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Substance Use Disorders and Addictive Behaviors: A Reflection on “Black Honey” by Thrice

As I drive to class most days, I turn on the radio to one of my favorite stations and listen to music while I wade through unremitting traffic. The station is great for those who enjoy rock music, and I often find myself absorbed in a newer or older song that resonates with me on different levels.

Not too long ago, a song called “Black Honey” by Thrice grasped my attention. This song intrigued me with its use of a highly effective extended metaphor that I interpret as representing the vicious cycle of addiction. Some people have speculated that the concept of “[black] honey” is a direct reference to the United States’ acquisition of petroleum across the world, likening oil to sweet “black gold.” My interpretation of the same concept is underpinned by the fact that the color black is often literarily employed to convey a sense of maleficence or iniquity and that honey is an ambrosial substance that connotes euphoria and a deep, perhaps intoxicating state of satisfaction. In this sense, “[black] honey” seems to signify something that elicits a rapturous sensation when consumed but also carries with it a Faustian bargain. These associations are what led me to relate what is described in the song to the challenges of facing an addiction.

In the first verses, the song brings us these lyrics concerning the concept of “[black] honey” and its acquisition:

I keep swingin’ my hand through a swarm of bees ‘cause I
I want honey on my table
I keep swingin’ my hand through a swarm of bees ‘cause I
I want honey on my table

But I never get it right
No, I never get it right

Something that you may have noticed is my use of brackets around the word “black” when discussing the motif of “[black] honey.” The reason is this: that phrase is not used in the lyrics of the song at all. Considering possible authorial intent, I believe that this was not an oversight; it was meant to draw attention to a chronological difference and, more importantly, to a transformation in opinion. My interpretation of this omission is that the title of the song represents the view of someone who has conquered addiction while the lyrics represent the thoughts of one actively dealing with it.

Beyond the implications of the title of the song, the first verses use what I consider to be deliberate language in order to introduce the listener to the crux of the conflict: the ongoing and repetitious encounter with “bees.” These “bees” are used in the context of a conflict which is promptly juxtaposed with a desirable outcome — getting “honey,” that is. Therefore, there is a clearly expressed rationale for disturbing these creatures — though, ironically, this forceful act is somehow not “right,” which is left ambiguous.

The chorus of the song reveals more about the actions taken to get the “honey”:

I keep swinging my hand through a swarm of bees
I can’t understand why they’re stinging me
But I’ll do what I want, I’ll do what I please
I’ll do it again till I got what I need

I’ll rip and smash through the hornet’s nest
Don’t they understand I deserve the best
And I’ll do what I want, I’ll do what I please
I’ll do it again till I got what I need

Why would anyone do that? Why would anyone subject himself to the risk of being harmed by hornets, animals that do not generally produce honey in the same way honeybees do? Several species of hornets do resemble honeybees, but functionally speaking, they are very different animals. But in this case, the fundamental question is this: Can a mind clouded by the dopamine-mediated high truly make distinctions between the two when both seem to be the same? After all, the goal is to get “honey,” no matter the cost.

The next several lines of the song focus on what is insinuated to be the effects of taking a hit:

I tried to stick this pin through a butterfly ‘cause I …
I like all the pretty colors
But it just fell apart so I flung it in the fire
To burn with all the others

Cause I never get it right
No, I never get it right

My opinion is that the “pin” is a needle or, looking at it as a metonym, the paraphernalia associated with using the drug of choice — taking a hit, that is. The second line comes across to me as being literal instead of metaphoric: the “pretty colors” could be the visual hallucinations brought on by serotonergic psychedelics like LSD or psilocybin. With that being said, “pretty colors” could be another example of the lyricist’s use of metonymy to conceptualize the high produced by the drug. The third and fourth lines are suggestive of the emotions — controlled or otherwise — experienced when either going through withdrawal or simply coming down from the high. There is anger. There is resentment. There is maybe even fear. There is also a feverish drive to get high again, just like “all the others” using that drug who also “burn” with the same intense urges.

The chorus is repeated with the now-familiar refrain evoking the imagery of bees and hornets. Soon thereafter, the dynamics of the music soften, guiding the listener to focus intently on the following words that suggest reflection and poignant regret:

And this time I’ll get it right
Yeah this time I’ll get it right
It’s gonna be this time I’ll get it right
Oh God let it be this time I get it right

There is a desire for change. These are not the words of a person who is complacent in this struggle; this person is having an internal conflict over cessation. To me, the idea of “get[ting] it right” is getting clean, not getting more “honey.” This person has made it abundantly clear that he does not find his behavior to be normal, going as far as to beseech higher forces to imbue him with the strength to end the cycle. Unfortunately for him, addiction is not a simple moral failing. It is a chronic neurological disease state that compels particular behaviors, often in order to activate the reward pathway. The process of overcoming addiction not only requires a change in mindset, but also requires a physiologic adaptation.

The final verses of the song take on a more determined tone and continue with the following:

So I’m cutting that branch off the cherry tree
I’m singing this will be my victory then I …
I see them coming after me

And they’re following me across the sea
And now they’re stinging my friends and my family and I …
I don’t know why this is happening

But I’ll do what I want, I’ll do what I please
I’ll do it again till I got what I need

The first of the last verses seems to pronounce the exigencies of breaking this destructive cycle of behaviors. It makes me think of motivational interviewing: this person seems to be going from the contemplation stage to the determination and possibly the action stage of behavioral change, guided by his own ambivalence toward using drugs. The idea of these minatory bees “stinging [his] friends and [his] family” could indicate that he has relapsed, with his addictive behaviors continuing to negatively affect the people around him. The final verse supports the idea that he has relapsed because he is once again repeating how he will “do it again.”

I never expected to turn on my car radio one day and hear a song that embodies so well the challenges that many people face in navigating the treacherous waters of substance use disorders. This song reminded me of how we have the power to modify deep-seated behaviors as current and future medical providers. I find the song’s overarching message to be inspiring as a future provider because it reaffirms the idea that, even in the midst of addictive behaviors, there is intrinsic motivation for making positive changes and ending the cycle. We as providers just have to be persistent in eliciting those changes.

Ashten Duncan, MPH, CPH Ashten Duncan, MPH, CPH (11 Posts)

Columnist, Medical Student Editor and Former Managing Editor (2017-2018)

OU-TU School of Community Medicine

Ashten Duncan is a third-year medical student at the OU-TU School of Community Medicine located in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A 2018-2019 Albert Schweitzer Fellow, he recently received his Master of Public Health (MPH) with an interdisciplinary focus from the University of Oklahoma Hudson College of Public Health. Ashten attended the University of Oklahoma for his undergraduate program, completing a Bachelor of Science (BS) in Microbiology and minors in Chemistry and French. An aspiring family physician, Ashten is currently on a National Health Service Corps scholarship. His research interests include hope theory, burnout in medical education, and positive psychology in vulnerable populations. Ashten is passionate about creative writing and what it represents. He has written pieces that have been published on KevinMD.com and in-Training.org and in Blood and Thunder and The Practical Playbook. Ashten is currently serving as Associate Author for the upcoming edition of First Aid for the USMLE Step 1.

The Lived Experience

As medical students, we sometimes lose sight of our purpose for going into medicine and feel that we are exerting ourselves excessively with little feedback from our environment. It is important that we remember that, while we are living through the experiences that come with our training, our future patients are also living through their own experiences. The focus of this column is to examine topics in positive psychology, lifestyle medicine, public health and other areas and reflect on how these topics relate to medical students, physicians and patients alike.