My favorite class I took in college was Old English Literature, not just because of the subject matter, but because I had a truly great professor. I’d like to open this post the same way he opened that class – you see, most of the surviving texts from the period covered are Christian because the monks took better care of their paper than the vikings, who really preferred oral story telling anyway.
This is not about religion. We will be talking about religious texts in a time where 99% of the people reading these texts believed they were truth. Therefore, it is in our best interest to assume those beliefs when we discuss this literature. This is not a forum to discuss your own beliefs, or judge the authors for their beliefs, or to otherwise get all touchy-feely. We won’t get any literary discussion done if you use this as a platform to make speeches and persuade others to share your feelings. We are going to look at this text for what it is.
But, in my case, I’ll be using Judeo-Christian stories to illustrate a point about narcotics as that Professor used Old English sermons to illustrate the literature of that time. In the same way, I ask all impassioned internet theologists to please focus on my point and not the fact that I’m mentioning and believe in Jesus Christ.
Thank you. Let’s begin.
I have never liked medicine. As a child, I never really took any because I hated the taste and process, and would usually make myself sicker throwing a tantrum over taking cough syrup than I was with no medicine at all. I was relatively healthy, and never even swallowed a pill until I was 16 years old, and I even cheated then – I put it in a bite of sandwich. To this day I can only swallow very very tiny pills with just water – sometimes.
I had friends that abused over the counter medicine, but that thought never crossed my mind. In fact I wondered how the high could possibly be worth having to take medicine. I’ve been a baby about it my whole life, and I still am today. Pills, syrups, chewables, you name it, I will be dramatic about it.
But you know how my story goes. I end up with a chronic pain condition, and I have to take medicine all the time now just to feel normal, much less “high.” And, as my husband can attest, I still sometimes spit a pill back up 2 or 3 times before getting it down. And I don’t mind sharing how icky they taste and how bad they feel in my throat. But it’s a part of my everyday life now.
While taking most of my pills is only a matter of ickiness, I have encountered a few that I felt ethically against. Recently I’ve been tangoing with antidepressants. I was very afraid to start them, and I ended up quitting cold turkey accidentally which scares me more. It made me start thinking about the nature of the mind, feelings, and reality. I wanted to feel the way I really feel. If I take a pill that makes me feel a different way, what does that mean? What’s real? What’s not? This will need to be it’s own post of course, assuming I survive coming off them. 😉
The other big ethics question was narcotics. I was put on prescription pain medication after this adventure. During this time, I was having the highest levels of pain I’ve ever experienced. And at the time, it was the first true pain I ever felt. I’d never broken a bone or been burned. It was wild and terrifying. I felt so suddenly weak and frightened that taking the pain meds was not a concern. I was busy dreading a life of pain and never feeling normal again.
But you know, it is true what they say – time heals all wounds. Time’s no cure for endometriosis, but time did strengthen my pain threshold and changed my “normal.” Now when I was in pain, I had to start making choices. Can I get through this activity at this level of pain? Is it possible to lay down or take a break? Can I get through this activity under the influence of pain medication? I definitely experienced “highs” depending on what I’d eaten, how much I’d slept, and how long it had been since my last dose. I wasn’t good at tracking and predicting the highs. If I didn’t get “high” from the medication, I also sometimes got excessively sleepy or scatterbrained. Taking the pill was (and is) a complex decision on a case to case basis.
And, like any English major, given enough time, I will over-analyze the crap out of everything.
Now, as a college student, I had watched friends abuse alcohol, street drugs from weed to meth, and become completely different human beings. For some, even using the term “human” is generous. I never drank, partly due to illness and partly due to the fear of loosing myself the way they did. Again, I clung to the idea of wanting to feel how I really feel. I feared loosing reality. I was hardened from loosing people I dearly loved. I deeply hated drugs and alcohol, and I began to feel like a hypocrite for taking narcotics myself.
But it’s a prescription that I only used as directed. I was closely monitored by my doctor. I wasn’t taking them to escape reality or avoid a problem… was I?
I did know that endo pain was often caused by stress. Could I make myself hurt in order to take a pill to feel better not only from the pain but the stress behind it? Was that right? Was that moral? Was that mature? Was that who I wanted to be? Was that even what I was doing? When I’m honest, I know that there have been times where a tylenol could have probably sufficed, but it had been a particularly hard day or it was close to bed time anyway, so I went for the heavy duty stuff. I never took it when I felt perfectly fine, but I felt perfectly fine so rarely that it didn’t really feel like it counted.
In short, I was having trouble accepting narcotics as a part of my life. I didn’t pick this. I didn’t want this. And I couldn’t make peace with it.
Back to my Old English class – because I’m sure you were waiting for that to come back. Drugs are so boring, let’s get to the LITERATURE!
It was close to Easter time, so of course we were going through the many texts on the crucifixion story. The Dream of the Rood, the Exeter Books, we even discussed Jesus Christ Superstar and Passion of the Christ, looking at the different tellings of “the greatest story ever told.” I was raised Christian, married a Christian man, and Jesus is a big part of my life. I don’t always know how to talk about it. But I love the facebook status creed going around that it’s a relationship, not a religion. This class was not only fostering my English major self, but my spiritual self as well. And I was certainly at a time in my life when I needed Jesus more than ever.
The texts focus a lot on the actual time spent on the cross, so we were looking at Jesus’s last words and actions in depth, and talking about what these words and actions would mean to the Old English people. It’s all very fascinating and I could dork out about linguistics and history for a long time, but I’ll try not to. 😉 What really got my ears perked up was when we got to the part where Jesus says “I thirst.”
Having grown up in church I knew about the soldiers soaking the sponge in wine and gall and offering it to Jesus. I always thought of that as cruelty and jest. Some translations say “vinegar” instead, I was never a fan of wine, and wtf is gall? It all sounds disgusting and awful, and it was, but the soldiers weren’t just kicking Jesus while he was down.
Just looked up “gall” again just to be sure – and yes, it is stomach bile from animals!
But did you ever wonder why they’d mix wine, which is generally good, with animal bile, which I hope was not considered good? It was biblical anesthesia. It was pain medicine. Far from narcotics, but still! Now that I’m older and less afraid of alcohol (but I still won’t get drunk, half a glass of wine is fine, thanks!) I have experienced that even a small amount of wine does ease endo pain (just don’t drink it if you’re trying to load up on folic acid!). So maybe the soldiers weren’t being mean. Or maybe they were, believe me, people argue about it a LOT on the internet. But it is true that wine and gall was a primitive anesthetic.
And Jesus totally turned it down.
So at first I was like whoa, look at that! My whole addict complex is totally well-founded. Pain is important, and Jesus just said no to drugs and so should I! Drugs are obviously evil!
This was of course based less on the text and more on my own fear of getting high/loosing touch with reality and who I am.
It took a while after this class for me to finish putting the pieces of this puzzle together.
Yes, Jesus said no to drugs, but it really had nothing to do with red ribbon week after school special anything.
Jesus dying on the cross for our sins is a really, really hard thing to understand. It takes a lifetime to begin to make sense of it. I do not want to pretend to be any kind of expert. This is just a sick English major analyzing the biblical text to the best of her ability. I have read the entire Bible, not that I know it by heart or anything, but I’m looking at the whole thing here, not just the one story. In the Old Testament, the Jewish people sacrificed animals for their sins. To a modern reader like myself, that’s freaky. Why? Why kill animals because of your sin? It’s very complicated and hard to understand. All humans sin, though, I know that much. And God can’t be near sin, if you have sin, you are separate from God. That’s not good, since this is the same God who rains down fire balls and turns people to salt – you want God on your side. The problem is that the standard is literally perfection.
I’m at risk of rambling here, and I’d like to reiterate that this is not really about whether or not you think this is true. I do, but if you don’t just look at it like Harry Potter or something. Analyzing the world of the Bible, we see that God wants to be with people but can’t because they’re not perfect. So the solution is a perfect sacrifice. Animals are not perfect, and can only take away a small bit of sin. But there’s no perfect humans either. So God sent his Son to earth as a human who was perfect. He never sinned. This part of the story is pretty common knowledge.
But what I’d never thought about was the actual sacrifice – it had to be perfect too. Not only were a lot of very particular things prophesied in the Old Testament about it, but Jesus had to suffer the full punishment for our sins. Death. Pain. True suffering. And then the poor guy had to go to actual hell. He couldn’t take the wine. He didn’t lessen the pain one iota. He had to feel it all in our place.
He had to feel it all so we don’t have to.
Jesus Christ was God and perfect man dying for the sins of humanity, so he couldn’t take the pain medicine.
I am a 23 year old girl with endometriosis and humanity does not mind if I need to ease the pain a little. No one’s immortal soul is relying on my pain – Thank God.
Does that mean that we should turn to alcohol and narcotics to escape all the pain of every day life? No. In fact I’ve always thought there was a certain sweetness to suffering. After all, who would appreciate the sun without the night? But if you need to cut yourself some slack, take a nap, or even take a pill, it’s okay.
For me, Jesus suffered so that I could live a better life, including pain medicine.
But, if you prefer to only see it as a story, just remember that there are epic times and epic reasons to deny comfort and shoulder the pain for the greater good – such times do not happen every day. Most days, it’s okay to take a pill and rest if you need to.