Live & Learn

Happiness is not something you swallow or inhale

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Two stories in the news recently caught my attention. One was twin sisters who created such a huge ruckus on an airplane bound for China that the pilot was forced to land at Anchorage, Alaska. The twins, whose violent behavior began after downing several alcoholic drinks served to them legally by attendants, were arrested for their bad behavior, not their imbibing.

The other story was about one of President Bush's 19-year-old twin daughters, Jenna Bush, who was cited for drinking beer illegally at a bar in Austin. No mention was made of bad behavior, just illegal imbibing.

My interest in the two items had nothing to do with twins, sky rage, or the president's probable embarrassment over his daughter's lawlessness. Rather, I was reminded yet again of how crazy we are, especially about substance abuse.

Everyone when sober knows that alcohol is a dangerous, two-headed beast. We feel outrage, sadness and frustration when we think of the devastation alcohol has wrought on individual lives and society. Yet we tolerate its omnipresence and may enjoy its pleasures on occasion.

But isn't it crazy to allow unlimited alcoholic drinks to be served to passengers in the close, stifling, crowded confines of an airplane flying 30,000 feet above solid ground? Did the other passengers get off that plane and phone their senators to demand a prohibitive law or picket the airline? I doubt it.

On the other hand, young adults are prohibited by law from drinking alcohol until they turn 21. Of course, many have been drinking at private parties their own or their parents' for years. What's more, we've turned reaching the legal age for drinking into a rite of passage that rivals college graduation in importance. Then, rationally, we make it a crime to drink and drive, but irrationally give our cultural blessing to 21st birthday parties at the celebrant's favorite restaurant with the liquor flowing. Designated driver? Not likely.

Age laws may help to hold back the tide of alcoholic consumption somewhat. Certainly, the alcohol purveyors feel the heat when they sell to someone like a president's daughter who couldn't wait till she turned 21, and gets caught. We don't know what kind of heat, if any, she felt from her parents. One would expect her dad to lay down the law, though, considering his own history of alcoholic abuse and its consequences.

Here's more craziness. Alcohol abuse is still largely considered moral relapse, a personality defect or a crime flying in the face of medical studies proving that substance addiction is a treatable biochemical disease. It's ignored and tolerated and hidden, in spite of decades of public education and the proliferation of highly effective medical and psychological treatment programs for all kinds of substance abuse.

But it gets crazier. While waging a highly publicized, expensive war on an illegal, life-threatening, recreational drug culture, we've ironically bought into a different kind of drug culture that glorifies powerful, often dangerous, expensive, pharmaceutical drugs given legitimacy because only certified medical professionals can legally sell them.

We strive rightfully to rid society of the evils of the underground drug traffic. But we should back off from our unhealthy dependence on pharmaceuticals, too, including over-the-counter drugs. Life-saving, disease-healing drugs are a modern miracle, for which we're grateful. But we should abandon the cherished belief that happiness is something you swallow or inhale, whether it's chocolate cake, a whiskey sour, a stogie, or Xanax. Oh, all right, coffee, too.

This won't be easy, I admit. Our attraction to drugs may be in our gene pool. Eons ago, our ancestors discovered, probably by accident, the interesting effects on their bodies when they ate fermented fruits and grains or plants with mind-altering powers they found while searching for medicinal herbs. ingesting these substances produced dreams and visions, and gave the user, called a shaman, power over the rest of the group.

Unauthorized use of these substances became a crime or sin often punished by death, and so "the controlled substance" was introduced, which served everyone's best interests at the time. Interestingly, shaman and medicine woman or man were closely linked visionary and healer. Sound familiar? And the beat goes on, except the tribe has grown from a few dozen to billions, and we're smarter but not much wiser.

So is it crazy to try to police something so deeply ingrained in human culture? No, we have to keep our fingers in the dike and hope sanity will prevail. In the meantime, maybe airlines should push tranquilizers instead of whiskey on those long flights. Oh, right. That's illegal.

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