Expect Skepticism and Be Prepared to Address It

When I first started working on addiction, just about every' person who asked me about it had a skeptical tone. From nonacademics, I heard a worry that philosophy was too abstract or heady; it was hard to believe that philosophy could get to the down and dirty of addiction. The charge was that philosophy has nothing useful to offer people struggling with addiction, people connected to those straggling, or professionals who work with addicts. I realized very early on that I needed an adequate response that was inviting and not alienating, all the while recognizing that the line between these responses is very narrow.

The answer to “Why philosophy?” is quite simple and clear to me, as someone who follows Wittgenstein. Philosophy needs to be useful. Addiction represents one of the greatest health challenges the United States has seen in quite a while. I argue that addiction is both a cause and a consequence of suffering in myriad forms. Addiction and recover)' involve grappling with questions about the meaning of life, and no discipline has been doing that longer or better than philosophy (O’Connor 2016).

From philosophers, the skeptical tone had a sharper edge. More than a few have accused me of not doing “real philosophy,” or using the concepts of particular philosophers in distorted and even incorrect ways. Others have accused me of glossing over certain distinctions in a cavalier manner. Accusations like these can sting and carry very real consequences when it comes to publications, grants, job applications, and departmental collegiality.

Admittedly, I started my work on addiction after promotion to full professor at my institution. I knew there would be no repercussions for me as an individual faculty member “coming out” as a recovering alcoholic. But not writing about my own addiction before that moment was more a consequence of an uncanny ability to compartmentalize; I drew a very hard line between my work as a philosopher and my personal life. It is actually embarrassing that it hadn’t occurred to me earlier to write about addiction philosophically, because I recognized my study of philosophy as crucial to my own sobriety a long time ago. I also think that being an out lesbian feminist working in metaethics using Wittgenstein (a very odd combination, as many informed me, in the event I didn’t already know it) and applying for jobs in the 1990s helped me to develop a thick skin. While I cannot say I don’t care whether others think what I do isn’t real philosophy or is a perversion of philosophers’ work, I certainly care a lot less now that I have seen the practical good philosophy can do. I also see how this sort of work makes philosophy better and more relevant in our contemporary world.

Identify a Real Need and Look for What’s Missing

Anyone who teaches at college level knows that there is alcohol on campus. This is true for “dry campuses” that prohibit alcohol as well as schools that have a party reputation. Alcohol remains the number one drug used on college campuses—in part because it is so easily and conveniently available. While colleges and universities tend not to use the more clinical language of substance use disorder and addiction, they do tend to use the expressions “high risk drinking” and “binge drinking.” A National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism report (n.d.) indicates that 20 percent of college students meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder. There are nearly 690,000 assaults and 97,000 sexual assaults a year. Harder to gauge but still quite obvious is the impact of this high risk drinking on academic performance.

I teach at a residential liberal arts undergraduate college where I have served on the college-wide alcohol and drug education committee for many years. I knew firsthand that my school needed educational programming for those students who had received the college’s most serious alcohol infractions. We had only punitive responses. I saw a concrete need that I could help to effectively address. A colleague and I worked closely with members of the student life division of the college. I drew upon the credibility and institutional capital I had as a faculty member who was very out about being in recovery. My colleague and I developed a 16-week curriculum that was covert moral philosophy in the form of facilitated discussion sessions. We named the program onGUARD, which stands for Guided Understanding of Alcohol’s Real Dilemmas. The curriculum has main four categories for exploration:

  • • Relation to Self and Self-Knowledge
  • • Relation to Others
  • • Skill Building
  • • Building for a Future.

In addition, we have a category called “Drinking Behaviors/Culture” that we use as needed. We created these categories as we came to see patterns in the behaviors, questions, and concerns of onGUARD students over several years. We also see these categories as complementary to the mission statement and core values of the College. Though designed within a particular location, my colleague and I intended the curriculum to be adaptable to any collegiate or even high school setting.

We also partnered with an in-patient treatment center that was part of the Minnesota Department of Human Services to provide timely chemical use assessments that went to certain college officials. A chemical use assessment involves a trained alcohol and drug counselor interviewing a person about her use of alcohol and drugs. The counselor also interviews at least two people identified by the person undergoing the evaluation. On the basis of these interviews, the counselor offers a determination of whether the person has no substance use disorder or has a mild, moderate, or severe substance use disorder. In the past, students were allowed to have an assessment administered by a professional of their choice. This presented various problems, including wide variation in quality of the assessments and massive delays in receiving them. By establishing a partnership with a treatment organization that was literally down the street from campus, we ensured consistent, timely, and high quality assessments.

Facilitating this partnership was a new undertaking for me; there is no training for this skill in graduate school. I had to step back from the initial overtures lest I be seen as the rogue know-it-all faculty member by the student life division. It was useful for me to watch my colleagues in student life take the lead on this. They were far more accustomed to working in conjunction with local resources. We established a productive and mutually beneficial arrangement. Our venture was a coup for both the College and the treatment center. Things went well with the student life division of the college. Until they didn’t.

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