by pleasure, and like Trojan horses, they compromise and ultimately usurp normal brain function. They change the brain, which will no longer produce dopamine on its own. So the drug that began as a reliable high (like falling in love, as the show explains), becomes indispensable for functioning at all -- even for getting out of bed. Not that this happens to everyone who smokes, drinks, pops, or needles. Addictive personalities can run in families, and obviously there is a genetic component, but they are also encouraged or discouraged by cultural traditions. Each of us is a thermostat with a different setting (although a “hollow leg” is usually a bad sign), and life history and environment must be factored in. Not that any of this is an alibi. Addiction may be something to which some of us are predisposed, like diabetes, rather than a voluntary behavior -- but it’s also reversible. A “disease model” of alcoholism and other addictions in no way diminishes our personal accountability once we know the facts. It simply suggests how hard recovery will be, and how much help we need.

Which is where “The Politics of Addiction” comes in. Never mind the hypocrisy of glamorizing some drugs, like alcohol, while demonizing others. We squander $238 billion annually in lost productivity, hospitalization, death, and crime because of alcohol, tobacco, and illicit-drug abuse. “The Drug War,” Moyers says, “has become the Vietnam of our time.” I’d call it our My Lai. Of the $16 billion we spend annually fighting it, less than a third goes to treatment. Our prisons are overcrowded, our civil liberties are daily nibbled to death, our insurance companies don’t want to pay for 28-day rehabs, and, to quote Moyers, “our policy-makers are like addicts in denial.” Yet Arizona’s Prop 200, approved by nearly two thirds of that conservative state’s voters, has just mandated treatment instead of prison for nonviolent drug offenders. If this is, indeed, the beginning of a change in drug policy from the criminal paradigm to a public-health model, then Moyers once again will deserve not only the usual Emmy and DuPonts but also our cherishing gratitude.


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