“Hi, My name is Jim and I’m an addict…” This sounds like something someone might say from the podium at an AA meeting. But I write it here at home, comfortably cozy at the keyboard on a chilly December evening from Washington State. I add as a caveat to finish my opening sentence, “…and in many ways I’m thankful to be an addict.”
Yes, I know, being an addict, pejoratively speaking, is not thought of in glowing terms by the majority of people in society. Addicts are often looked down upon, with loathing, or fear, or mistrust or with pity. Those people addicted to any number of drugs come to mind first when we hear the word addiction. There are also food addictions, sex addictions, power addicts and any number more addictions that can take addicts and the people who love them down some dark roads. Make no mistake, addictions can be dangerous. Negative feelings and concern about addiction and the social negative consequences that can result in some of them are justified. But I think that we should also explore another side of addiction. We might want to ponder the idea of addiction as a natural part of the human condition, that it shouldn’t necessarily denote weakness or result in destructive behavior. I would go even so far as to say that in many cases addiction should be commended and even celebrated. The addict can be hailed, the addiction be praised. I believe it is even possible, to quote the words of the late singer/songwriter Robert Palmer, one can be “…addicted to Love.” and that shouldn’t ever be thought of as bad thing.
Examining people in general, I’d think that we all started out being addicts and are addicts till the day we die. Even before we were aware of being people we were addicted to being alive, addicted to the world. We were addicted to being touched, to the sounds and sights that we were exposed to. We were addicted to the nourishment we received from our mothers and to the stimulus that we took in from our developing senses. We were addicted to learning about our surroundings. We became addicted to making connections and seeking regularity in what we sensed. Our synaptic neural connections were being formed at a hyper-fast speeds. What we sensed, what we were pleasingly stimulating by, what we learned to anticipate, what we feared and desired framed the very concepts of ‘self’. The neural firing patterns in our brains establish what we think, how we feel and what we expect. They are governed by what we once sensed, they govern what we sense now and they govern how we will sense in the future. This maybe all nonsensical, I’m no neurologist nor am I a psychologist, but with your grace I continue on.
If a young child is raised not being touched often, neglected, not given proper attention and deprived of loving stimulation, or if they are physically abused, then abusive, negative and self destructive addictions will be set into place. They can be carried and manifest forward throughout a person’s life. They can be passed on to future generations. If in contrast, we are raised being loved and positively stimulated, if we are raised sensing a full variety of beautiful ideas and beautiful things, if we are made to feel safe, taught and cared for, we will more than likely become addicted to these feelings. They will become what and who we are. We will project these attributes onto others. We will become addicted to love, positivism and to the beautiful things that life has to offer.
I’m not in any way saying that one’s early childhood is what solely determines whether or not a person will become addicted to destructive behavior, or to behavior that enriches society and individual lives. I don’t think it would be right to label people with serious sociopath disorders as addicts”. Often these are a result of faulty brain chemistry or brain trauma, not a result of the sufferers upbringing. Many a serial killer and psychopath was raised with love and support in childhood. But I think early childhood upbringing can be a starting point to understanding addiction and why it is innately a part of the human condition, for better or for worse.
Let’s focus on drugs now. To say that drug addiction is a problem in American society now-a-days would be an understatement. It’s not the drugs that are the problem though, it is why we take the drugs that’s the problem. Add to that, the stigmatization of the people who take certain drugs and the incrimination of people who take certain drugs. As it has been said over and over again, and rightly so; “Drug addiction is not a crime problem but a medical problem.” I would add that for some it’s not a problem at all. In the wake of treating drug addiction as criminal behavior we bring on more real crime onto society. And here, let’s be honest and just say it, some people can do a whole lot of drugs and aren’t negatively effected in any pejorative sense of “being a drug addicts”. There are responsible drug users who simply enjoy doing drugs and pose no threat to themselves or society as a whole. In fact, some drug use enriches society.
Many artists, musicians, scientists and philosophers through the ages have used drugs to gather inspiration and gain insight. Drugs can be used as a tool of perception. The subversive, often hilarious, comedian Doug Stanhope talks openly about his drug use in many of his stand-up routines. In one bit he gives credit to drugs for his sense of humor. He says that it is his use of hard drugs that gives him the out-side-the-box, creative and funny thoughts that he has. He credits cigarettes with giving him the patience to write those thoughts down in a cohesive way. And finally, the punch line, which he says unabashedly and raising a beer to his audience, “…and it is alcohol that gives me the courage to stand up here and entertain you judgmental pricks.” Laughter all around. Laughter can be a cotangent addiction that we all could use a little more of. And who but mister Stanhope can say that his drug addiction and the physical problems that may ensue because of them are not but a small price to pay for the joy he gives and receives in hearing that laughter.
Yes, addiction can be a funny mysterious thing. Such is life. It can be painful and often at time unbearable. Addictions to drugs can be a way to escape the unbearability of life. It can be a way for us to sidestep a deeper problem, the problem of pain. We instinctively want to feel pleasure, not pain. But we also need to feel pain because it is such an inextricable part of being alive. Drugs can be a powerful weapon to mask pain, even the pain that we need to feel to be
psychologically healthy. Psychological pain just doesn’t go away because we refuse to face it, or when we have methods, like drugs, to mask it. It will linger and in are psyches manifest itself in ways that can grow and unconsciously corrupt. Addictions can be a result of this masking or denial. They in turn can be replaced with a less harmful addictions, be it a different kind of drug (for instance replacing heroine with methadone), a lifestyle change (accepting support, new hobbies, physical activity), a change of belief system (surrendering ones will to a higher power, religion, spirituality). All of these, I would argue, are things that people can positively become addicted to, which can lead to dealing with pain in a healthier manner.
I spent a good portion of my life smoking cigarettes. I started when I was about 15 years old. For a lot of that time I got great enjoyment out of it. It calmed my nerves, gave me a nice gentle buzz and I felt socially connected to other smokers, many of whom were close friends. But there came a time in my life, I can’t exactly pinpoint it, where the negative effects of smoking started to far outweigh the enjoyment that I got out of it. I coughed constantly, I felt lethargic, I started having vascular problems, I started to beat myself up for not being able to stop. I could really go on about all the negatives of what smoking did to me. None the less I just couldn’t stop.
Those smoking patterns that I created in my brain were just too set in place. Just about everything in my life was associated with smoking. From eating, driving, working, doing art, reading a book, playing the guitar, talking on the phone, before and after sex….everything I did was with a smoke in my mouth or with the anticipation of having one in my mouth. Eventually I felt that I had to change my behavior. It didn’t happen overnight. There were many false stops and starts.
We really are creatures of habit and I had to incrementally change some of my daily habits. It helped having friends who quit. They gave me encouragement and could understand what I was going though. It helped a lot too becoming a new grandfather. I refused to smoke in front of my grandchildren and I wanted to spend as much time as I could with them. They became my new friends. I also started to become addicted to using my muscles more vigorously. I started getting up early and going on brisk morning walks before I had time to puff down a smoke. The walks eventually started turning into slow jogs. I started biking instead of driving so much. I ate more and smoked less. I made a point not to go to parties where I knew that there would be people smoking. I kept working more instead of taking breaks. I started smoking more pot, a habit that I had to deal with later, but it did help me quit the cigarettes. The whole ordeal is a continuing and gradual psychological mind game that I played on myself.
I have an addictive personality. I’m addicted to playing mind games with myself, and regrettably sometimes playing mind games on others. I’ve been passive aggressive in relationships to the point of it feeling uncontrollable. I’ve gone on runs where I push myself so hard that I puke afterwards. Are these behaviors better than smoking? The puking, I think, yes. The passive aggression, no. There is definitely pain involved in working the body really hard and there is pain involved in treating people like shit. One is surly better than the other. So finding a sense of balance in life is truly part of the journey. I still find myself in situations where I really crave a cigarette. I find myself sometimes so frustrated with people that I just want to shut down and become silent or become obstinate to punish. But these feelings inevitably pass like all feelings eventually must.
Each of us must find our own balance in life, we should try the best we can. We each must deal with our own addictions, the destructive ones and the positive ones. We should try to figure out, as honestly as we can, how to harness, exchange and morph them for a moral purpose that makes are lifes more meaningful.
Superhero Tin Can Jim