Prozac, the Substitute for Self-Reliance

I have said it many times that our most uncomfortable responsibility is the development of self-reliance.  It appears that we will do anything to maintain lean-to-relationships on people or work or substances or success or maturity.  The use of alcohol as a substitute to fill the void of low self-esteem has been a long, enduring practice in Ireland and it continues, particularly among young people.  The reliance on prescribed drugs as substitutes for the real need to take charge of our lives has reached epidemic proportions.  This year, December 29th marks the 20th anniversary of the US marketing of Prozac as the ‘wonder drug’; there are currently over 54 million people taking the drug.  There are many other millions of people on its sister sedative serotonin oxidase inhibitors (SSRI’s).  Such high prescribing of these drugs continues in spite of a warning in 2004 which linked antidepressants with increased incidence of suicidal thoughts in children and adolescents.  Neither has the fact that sixty per cent of people remain on anti-depressants for the rest of their lives deterred people from taking these drugs.  What the long term effects are is not known but doubtless will emerge.

There is a growing campaign to legalise the use of ‘recreational drugs’ and it surprises me that those who are against such an outcome are surprised that so many people support the legislation of such substances.  In what way I ask is the use of cocaine or cannabis any different in nature to reliance on other substances – prescribed drugs, alcohol, food, etc?

We live in a Western culture that promotes dependence in relationships, either by controlling or over-protection.  Why then are we surprised when young or older people generalise that reliance onto substances?  Co-dependence is common among parents and their children, between parents and their adult children, between couples, lovers, friends, employers and employees, teachers and their students.  Such relationships mean that the other person becomes the substitute for what a person needs to do for self.  For example, the parent who does everything for her child is doing for him what she needs to do be doing for herself.  Her doing everything for her son results in his feeling helpless and he knows the great dangers of protesting against his mother’s living her life through him.  Later on, unless he reflects, he is likely to marry a woman like his mother, and so the co-dependency persists or deepens.  Similarly, the father who dominates his son and controls him into being what he wants him to be, creates a situation where his son (or daughter) dare not assert their individuality and their own unique life choices.  In this relationship, the father uses his son or daughter as a substitute – the control he exercises over his offspring is the control he needs over himself.  Later on, as a young adult his child will be addicted to proving himself through work achievements and is likely to repeat the co-dependent relationship with his own children.  In order to maintain co-dependency, individuals may use substances to dull the pain of dependence, lack of loving and the disappointment of a limited relationship.  When a person does not possess the substance of his own unique person, then substitutes are required to fill that void.  The most available substances are prescribed drugs, and it would appear, recreational drugs, but individuals find many other ways to fill the emptiness – work, gossip, success, shopping, the body beautiful, sex and religion.  This phenomenon is even more readily visible in situations where children live in loveless and often violent and totally neglectful homes and they resort very early on to substances to fill the void.  Regrettably, when these children come into schools their troublesome behaviours are viewed as threats rather than as opportunities and so the sad tale of woe widens and deepens. The answers lie in understanding, empathy and an unconditional relationship, not in control, judgement and punishment.

The most effective way forward to break the cycle of dependence on prescribed and ‘recreational’ drugs and on alcohol as well as the other substitutes listed is to create the opportunities for individuals to experience the substance of their own being, the freedom to express one’s self, to be independent, to be self-reliant and live one’s own life.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a clinical psychologist and author of Whose Life Are You Living?