Point of View: lest we forget

Point of View: lest we forget

Would you be willing to take a pill to erase a specific memory?

In the first week of my first ever professional job, I suffered the ultimate embarrassment.

In an attempt to feel confident and impress those around me, I bought a new outfit. Why I didn’t rely on my old sensible clothes that had been tried and tested is beyond me. Just before lunchtime, the seam down the side of my skirt abdicated its role. It wasn’t even a tight (or cheap) skirt – there was really no warning for this swiftly unravelling abandonment. I smiled politely while the mini-nervous-breakdown in my head subsided then excused myself at the next opportune moment and attempted to pass off the gripping of my thigh as a nonchalant teapot pose. I had to spend the rest of the day with a thousand safety pins holding up the inside of my habiliment. At least no-one noticed – or had the nerve to tell me.

That’s a memory I could do without.

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As it turns out, that may be possible – simply by popping a pill.

Memory has been theorised in countless ways throughout medical history. Recently, it was thought that describing a traumatic memory in detail, rather than repressing it, was healthier for the victim. This was a process known as CSID (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing) and it was used extensively by organisations such as the United Nations. The problem was, it was rarely effective – in fact in some cases it made things worse. In Story of a Girl, Sara Zarr noted that,

“Forgetting isn’t enough. You can paddle away from the memories and think they are gone. But they will keep floating back, again and again and again. They circle you, like sharks. Until, unless, something, someone? Can do more than just cover the wound. ”

We may have found something that can do more.

Scientists at Stanford and the University of Michigan have been experimenting with different chemical compounds, tested on rats in their sleep. Head researcher Asay Rolls commented optimistically,

“The idea that you can actually erase memories during sleep, that you can manipulate them, it’s exciting.” The drugs actually block the production of a protein in the section of the brain that stores memory. Memory is not stagnant. It shifts and re-forms every time we remember an event, concentrating on different things, emphasising or omitting simply through the act of remembering.

Image Credit: Divine Harvester

Image Credit: Divine Harvester

 

Researchers at MIT have taken a different approach, attempting to jump-start a particular gene (through chemicals) that replaces old memories with new ones, but one of the authors of the study Andrii Rudenko conceded that “such an activator still needs to be identified.” Pablo Neruda once poetically mused,

“No, the net of years doesn’t unweave: there is no net. They don’t fall drop by drop from a river: there is no river.”

Imagine if we could set up such a net or river as our brain’s storage facility.

While the technology isn’t quite there yet, it seems that we are getting closer and closer to the possibility of a memory-erasing drug. Which poses the eternal moral question – just because we can, should we? If we put aside the extreme cases of psychological trauma, for which a pretty reasonable argument could be made, what about your average person? Surely our memories make us who we are. There are plenty of drunken one-night-stands, poorly worded texts or elevator farts that many of us would rather forget. Yet the lessons and acceptance we can gain from these mistakes can have enormous benefits for our lives. Don’t have ten strawberry daiquiris on a first date, think about and edit one’s messages, and learn the art of blaming the dog.

Not to mention the risk that something may go wrong. I’m sure Peter Garrett’s insulation bat scheme sounded like a great idea at some point. What if you signed up to have the memory of the day you got your period at assembly in front of the whole school erased and wound up losing the day that Paul Mercurio’s (insert your own teenage heart-throb here, I came of age during the Strictly Ballroom craze) car broke down right in front of your house?

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Furthermore, is a memory-erasing drug even necessary? We often recall situations as we’d like to remember them and become the hero of our own narratives. The fish gets bigger and bigger with every re-telling. See Jordan Belfort’s chaotic and destructive drug-induced drive home in The Wolf of Wall Street which he recalls as serenely responsible, or Homer Simpson’s famous drunken buffoonery that he mis-remembers some aristocratic snob surmising as “the most whimsical jig of the season!” When L.P.Hartley coined the proverbial “The past is a foreign country” in the opening sentence of The Go-Between, he effectively captured humanity’s ability to manipulate, re-create and shift our history as we see fit.

However, even if we forget, there are always others that remember. The fish was twelve centimetres, not inches. The car was wrecked. The joke was not funny. The only way that a memory-erasing pill could work is if it were taken by everyone privy to the event. There lies the seed of hope for Holocaust deniers and serial rapists.

Then again, no-one else knew about my safety-pinned skirt. Until now.

 

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“Problems became distant. Easy. While I was on them, everything was okay.”

“Problems became distant. Easy. While I was on them, everything was okay.”

Main image credit: United States Army

Underneath my mother’s bed is a shoebox full of pill bottles.

The seals are unbroken and some of the labels date back to 2007. There are remedies for the physical (arthritis and diabetes) and for the emotional  (an abusive and unloving husband).

I don’t tell my mother I’m aware of the bottles. Drug dependency is no stranger to our home and at least this way I can keep track of her stash.

Addiction to prescription medication can be difficult to understand. They drugs are obtainable through legal channels and used to treat legitimate issues; daily functioning would be impossible for many people without it.

“I had long-term pain and ended up with an Endone habit,” said Paul*, 45, who injured his back following a motorcycle accident.

“It is hard to describe whether it was a gradual or sudden onset. I was using it for real pain so I had the reassurance that I wasn’t a junkie.

“That fantasy help me avoid admitting anything to myself for quite a while. I had an operation that relieved the pain and it was after that I started to know something was up.”

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Image credit: en:User:Sponge

Paul managed to get clean after a few years of isolation, but many others are still struggling to recover. I spoke with dozens of individuals whose dependency had cost them their jobs and homes.  The degradation was gradual and mostly contained, but often they moved onto harder drugs like heroin.

Jessica*, a clinic worker at a rehabilitation facility in east Sydney, says almost half of the cases she oversees involve prescription drugs in one form or another.

“The truth is they are, barring the side effects, very safe – but only if you follow the instructions on the bottle. Which should also have your name on it.”

I go to see Mark*, a former patient of the clinic. His apartment is small and square with a single window looking out west. As we sit down he opens an unlabeled bottle and swallows a small blue pill.

“What’s that for?” I ask.

“I’m not too sure right now,” he said. “It’s usually something to help me relax. Ambien sometimes, a lot of the times it’s Valium.” I ask him if he was prescribed the medication from a doctor.

“No, no. These are from my neighbour Thom,” he said. “He’s an old man who lives down the hallway. I help him with day to day things – like cooking and cleaning – and in return he lets me have some of his excess scripts.”

“That’s… nice of him,” I said.

“Well he gets a refill every two weeks or so, but he doesn’t like the side effects and can barely stand swallowing pills. It works out perfectly.”

Mark moved to Australia as a teenager shortly after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, finishing his tertiary schooling in Melbourne where he met his wife and got a job as an accountant. They never had children, and after two miscarriages they stopped trying.

His wife became depressed, after weeks of insomnia Mark took her to a doctor where he prescribed her sleep medication. It didn’t help. Their marriage fell apart and she left for another man.

Image credit: javi.velazquez

Mark was made redundant at his job. He moved to Sydney to live with his cousin, juggling two jobs. One day they went cliff diving and he landed on some rocks and snapped his ankle.

“I can still feel it hurting sometimes even now,” he said. “Before, the pain was unbearable. The doctors loaded me up with pain relievers. It made everything better. But when the medication wore off, I was in a state of sheer agony.”

“Over time, I developed a tolerance and I needed more and more. Getting the prescription filled out was easy, I’d just see the GP and tell him about the pain and I’d be set for at least another week.

“But it wasn’t just the ankle anymore. The [painkillers] relaxed me, I stopped thinking about the children I never had, I stopped thinking about my wife. Problems became distant. Easy. While I was on them, everything was okay.”

“And what about when you weren’t?” I asked.

“Not so much,” he replied. He tells me this went on for nearly a decade, I asked him whether anyone noticed his habit.

“I would take them at work all the time and keep them in plain sight,” he said. “No one would even bother to ask what they were, and the one or two times they did, I just said it was from the doctor. Wasn’t even a lie.”

His ex-wife convinced him to seek help, but after rehab he fell back into old habits.

“The last thing she said to me was ‘I never stopped loving you’,” said Mark. “I really didn’t need to hear that.”

Suddenly, he started yawning and I could see the energy leaving him.

“The medication starting to take effect?” I asked him.

“I took some before you got here,” he said, lying down on his couch. “I’m feeling a bit sleepy, if you don’t mind.” He trailed off and closed his eyes.

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Image credit: Alcibiades

“Mark?” I said, waving my hand in front of his face. There was no response. The interview was over. I checked his breathing and covered him with a nearby blanket, then left him to rest. He didn’t return my messages.

That night, I laid in my bed feeling restless. My thoughts came back to Mark, to the shoebox under my mother’s bed and then to that day on my friend’s patio, where we got high on MDMA. I recalled the elation and the warmth as I turned to my friend, embracing her and saying,

“I wish I could feel like this forever.”

*Names have been changed. The author would  like to thank /r/opiates and /r/opiatesrecovery on Reddit who shared their stories, and wish them the best of luck in their recoveries.

The Mile High Club: why weed should be legal

The Mile High Club: why weed should be legal

Let’s get one thing straight: I am not a pot-head.

I have never smoked weed, and I never intend to. But that is a personal choice that I have made for personal reasons and I don’t expect everybody else to be forced into taking the same path as me.

To start with, the fact that cannabis was made illegal was not based on a rational assessment of the harms and benefits of the drug, but was rather a combination of factors such as Egyptian domestic politics in the 1920s (hemp cloth posed a threat to the cotton industry), a handful of British doctors misprescribing medicinal cannabis in the 1960s (allowing black market channels to arise from the diversion of medical prescriptions) and industrial interests in the USA (hemp paper was in direct competition against wood pulp paper – media tycoon William Randolph Hearst was heavily invested in this industry.

Heart  was by far the most vocal in creating a sense of moral panic based on denigrating Mexican immigrants, their marijuana (a spelling change from the original marihuana to make it seem more Mexican) and how they posed a violent threat to innocent Americans).

I’m not saying cannabis is completely harmless. Studies have found that long-term use can affect cognitive skills, making it harder to learn and retain information. Users can experience a sense of demotivation, a lack of enjoyment of activities when not intoxicated, and lower levels of attainment. Smoking a joint of weed mixed with tobacco carries with it all the risks of plain old ordinary smoking, and cannabis can cause both physical (in about 10% of users) and psychological withdrawal symptoms.

There may also be a link between cannabis and psychotic episodes. A lot of people think smoking weed can cause schizophrenia: this has not been proven, and it’s difficult to pin down an exact causal link. The demographics of both cannabis users and of schizophrenics overlap substantially: late teens and early 20s, low socio-economic status, experience of childhood trauma. Cannabis seems to relieve some symptoms of schizophrenia (even though it can worsen others), so the disease may lead to the drug use, not the other way around. It’s also possible that there is a gene that predisposes people to both schizophrenia and liking cannabis, which would mean there’s no causality either way.

Marijuana Dispensary Box by Hempco

Image credit: Hempco

One analysis concluded that cannabis smokers are about 2.6 times more likely to have a psychotic-like experience than non-smokers. To put that in perspective, you are 20 times more likely to get lung cancer if you smoke tobacco – and yet tobacco is legal. Yes, there are harms to smoking pot. But they are far less serious than the risks posed by smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol, and nobody’s illegalising those. Cannabis has even been described as ‘far safer than many foods we commonly consume': ‘eating 10 raw potatoes can result in a toxic response. By comparisTon, it is physically impossible to eat enough marijuana to induce death.’ (Francis Young, DEA Administrative Law Judge, 1988).

Now let’s move on to the law. In my opinion, the criminalisation of cannabis is more harmful than cannabis itself. If a kid is caught with more than ‘a small amount’ of weed, maybe passing around to his friends, slapping him with a criminal record is going to do more damage to his long-term prospects than letting him smoke it, eat a couple of frozen pizzas and go to bed.

The criminalisation of cannabis means a lot of young people ignore the genuine health warnings about the drug, because so many of them are hidden beneath gross exaggeration, exaggeration which increases the risks of harm and addiction. Criminalising recreational use leads to thousands of young people getting a criminal record for using a drug which is considerably less harmful than alcohol.

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Image credit: Laurie Avocado

And, in my opinion, the illegalisation of cannabis is harmful – it harms people who could genuinely benefit. Medicinal uses of marijuana have been around for years, particularly as a painkiller – Queen Victoria supposedly used it for period pain. It can greatly benefit people who suffer from multiple sclerosis, easing spasticity, pain, tremor and urinary bladder control. It can relieve the pain from phantom limb syndrome in amputees, prevent seizures in epileptics, and there is anecdotal evidence that it can help glaucoma and bronchial asthma, as it lowers the pressure in the eye and dilates the small airways of the lung. Even ‘the munchies’ can be harnessed for good – it can be used to help underweight people, such as those with cancer and AIDS.

The illegalisation of cannabis causes a lot of suffering, denying sick and disabled people a medicine with a unique ability for treating their illnesses, or forcing them to break the law and risk prosecution to obtain it.

Let’s compare cannabis to alcohol and tobacco: alcohol and tobacco cause far more harm, and benefit nobody. Cannabis causes significantly less harm, and could bring genuine relief to many suffering people. Which do you think should be illegal?

 

Click here the read the against argument for legalisation. 

This article is part of of Vibewire Change Media’s February 2014 issue, DRUGS AND RECREATION.

Cannabis: Why Legalisation isn’t the Solution

Cannabis: Why Legalisation isn’t the Solution

The war on drugs has failed. After an American-led crusade of forty years, drugs are easier to obtain than ever before, and usage and supply remain worryingly stable. Clearly, a re-think of how we combat drug culture is necessary. Legalising harmful substances is, however, not the answer.

The arguments for decriminalising the possession and recreational use of marijuana are founded on noble principles. In many aspects, cannabis is less harmful than tobacco and alcohol, it can perhaps have medicinal benefits, and its criminalisation leads to harsh sentences for what seems like relatively trivial behaviour.

None can deny the hypocrisy of the illegality of cannabis. It is, by almost every measure, much less harmful than alcohol and tobacco, both freely available. But cannabis is still harmful; that is beyond doubt.

Image Credit: Tesseract2

Image Credit: Tesseract2

Whilst more research is necessary, there is mounting evidence that cannabis users, particularly those who start at a young age, are at increased risk of mental health issues in later life. Many users will experience no long term health effects, but for a few it can be very dangerous. Yes, the risks are lower than those associated with alcohol or regular tobacco, but the risks are real nonetheless.

By legalising it, more people will use cannabis and more will become dependent on it. It will become easier for younger people to get hold of, no matter how well enforced a potential age restriction on the selling of it may be. There is little legislators and law enforcers could do to prevent customers legally buying cannabis and then passing it to children.

For teenagers and young adults, cannabis use has the potential to be devastating. There is increasing evidence that suggests that the earlier users start on marijuana, the higher the risk that it will alter and stunt brain development. Again, more research is necessary, but some argue early cannabis use raises the risk of schizophrenia. Legalisation will only succeed in making it easier for those most vulnerable to its negative effects (i.e. the young, those already dependent on the drug) to get hold of it.

Image Credit: Chmee2

Image Credit: Chmee2

Sentences for cannabis possessors and users are harsh, and the way the justice system deals with drug users likely needs reform. But this is not a reason to completely disregard criminality as a means of protecting citizens from harmful substances, and punishing and reforming those who abuse and sell them. In any case, those who are incarcerated for possession of cannabis knew the law when they decided to break it, and knew the possible consequences should they be caught.

Clearly, the current methods for combatting marijuana and other drug use are not working as well as they should. A rethink of the ways in which government and communities work together to stop drugs is needed. But those who advocate legalisation as the one solution to the problem, as the Holy Grail in a search for a quick fix to all drug related issues, have misplaced their faith.

Image Credit: West Midlands Police

Image Credit: West Midlands Police

There is no quick fix to end the ‘war on drugs’. Instead of kidding ourselves that legalising cannabis is the way to stop the harm it causes, the government and other institutions should focus on providing better drug treatment, improved prevention schemes and education, and more intelligent enforcement.

More than anything else, I can see no reason why anyone would want to legalise another harmful substance. Alcohol and cigarettes are responsible for so much death, disease and despair in the world that life for all would be better without them. Marijuana, whilst not as deadly, is just another unhealthy product that has the potential to ruin lives. Why add another harmful, potentially life-destroying substance to the list of those already freely available?

 

Click here the read the pro argument for legalisation. 

This article is part of of Vibewire Change Media’s February 2014 issue, DRUGS AND RECREATION.

Australia Day: A British Perspective

Australia Day: A British Perspective

Image credit: Phil Whitehouse

Beer, flags, meat, green and gold paint. These are the things that stick most in my mind from my first Australia Day experience. For myself, as a Brit living in Australia for the last six months, the long-weekend celebration all in the name of one’s country is rather a strange one.

Why do the people who live on this land mass need a day to celebrate that they live there? Is this some post-colonial inferiority complex in which Australians worry that their country will be forgotten if they don’t remind themselves of its culture at least once a year?

The date itself is confusing. This is not Australia’s version of July 4th. Independence from their British colonial rulers is not what Australia Day celebrates. The 26th of January is the date when New South Wales was proclaimed a British colony in 1788. It is this choice of date that makes Australia Day so problematic.

“The Founding of Australia by Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788″ [1937] by Algernon Talmage R.A. From the collections of the State Library NSW.

From the point of view of many Indigenous Australians, Australia Day marks the date when one race came to Australia at the expense of another. There is no other country that I can think of which celebrates, as a national holiday, the day when European settlers arrived on their shores. Indeed, colonialism has, to put it mildly, been rather discredited for a long time now.

The USA, along with many other former colonies, has taken the day it officially cast itself adrift from its colonial rulers as their biggest national holiday. In Australia, 1 January 1901 marked the day when the separate colonies united to become a nation. This date is largely ignored.

The young (non-aboriginal) Australians I have discussed this with are often quick to trivialise the implications of the celebration. For most of them, it is about spending time with family, eating good food, listening to music and enjoying the weather. Though the media would have us believe otherwise, for most young Australians, aggressive, jingoistic, and often alcohol-fuelled nationalism is far from their minds on the 26th of January.

But they miss the point. A week or so ago, I wrote an article on the prospect of constitutional recognition for Indigenous Australians. In it, I argued that though only a symbolic act, amending the constitution would still be significant, because such symbols can be important to human beings. Australia Day has a similar symbolic resonance.

Though to most non-Indigenous Australians the long weekend is little more than a nice holiday, with little or no greater meaning, to many Aboriginal men and women, it is a day of great significance. Invasion or Survival Day as it is often called by some Indigenous communities, January 26 is thus always likely to be problematic.

Image credit: JAM Project

By virtue of being on a date that coincided with white settlement, Australia Day is inherently exclusionary. No matter how much some Australians attempt to play down the historical significance of the holiday (and, it must be said, many do not attempt to play it down) it will always be of highly symbolic value to many others.

Simply changing the date would be futile at this stage – Australia Day has taken on too much significance for Indigenous communities for what it represents to be forgotten through simply moving it to a different time of year. But perhaps a new public holiday is needed that explicitly celebrates and welcomes an all-inclusive Australia.

For a young, white Briton getting a first taste of the annual celebrations, my feelings are mixed. It was a very enjoyable, lively and colourful day. On the other hand, it seems too many Australians want to pretend that there is nothing odd or controversial about when the celebration takes place, or in what it represents to those whose ancestors have inhabited this land for at least 70,000 years.

Many young, non-indigenous Australians no longer attach much historical importance to the date, so perhaps it is time to find a new celebration that is significant to all, and excludes no one.

Symbolic? Yes. But Important Nonetheless: Constitutional Change is Necessary to Recognise the First Australians

Symbolic? Yes. But Important Nonetheless: Constitutional Change is Necessary to Recognise the First Australians

The Indigenous communities of Australia have come a long way since the 1967 Referendum, and yet much remains the same.

Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations have seen their grievances listened to, their rights finally returned and upheld (mostly). But they still represent some of the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the country.

They are more likely to be incarcerated, less likely to be well-educated or even literate, and turn to alcohol abuse in disproportionate numbers.

On top of this, the broader process of reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians remains unresolved. The activist group RECOGNISE is seeking to secure the constitutional changes that they see as necessary to fully reconcile Australia with its past.

Image credit: electricnerve

Image credit: electricnerve

Removing the outdated, colonial elements of Australia’s Constitution are fundamental to this. Section 25, for example, still maintains that states can ban people from voting on the basis of race. More important is what RECOGNISE and its supporters want added.

Amongst these proposals are plans for a new section to explicitly recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in the document, and a clause that acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were the country’s first tongues.

Such actions will do little to change the living conditions of the poorest Indigenous people in Australia. But such symbolic actions are clearly important to many people. The recent backlash over T-Shirts sold by Aldi and Big W which flaunted the phrase “Australia Est. 1788”, ahead of Australia Day, suggests that there is a long way to go before the process of reconciliation is complete.

That January 26th (or Invasion Day, as it is called by some Indigenous Australians) has become something of a celebration of jingoistic nationalism for usually young, white individuals is clear evidence that more needs to be done to make Australians aware of the history of their vast island.

Image credit: butupa

Image credit: butupa

Achieving this constitutional changes that would grant Indigenous Australians the recognition they are due has proved surprisingly difficult. Despite widespread, cross-party political support for the movement in principle, the campaign has struggled for momentum.

Labor’s promise to hold a referendum on the issue by 2013 was dropped in September 2012 when they cited low levels of public awareness as their reason for delaying a vote. An Act of Recognition was passed in Parliament in 2012 which gave politicians two years to change the Constitution one way or another, but such a long waiting period is unlikely to create much excitement in the present.

Campaigns by RECOGNISE and other groups continue to raise the profile of constitutional change in the public eye. The exploits of Dylan Collard and others involved with the ‘Journey to Recognition‘ campaign have covered 16,000 kilometres trekking across Australia raising support for the cause.

Image credit: RECOGNISE

Image credit: RECOGNISE

The message may be getting through. Prime Minister Tony Abbott used his New Year’s Day message to re-emphasise his support for the Constitutional recognition of Indigenous people:

“This would complete our Constitution rather than change it”, he drawled. He is right, but it remains to be seen how committed his Government really is to this issue. Such rhetoric has been heard before, as have the promises.

Many, legitimately, ask, why bother? Constitutional change of this nature would be purely symbolic, a referendum would cost taxpayers money and such focus on changing a single document could distract from the more pressing problems Indigenous communities face in their everyday lives.

It is hard to argue against these points, except to say that such symbolic gestures can be significant. Changing the constitution could, according to RECOGNISE, “help bring us closer together as a nation”. More generally, symbols have always been important to human beings. Symbols inspire, unite and give hope.

Recognising Indigenous Australians in the Constitution will not make the poor, vulnerable, and disadvantaged any less so, but it may well lead to an Australia that is more inclusive and more appreciative of its history.