Some nights ago I sat in an emergency room while a 19-year-old heroin addict was brought in. It was after midnight, the witching hour, on a weekend when the zombies and ghosts of the city’s party circuit begin drifting in dressed in their best clothes, escorted by police officers, clutching bloodied rags to their faces or lying on stretchers and always at their articulate best.
The girl came from a wealthy background and was articulate enough to hurriedly assemble her story. An addict since her teenage years, she had been clean for a while and never used anything but heroin, except occasionally cocaine. The drug use was just a single slip, one mistake, and then she would be clean again.
Anyone who hasn’t worked with addicts doesn’t know how charming and persuasive they can be. The addict is the distilled ego focused on a single burning need. All the cleverness and intelligence of the human being, the attributes that we would ordinarily use to work, create, befriend and empathize, become tools for protecting the addiction and the supply.
Addicts are intense because they are among the few people in this world who know exactly what they want. They can be charming, but their routines are mechanical. They retain only enough of their humanity to charm us into giving them more of what they want. It is their only reason for interacting with us. The addict is pure ego and the drug is the only focus of their ego. The addict needs so badly that he or she becomes an incarnation of need. Their humanity is slowly or rapidly burned away leaving behind nothing but the animal need, their outer characteristics consumed by their ego and then their ego consumed by the id.
The girl was no friend or family member of mine. I had seen many like her and as our civilization unwinds into its own night of the soul, there will be many more like her. Having all the advantages of life, she was desperately unhappy and like so much of the modern world that tunes in to Oprah for tips on how to be happy or browses self-help sections on a desperate quest for happiness, she was still trying to be happy. Her cry was the cry of a country addicted to emptiness and losing its soul.
I do not come to judge or to moralize about how people live their lives. Even the best of us are flawed and even the worst of us have their moments of redemption. Many are addicts of one kind or another, becoming tethered to the thing that assures us happiness, even as it seems to drain us of something vital. Many such addictions can be harmless, but when an addiction becomes unsustainable, then it becomes a death sentence. A death of the soul followed by the death of the body.
While I sat there, trying to ignore the noises, the shrieks of pain, the pleas for help and the mumbles, the Republican Convention was beginning to recede. My fingers tapped out the essay on a 3’5 inch screen that would become, “How to Write About the Republican Convention.” Ahead of me lay the Democratic Convention, the addicts convention, the festival of that corner of America that was not so slowly losing its soul.
I did not, I could not anticipate the full insane spectacle of it at the time. No one could have. But I sensed that it would sound a lot like the heroin addict in the bed, shrieking at her parents, changing emotional pitches in a moment from hysteria to sweetness, turning on the momentary charm with the nurses, innocently assuring the staff that she was not a user. And it did. It was a lunatic addict festival with designs by LSD and math by cocaine addicts fresh from Wall Street and social programs from potheads.
All that outrage over Mitt Romney’s 47 percent hits home because we are all users. Some of that usage is more legitimate. Some of us are using money that we put in there as insurance and some of us are using money that we didn’t. But that’s not the real story. The real story is that our social safety net was supposed to be like one of those, “Take a Penny, Leave a Penny” tills that depend on the honor and neighborliness of a community. And we don’t have that community. What we have is a fragmented mess of givers and takers who are not the same people.