America's Illnesses

America’s Illnesses 

America is ill. Her spirit and blood and body suffer from compounded and undiagnosed illnesses. A solemn inventory of her symptoms supplants the passive mindset with a heart burdened by despair and a mind troubled with the self-recognition of our country’s behaviors; racism and classism in the form of our past and continued use of slavery, the ongoing shadow of genocide against Native Americans and the silent and empty structures of Japanese Internment camps. A purposefully dysfunctional justice system. Government facilities along the American/Mexico border housing children enduring fear and loneliness, their crime is inhabiting a world that forces them to flee brutality and poverty, desperately searching for a place of compassionate acceptance. An education system in disarray. Poverty. Greed. Sex trafficking of women and children and untold sexual exploitation within religious institutions. A male-dominated governing body that believes it is within their purview to dictate women’s reproductive rights. Increasing numbers of lethal domestic violence incidents. Biases and hatred that lead to mass shootings and white supremacy groups, and in turn necessitate other groups to develop to defend themselves from inhospitable and malicious forces. Horrific incidences of suicides by our children who are bullied and shamed and disregarded in our schools by their fellow students, who are also our children. Suicides by members of our military who survive their service to her but cannot navigate successfully through the America they sacrificed for. Our churning destruction of America’s resources such as our National Parks and Endangered Species and our willingness to send the men of Appalachia into the unsafe coal mines and then to their graves instead of having them build solar panels, nuclear waste being sent to Native American lands in the southwest, the family farm culture is being decimated by droughts of hope, water and sustainability. Death by preventable illnesses. I am not a psychologist. I am not a sociologist. I don’t have a name for this illness. I am the worried father of a two-year-old child.

A short list of potential diagnoses readily comes to mind for our case study of America: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, addiction, attachment disorder, obesity, depression, conduct disorder, amnesia, cancer, PTSD, trauma. Each of these diagnoses are observed; in clinical terms we are examining a patient who has dual diagnoses. Her comorbid illnesses undermine the functions of her synapses and neurotransmitters and receptors; pushing us into a fight or flight state and the inability to function with strong mental and physical health.  We are damaging her ability to think and reason clearly, and exhibit sound judgement, and feel and act with empathy and civility. Her arteries are weakened. Toxins swim in her clear waters. Poison chokes her sky’s mind; leaden clouds increase the barometric pressures at the intersection of her spine and brain. America is being attacked by her own cells; we must identify the right vaccine and treatments.

Her challenges are vast, at moments appearing insurmountable. Examining her x-ray against the harsh light of reality finds her clouded with gray masses spreading throughout her body. Taken as a whole, our patient's prognosis is dire. Our intentions, whether altruistic or self-serving embolden us to sequester ourselves into our offices and chambers with like-minded colleagues, more and more we refuse to interact with “the other side” and develop plans and treatments to heal her as we see fit.

Potential vaccines and medications that have severe side-effects undermine her personality and cause negative reactions. Mandating these plans as law or social norms in the name of reducing her symptoms and possibility of future infections without open-minded collaboration and objective consultation will not prove to be the most effective strategy. Her proposed treatments are many and varied and divisive and are often applied without a thorough examination of contraindications; increased gun control laws, or no gun control laws? Repealing finance laws? Building The Wall? What about abolishing the EPA instead? What about accepting the devastating erosion of the education system? What about building more prisons than schools and hiring more corrections officers than qualified teachers. What about nixing the electoral college and continuing to condone closed-door gerrymandering?

What about a strategy that amounts to a government sponsored free-for- all for the 1 Percenters that would pit them against the rest of America’s people? What about Constitutionally segregated States, divvied up by the color of one’s skin, or by class scale or political affiliation?

What about a second Civil War? I have reviewed enough social media from both the left and the right that indicate that this might be essential to “win” for their side. I continually read of entrenched mindsets where people feel their worlds being stolen by politicians and immigrants and strangers or the misconstrued meanings of the United States Constitution and our Bill of Rights.

These days praying can get a person defiled and ridiculed. Imagine that. Freedom of religion is a sacred thing, and we hear a strengthening chorus that ridicules prayer as an integral action step. Prayer can look like so many things, and can sound like so many things, and should never be minimized, nor should we condone religious discrimination or discrimination against GLBQT individuals or any brand of hate speech.

As we become more deeply entrenched in our core values we hack away at the benefits of civility and damage our ability to believe in the benefit of fostering something greater than the sum of our parts and the collective accountability for each other’s safety. As we lose our ability to communicate effectively, we pronounce that differing views are unpatriotic. How disheartening and terrifying is it that Patriotism is becoming a flawed standard?

Through our actions we have invented our own disease, one that spreads from the sanctity of our  homes and is then propagated by children who do not understand the weight of the words they speak in their elementary and middle and high schools and colleges and places of work and our government buildings, spreading like a flu virus. This disease, hate, spreads across this nation like swaths of burning forest that flare from one spark and threaten to destroy so many beautiful things. From out corners we urge the fires to burn the other side away, fanning the flame to create a fire that cauterizes the pain we feel as we watch the limbs of her healthy society fall victim to self-amputation. The white blood cells race to eradicate her infections yet fail to save the dying parts of her. This growing hate weakens her like disease or cancer that infects her cells and disintegrates the structure of her bones.

This disease leads to mass shootings and the bombing of our own government buildings and further drives a wedge between us as we struggle to achieve our ideologies of safety and our rights. Try as we might to do admirable and sensible gun reform work, the real issue is the hate that causes one to seek a weapon. I want to save every American life, working together to build a stronger, more accepting and empathetic society is the most important task of all. Those who hate will find a way to express that hate with deadly force. Handguns can easily accomplish the task of stacking up our new definition of mass murders (3 deaths in one incident). America bleeds from this violence, and the loss of blood leaves her heart weakened and staggering. I believe she is tortured and traumatized. We are traumatized. Do not make the mistake of minimizing our collective trauma that impacts our day to day functions as individuals and society.

I can’t help but feel sorrow as I contemplate the reality that our country is addicted to escape; it pains me to believe that our lives are perpetuated on the need to escape. And in our trauma, I believe we seek vices that do not heal, they only mask our pain from moment to moment. Our lives are not designed to live this way, seeking oblivion from pain and boredom of our own infliction until we no longer exist.

More forms of recreational drugs and their proponents lining up behind recreational marijuana as the lobbyists push for it and her stocks are soaring. What other drugs should go on this list? I hear the arguments for legalization, especially the failure of The War on Drugs. One aspect of my response is; how could it have become more important and necessary for individuals to access marijuana and meth and cocaine and heroin, at such a cost of all the lives and resources we have squandered in the name of this war, and yet we kept on using because that was more important to us than setting down our drugs and saying “Not in my name.”

This is a harsh observation, and will not find favor among many, and I can accept that; our culture breeds the sales of these substances. Our culture disregarded the fact that on horrific scales people in Mexico and South America are being murdered as a result of cartel violence, mothers and fathers are in prison for dealing, and we are overdosing on historic levels, and yet, we keep using. The War on Drugs was a failure in accountability and the reasons for this failure in accountability are troublesome; misuse, dependence, addiction, greed, ignorance, marketing, self-medication, attempts to reduce the effects of trauma and an underlying need to escape from the daily burden of stress and dissatisfaction.  Ultimately, the unsuccessful efforts on the War on Drugs, and the results should be a loud and clear message; the power of these drugs is easily stronger than our ability to turn them down. We are society of people with addictions, including alcoholism, that some calculate to approach 30 million Americans. These numbers of deaths and costs related to addiction far exceed the numbers of deaths and costs related to gun violence. Combined, the numbers of preventable illness, accidents and deaths, is staggering. How can we tally these numbers without despair and a wholesale questioning of our priorities?

I worry about our choices; what we allow to happen in the name of free market capitalism and deregulation is troublesome. We have granted America a freedom to poison us. Look no further than the sale of cigarettes. That this country allows the sale of cigarettes is incomprehensible; there is not a single positive benefit to smoking cigarettes, other than corporations making money. If America legalizes marijuana, the government will be your drug dealer. If America legalizes marijuana, there will not be a reduction in cartel violence; their other products will rapidly be produced and sold in larger numbers as our desire for them increases. Legalizing substances is not the answer. Treating our trauma, enhancing our quality of life, building strong children with hope, nutrition, inclusion, experiences in the natural world with people from cultures different than their own, a high-quality education for all students, with plentiful opportunities for employment and fulfilling lives in a healthy environment is the answer. It is imperative we nurture our children, so they have a healthy and sound America they believe is worth nurturing.

My twenty-year career in suicide and substance abuse prevention has demanded my attention to America's symptoms. Each year as part of my work I review student mental health survey data and observe the rates of children who use alcohol and other drugs, feel unsafe in their schools, and contemplate and act on suicidal thoughts, increase.

In my personal life I don’t attend church regularly but am deeply connected to my congregation. I don’t own a gun but frequently contemplate purchasing one to hunt or for home protection. I don’t drink alcohol. I don’t smoke. I gave up one car for another car with better fuel efficiency.

The path of my life emerged from one of my earliest experiences as a teenager recognizing the power of both alcohol and guns came during my freshman year of high school. In 9th grade a group of my closest high school friends got access to a bar on a day that celebrates the consumption of alcohol at the college in our town. One of our crew got drunk, went to school, got caught, and then went home and killed himself with a gun. His father found him.

I am forced to return to this question as the father of a two-year old boy. What country are we offering him, what country or we offering each other? One of unity, empathy, partnership, environmental stewardship, safety, inclusion, respect, one that educates and creates standards of civility in our schools just as equally as standardized testing. Or are we so entrenched that our actions will continue to keep us on these trajectories of divisiveness, hate, greed, destruction and apathy? 

We can take steps, however small they seem, that are important. For example, I launched an initiative called Civil Words Not Civil War to encourage civil dialogue, participation positive and productive partnership and compromise, even when it is incredibly challenging. America's survival depends on our willingness to work together. If we cannot catalog her symptoms, agree on the best strategies to care for her, the very foundations of her beginnings, where our forefathers sought to create a set of laws and guidelines where we would work together for the greater good and self-determination and safety and freedom from persecution, will be as useless as the Treaties with the Native Americans, those same forefathers disregarded and broke at will to suit purposes that only enhanced their own desires. I believe that America was created with great intentions. America has made devastating mistakes. America has offered so much brilliance and hope to her people and to the world. We need to ask ourselves, what is America's purpose?

There are countless initiatives like Civil Words Not Civil War, and I champion them; find one, join them, start them. Vote. Advocate.  In my town, a White Supremacist group left informational flyers on a Synagogue in the middle of the night to terrorize the congregation and community.  I shudder to think that some groups and individuals would denounce my efforts and say they'd rather engage in civil war than consider a change in their world view. But I will never wait for the cover of night to encourage civility. 

I view America holistically, one being constructed of interconnected and interdependent organs; we are free to move within her, like blood and thoughts and chemical impulses, but we are all part of her. And in turn, America, one part of North America, the continent, is but one of seven interdependent organs and functions of the earth; heart, lungs, mind, muscles, blood, survival, love. 

Our decisions to continue to poison her or come to consensus on an array of treatments with the highest likelihood of success, can yet cast a futile and catastrophic example of greed and closed-minded entrenchment, or, return to the original purpose of her creation and again, offer our strengths as a role-model to the world and path to something far greater than we could imagine for humanity. We must prove that at the very least, civility is possible, even when it seems like it is not.

To achieve this, I am no longer certain America needs a political system in charge. I believe we are in dire need of a team of health practitioners that are experts in disease, trauma informed care and environmentally health-related illnesses to lead our country, not politicians.

And we, as her people, must agree to participate fully in the Hippocratic Oath and do no more harm. And she, like the promise of her that so many have sought and fought for and found, might still grant us a beautiful survival. But like any ethical medical professional will tell you, you must personally decide whether you accept the recommendations for treatment, if you want to heal with her.