Vancouver's bad trip

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"At the logical limit. In a complete free market society everybody would be severely dislocated. Addiction would be close to a universal life experience."

I think the seesaw title of this remarkable book would be truer to its intentions if the phrases were reversed around the colon -- it is a reasoned, erudite study of the severe dislocation of globalized humanity, our in-common and personal experiences with exclusion, aimlessness, despair, boredom, anguish and emotional bewilderment -- the profound "poverty of the spirit" that prods people to addictions.

Human beings are not self-sufficient according to Bruce K. Alexander, and...

Psychosocial integration is a necessity. Psychosocial integration is a profound interdependence between individuals and society that normally grows and develops throughout each person's lifespan. Psychosocial integration reconciles people's vital needs for social belonging with their equally vital needs for individual autonomy and achievement. Psychosocial integration is as much an inward experience of identity and meaning as a set of outward social relationships. ... Psychosocial integration makes human life bearable and even joyful at its peaks.

But the communities that are the soil for the gardens of psychosocial integration are declining as rapidly as globalization advances and Alexander observes: "At the logical limit. In a complete free market society everybody would be severely dislocated. Addiction would be close to a universal life experience."

This book is an important addition to that perennially blossoming literary genre of the Vancouver ethnographic narrative. Bruce Alexander writes about the globalization of addiction, but uses Vancouver as a prototype and case study as our civic dislocation is extreme, and has been since Vancouver's late 19th century beginnings as the Terminal City of the transcontinental railway, the end of the line for the transient labour pool of immigrants that had already crossed all of North America without finding a place for themselves in the New World yet. Vancouver and British Columbia have always been Canada's most drug and alcohol addicted city and province, because they contain the most dislocated people.

The appearance on the scene of this Vancouver-centred study of global addiction is timely as that wobbly four-pillar harm reduction plan called The Vancouver Agreement is nearing the end of its 10-year terms of reference and the Harper government is unlikely to recommit. In fact they are actively appealing the B.C. Supreme Court ruling of last spring, which stated the federal government does not have the authority to close "Insite," Vancouver and Canada's only legal safe injection site.

Recently retired, SFU Professor of Psychology, Bruce K. Alexander, is previously most famous for being the creator of the "Rat Park" experiments in the 1970s, which hypothesized that drugs do not cause morphine addiction in laboratory rats; living conditions do. His new book is apparently his Opus Magnus, the culminated wisdom trove of a thoughtful man's well-rendered observations about addiction in his community. Alexander's illuminating ideas are vast and various, but his language is always simple, and his examples sometimes profound and very personal, which is quite unusual considering this book is meant to be a psycho-sociological textbook about addiction.

Alexander inserts fascinating personal side trips, like telling us he personally has used hard drugs on at least three occasions, and while carefully describing the effects of once taking the hillbilly heroin called Oxycontin he says: "I have not tried opioids since that experience several years ago, although I probably will if there is a good opportunity to try a new one in a suitable environment...."

Alexander is an intrepid and ever-curious social researcher. Consequently, he navigates through the most unexpected scenery, such as with some sublime little biographies of the addictive complexes of historical notables like Alcoholics Anonymous co-founder, William "Bill W." Griffith Wilson, and Peter Pan author, James M. Barrie, and with scholarly discussions that range from Augustine to Kropotkin to Polanyi, Aboriginal Peoples to Orkneymen, Adolph Eichmann, America's War on Drugs, the Tobin Tax, addiction mythologies, and all the treatment ideologies from the 12-steps to Vipassana meditation. But always, Alexander's detours drain finally into his main veins: dislocation and addiction.

The best parts of this fascinating book are in the frequent sweet and vital little essays about local (Vancouver) things, like the community-wide healing effects of art therapy such as occurs within Vancouver's annual Moving Theatre projects, or in Alexander's understanding of the profound psychosocial sense of belonging felt by members of the close knit heroin addicts of the Downtown Eastside who he has worked with for decades.

Alexander cites recent research that suggests that addictions that do not involve drugs have the same underlying neurochemistry as drug addictions and he defines addiction as any overwhelming involvement with anything.

Gambling, love, power-seeking, religious or political zeal, work, food, video game playing, Internet surfing, pornography viewing, and so forth can take up every aspect of a severely addicted person's life -- conscious, unconscious, intellectual, emotional, behavioural, social, and spiritual -- just as severe drug and alcohol addiction can. Such overwhelming involvements often entail a startling blindness to the harm that the addiction is doing, which is aptly called 'denial.' Many instances of addiction do not involve a single habit, but rather an 'addictive complex' of several habits that constitute a single addictive lifestyle.

Alexander thoroughly relates the many ways that sustained dislocation provokes desperate self-destructive responses from humans, and how addictions are natural ways for adapting to deep personal loneliness. Alexander also observes that most people don't seem to be visibly addicted. He suggests seven common ways people cope with their sustained dislocation "less than brilliantly":

1. "Resolute Conventionality," about which Alexander observes, "They survive the tumult of modernity by sheer grit and by keeping their priorities straight."

2. "Resolute Unconventionality," meaning those who numb themselves with mild antidepressants or marijuana and "get through by dint of determination, intelligence, and some astute compromising."

3. "Participating in a Concocted Community," as occurs in suburbs, of which Alexander says,
"Neighbours have little in common except the size of their mortgages... (with) no common cultural roots, they lived in residential aggregations that had no material basis upon which to build a local culture. The only real economic activities were real estate and retail marketing."

4. "Political Activism," where there is always noise and company and welcoming people just as frustrated as you are.

5. "The Tragically Cool," as in the high technology lifestyles of the current crop of extremely individualistic and dislocated young adults who absolutely accept that nothing is ever going to be permanent in their lives and cope with their extreme loneliness by trying to float above all close meaningful human attachments with high tech communicators, and achieve something like a collective hyper-state of identity flux and diffusion.

6. "The Spiritually Sufficient," meaning those who attempt to deal with the inevitable suffering that is the cost of love and attachments through prayer and mediation.

7. "The Ex-Addict," which is full-strength involvement with addiction awareness.

Addictions or "getting by" in any combination of these seven ways are the only personal choices Alexander sees for a globalized dislocated humanity and Professor Alexander thinks our only hope is with personal social action and the increase of local opportunities for psychosocial integration for everyone. It is, as the old proverb goes, that people help themselves best by helping others.

I have only three minor criticisms of this book. First, I hope that Oxford University Press soon releases a more affordable trade paperback edition, without the one costly colour centreplate (that fell out of my copy). My second complaint is with the usage of American spelling in a book that proposes Vancouver as prototype. Third, I don't like the cover art; it's meaningless. For a book that talks abundantly about the positive effects of community art upon the Downtown Eastside, I'm surprised Alexander did not insist upon something more local such as a Richard Tetrault mural or linocut.--Bart Campbell

This review was first published in sub-TERRAIN magazine.

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