One of the most insidious aspects of addiction is that it’s a disease which convinces you that you don’t have it. It manifests in a powerful form of denial. Ask a person with addiction why they drink or use and the answer will rarely be, “Because I’m an addict.” Invariably the reply will pin the cause on a certain circumstance, person or event, or just “because I want to, I can stop anytime, leave me alone.” For the addict, the few times drinking or using didn’t lead to things getting out of control, or to a series of unintended consequences, are firmly grasped onto and elevated as proof that one doesn’t have a problem. The mountain of evidence to the contrary is swept out of mind. When things go awry they are presented as aberrations instead of what they are, which is the norm. Desperate to prove to ourselves and others that we’ve got things under control, we repeatedly pick up again, convinced that this time it will be different. It never is. And the cycle continues on its ruinous spiral.
On a different note, you may have noticed there’s a presidential election in the U.S. this year. Folks are pretty amped up about it. Every four years (or less, now that by design we live in a perpetual election cycle), many people become overcome with a fervor and a zeal that one of the handful of people selected from the more than 300 million U.S. citizens is the best choice to lead the country. People spend copious amounts of time trying to convince others of their perspective. They realize that the last elections, with the hope and change of Barack Obama, didn’t bring much hope or change, but this time they believe it will be different. Yet, eight years ago there was the conviction, the certainty, that Obama was the best choice. People spent copious amounts of time trying to convince others of their perspective. It didn’t pan out. But this time things will be different. And to prove they’ll be different, we’re going to do the same thing we’ve done every four years. Perhaps the last four, eight, 12, 16, 20, and so on years of elections brought us to this mess, and perhaps each time one was certain this or that candidate would really make a difference. Yet each time they didn’t. We all know the game is rigged, the two-party system is a joke, this isn’t really a democracy. But this time…THIS TIME…it’s going to be different.
“The fact is that most voters, for reasons yet obscure, have lost the power of choice in voting. Our so-called will power becomes practically nonexistent. We are unable, at certain times, to bring into our consciousness with sufficient force the memory of the suffering and humiliation of even two or four years ago. We are without defense against the first vote…”
– Egregiously modified passage from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Along with the denial which tells someone who is addicted that they don’t have a problem, another major stumbling block to addressing the disease is fear. One may have recognized that their using is out of control, but they see no other alternative. They can’t imagine living the way they are, continuing to use, but they also can’t imagine life without using. Addiction has become their world. To begin to create a new world while struggling to stay afloat in the hell that has become the current one is no small task. Many continue to wander the familiar path of misery to its end results of jails, institutions or death. To change course requires humility, rigorous self-honesty, and a surrender to the reality of addiction. I didn’t want to admit I was an addict. To do so meant taking responsibility for my situation, meant putting in the work to get better, and meant healing as best I could the damage done by my past actions. It’s easier to stay drunk, I thought. But eventually circumstances became so painful that denial was no longer an option.
Similarly, I feel that many participate in electoral politics knowing that it’s a charade, a false solution and an offering of empty hope. Yet to reject electoral politics is a much more threatening and scary proposition. It means going against what has been drilled into us as sacred and the pinnacle of human achievement and organization from the beginning of our lives. It means holding the realization of the dire situation we and all other species are in, and the fact that the only way offered within the system to address that situation is a sham. That other means must be found. That they are not the preformatted and preordained rituals we are invited to partake in every few years, but instead that the way forward is unknown, unclear, and up to us. In a society structured on shame and conformity, it is no small task to take that step.
Like the internal voice of the addict that even after years of sobriety pops up and tells one that drinking or using is the greatest idea ever and this time it will be different, every few years, the system shuffles out some candidates with the promise that this time it will be different, seeking to ensnare us in their spectacle for another round, while out in the back, behind the stage, the steady, unperturbed advance of the neoliberal behemoth continues to devour all in its path.
This is not a call for people not to vote. It is an unoriginal call for reflection and acceptance. Vote or don’t vote, it’s of no interest to me. I’m not so naïve or stubborn to insist that there are no differences between the candidates or that elections don’t have tangible impacts on communities. But whatever we do, may we do it with clarity and recognition, unbefogged by the cognitive dissonance of electoral addiction. If I were to pick up again now, with the knowledge that I’m an addict, I would be doing so with no delusions that what awaits me is misery. If, or when, we vote, let us do so without delusion, with eyes wide open. The effort exerted towards participating in electoral politics should be congruent with the potential benefits it offers, just as mobilizing around elections is distinct from mobilizing electorally. As a singular act, not voting is just as ineffective as voting. What matters is stepping outside that paradigm altogether and grappling with the question of “OK, so now what?”