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Editorial Comment 7/2: Memes

by William Haning, MD, DFAPA, DFASAM | July 1, 2019

Editorial Comment:  Memes

A link to a BuzzFeed piece on addiction memes is included below, in which the work of Timothy Kavanagh is reviewed by journalist Derek Garner.  The memes do not require editorial interpretation by me, but because of the potentially inflammatory nature of the material, it seemed wisest for me to take advantage of this editorial spot occurring at the top of the Weekly’s front page.  Gritty, wry, even obscene, the mini-montages and their captions are sufficiently startling that I needed to show them to two friends, both in recovery from narcotics addiction.  I had the same concern as that shared by Kavanagh, that perhaps my appreciation of them was reflective of an unhealthy perversity of my own.  For what it was worth, my study sample of N=2 concurred in my appreciation.

So, why is that? How can such an agonizing subject, when depicted sardonically or lightly or even viciously, have merit?  In A.A. Brill’s collection of Sigmund Freud’s basic writings for The Modern Library in 1938, the selection of papers on “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious” occupies 130 pages, 13% of the volume.  In that painfully turgid group of essays, Freud attributes a therapeutic effect to both witty and comic humor, interestingly alluding-to but not truly emphasizing the relationship of successful wit to culture. “He (the hearer of the witticism) must be in every way so completely in psychic harmony with the first person as to possess the same inner inhibitions which the wit-work has overcome in the first person.” That is, the humor of a thing resides to a great degree on shared cultural identification.   It doesn't take a very intense examination of the population of our patients to realize that they do engage in tribal affiliations, and that these include recovery tribes.  Even in A.A., a recovery culture that is not identical with that of those emerging from opioid addiction, all are periodically reminded of these lines in the AA big book (2001, 4th Ed., p.132):  “We have been speaking to you of serious, sometimes tragic things. We have been dealing with alcohol in its worst aspect. But we aren't a glum lot. If newcomers could see no joy or fun in our existence, they wouldn't want it. We absolutely insist on enjoying life.”  While the memes are not necessarily going to prove therapeutic to everyone, they are surely not harmful; to anyone whose taste is offended the solution will be obvious, stop reading.

- W. Haning, MD, DFAPA, DFASAM