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What if Ozempic really can cure addiction?
“Unchecked craving strangles the careless man…this craving, this clinging, overpowers the man caught in it, and his sorrows multiply like prairie grasses fed by rain.” —The Dhammapada
The above quote comes from one of my favorite books, of which, after reading over and over and over again, I have a layman’s understanding. I’m of that armchair pseudo Buddhist type, meditating and renouncing bullshit while occasionally in a pair of Gucci slides.
However, having a dusty degree in world religions, I do have a Buddhism-for-dummies knowledge of some of its core concepts—samsara, karma, nirvana.
And also that perpetual grasping—inherent in all of us—that is duhkha, which translates literally to something like, “Bad empty hole.”
Filling that hole is the well-worn pastime of every enthusiastically practicing alcoholic.
The cessation of craving (for drugs and alcohol, at least) is one of the many promises of sobriety. On a metaphysical level, not clinging to anything leads to nirvana (aka the end to suffering).
But what if you could get craving-free and skip the robes and uncomfortable lotus pose with just one weekly injection?
Ozempic might achieve exactly that. A compelling side effect of the type 2 diabetes and anti-obesity drug prompted The Atlantic to ask, “Did scientists accidentally invent an anti-addiction drug?" The article cites lifelong impulse shoppers returning from Target with only the single item on their shopping list and nicotine fiends quitting smoking by means of something akin to effortless, immaculate cessation.
What if Ozempic (or another cost-effective miracle drug like it) could actually cure addiction? Not curb. Cure. Full stop. That could put a halt to a lot of suffering, keep a lot of people out of hospitals and prisons, and drastically improve human health on a global scale.
For those Hollywood types spending obscene amounts of money using the drug for off-label cosmetic weight loss, though, Ozempic is about something else: surfaces. It definitely ain’t nutritious. If you’re among the 69% on it who don't get diarrhea from taking it, good for you. Anyway, who cares if you’re on constant shart watch if you look snatched? “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” right? And skinny must taste better than the “sulfurous eructations” emanating from many Ozempic takers’ bad empty holes.
The weight gain that GLP-1 receptor agonists like Ozempic target, of course, is a natural part of aging. And aging is duhkha. Everything born decays. The Sisyphean lengths people will go to slow that inevitable march cause a whole lot of suffering. Oh, you thought having excess fat felched from your hips, abdomen, lower back, or thighs and injected back into your ass might feel good? Apparently not.
So, whether it’s a slim waistline or a physics-defying buttocks, is it worth more if you get it at the gym versus the doctor’s office? If the net result is positive, does it matter how we get there?
If you’re anything like me, answering that question is where my subconscious morality police kick in the door with the old “boot straps” chestnut, i.e. that stiff upper lipping it and doing things the hard way comes with some kind of intrinsic nobility. This sort of internalized American puritanism cum frontierism cum machismo buoys this idea (a misguided one, I think) that our abs or our sobriety or our career only really count if they are self made. And it’s difficult to escape the propaganda that lack of control is weak and control, strong. In reality, not controlling my drinking has been a huge source of strength. And trying to control it never worked.
In clinical studies, semaglutides like Ozempic have been used to treat cocaine addiction in rats to positive effect. While we addicts relatably invoke their little “rat brains,” we certainly don’t expect them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. No, we expect them to maniacally hit that reward button over and over and over again til they inevitably expire. If those survival oriented little fuckers just can’t help it, why should us comfort seeking slobs be able to?
Sure, if people could just stop eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Or just stop after three drinks. Or just stop shooting dope. Or just live on nothing but distilled water, steamed chicken breasts, and broccoli while working out 14 times per week, we wouldn’t need drugs like Ozempic (or 12-step programs for that matter). But that’s just not how reality works.
The recently deceased way too soon Angus Cloud put it like this, “Addiction is serious and a lot of doctors call it a disease. It’s a real thing. People don’t understand it. It’s easy to talk about and it’s easy to say, ‘Just say no,’ but for someone who is in active addiction, that is damn near impossible and they will throw their whole life away and they will die because of this disease or whatever, and then they will say, ‘it’s not a disease because you ‘choose’ to do drugs.’ You don’t ‘choose’ to do cancer.”
I refuse to believe the charismatic, troubled Cloud being gone at 25 is any kind of moral failure on his part. Society’s? Maybe. We never truly know why someone beautiful like Cloud seemingly simply suffered harder than others. That’s an excruciatingly painful mystery for a lot of mothers and fathers (and siblings and friends and sons and daughters) of lost children like Cloud out there.
When I first received a text from a friend that “Ozempic cures addiction,” I existentially balked. The foundation of my reality is based in a belief that alcoholism is incurable. I’m super attached to the idea that I will always be an alcoholic. There is no ALT version of that setup. If I wasn’t an alcoholic anymore, who the fuck would I be?
Is sobriety without the squirm a moral failure? If I took a pill every day and got the same result, would it still count?
Sitting in that aforementioned squirm, experiencing uncut feelings in meditation, doing nothing to alter them, and letting them pass on through is something that changed my life completely. For me, that deep discomfort led to deep spiritual growth, resilience, calm, and skills to cope. You don’t have to be an addict for that practice to have a profound effect on you.
The prospect of being reliant on something “outside” (versus “inside”) brings up other concerns. We’ve been living through a pretty epic supply chain crisis for years. What if the miracle drug shipment gets stuck on a boat at the Port of Long Beach? How many days til you’re back in Skid Row, trolling for dope? Replacing one attachment with another can potentially be dangerous. And where is the valor in popping a pill instead of taking a spiritual beating for it?
Buying into that notion, I suspended myself in a pretty catastrophic pandemic-induced depression for about a year longer than needed while trying to avoid the “easy way out” of prescription antidepressants like Wellbutrin. That experience was far from a moral success, I can assure you. I’m lucky to have come out of that Vantablack morass still married, let alone still breathing.
And that quietly suffering cowboy shit is just baked into my American DNA. A sense of morality has never influenced whether or not I would use, say, a dandruff shampoo. But when it comes to maladies of the will—diet, alcohol consumption, mental health—some of us feel that we must discipline ourselves into some kind of enlightened Vitruvian man at any and all cost.
That misguided effort to be “non-attached” to a daily pill was all duhkha all day. So attached to this idea that relying on anything outside of myself was somehow impure or less than or the mark of the weakling or “not sober” even, I did a number on myself and those around me. And I can never get that year back. Sure, it didn’t kill me. I’m here. But am I stronger for it? I really don’t think so.
Would the Buddha even care if we all just eradicated our suffering with medication instead of the eightfold path? If he was as non-attached as he said he was, I bet not. If non-attachment is as where it’s at as he said it is, then we’ve got to be as non-attached to non-attachment as we are to anything else, right?
I suppose ultimately I am for doing whatever it takes by any means necessary no matter what. But even as someone who intimately knows that awful oozy come down feeling of craving seeping in (a feeling I would like to avoid at all costs) I still wonder: If we’re not driven by desire, then what drives us? If we’re not living for sex or pleasure or honor or material gain, what are we living for? What do we stand to lose when we hunger for nothing?
Words by Andrew Smart / Illustration by Conor Donahue
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