Honoring Our Hunger for the Ecstatic
Seeking Peace in the War on Drugs
-Ethan A. Nadelmann
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But let’s be clear about something: Medical intervention to treat addiction, while it is crucial to the addict’s survival and recovery, is not the "answer" to the issue of drug and other addictions. The questions that America’s high rate of addiction poses—about our social system; about the nature of pain, ecstasy, success, and failure; about the meaning of dependence and the need for God—are too huge and stubborn to be doctored away. And in any case, they should not go away; we need to seek answers to these questions.
I don’t mean to revive the old liberal chestnut "society makes the addict." Using addictive substances makes addicts. Individual recovery begins when the addict takes responsibility for having done the drug. I know. I’m a recovering alcoholic and drug user who spent years and years in a sort of left-wing sandbox, screaming at the social system for not advancing me, at the economic system for not rewarding me, at God for not rescuing me from an unhappiness that was too blunt to even become anything as exciting as despair. It took a period of recovery before I realized that I drank and drugged because I wanted the effect that the drinks and drugs produced, and that by spending most of my time in bars or curled up in the fetal position in furnitureless studio apartments, I was omitting a key stage in my quest for social standing and economic security: action.
Yes, recovery taught me a lot about myself. But tightly bound up with these lessons were some startling realizations: about my culture, my society, the nature of faith, my relations with power and power wielders . . . the list goes on. Addiction is a miserable, misguided quest for perpetual childhood that always fails; but the junkie or drunk who has some straight time and means to stay that way knows a lot about the way we really live, think, feel, hope, and desire in this country.
Here’s a little of what I learned on the trip up from the fetal position:
First, that I possess a desire, and a capacity, for ecstasy. It’s easy for anti-drug puritans to shrug off any ecstatic quest as a mere cultural side effect of the ’60s, but the truth is that this powerful desire resides within and helps define the human spirit. In his 1998 book Wild Hunger (Rowman and Littlefield), philosopher Bruce Wilshire argues that addiction is a failed substitute for the deep communion with nature that modern civilization denies most of us. "If we lose this contact habitually," Wilshire writes, "primal needs go unmet. We imagine immediate substitute gratifications—caffeine, cigarettes, cocaine, mere sex. . . . [but] they are counterfeits that lead to dependency and loss of self-respect."
Wilshire reminds us that it’s not easy or safe to chase primal ecstasy without the social and spiritual tools that supported it in earlier times. Yet chase it we must. "Only in a whole world in which we lose ourselves competently and ecstatically can we be coherent and powerful," he writes. "But to ‘let go’ after losing our primal hunter-gatherer skills seems either counterintuitive or terrifying. How to react sanely to Emerson’s prompt: ‘The one thing we seek with insatiable desire is to forget ourselves . . . to do something without knowing how or why’? This would not be murky trance or evasive projection, but the keenest wakefulness."
Murky though the experience may have been, I am grateful to drugs and alcohol for, however briefly, rescuing me from the deadening grip of my perfectionistic ambitions when I was an arrogant, scared 18-year-old intellectual-in-training, and showing me—yes, briefly—a world of relief, release, and ecstatic Emersonian self-forgetfulness. How can we not pray for a drugless form of this relief, release, and joy for kids in ghetto neighborhoods and small-town high schools and dead-end jobs everywhere? What do we offer that can give it to them? Computer school? The army?
Second, I learned that I needed a community of recovering people to help me get sober and clean, and when I found it, that community called into question everything I knew about ambition, and competition, and care. In Alcoholics Anonymous (I’m sure my experience is typical of other recovery programs too), I found a radical democracy of drunks and druggies. Addiction being an "equal opportunity destroyer," I met ex-burglars, television producers, ex-muggers, Marine colonels, novelists, bikers, and nuns. The wisest of these people advised me to live a day at a time and to be grateful for the blessings of my life, which at that time included a roof over my head and three pairs of pants. In this almost Gandhian apprenticeship I not only learned to love small things greatly, I learned to listen for wisdom from everyone—including the transsexual ex-Berlin prostitute who cooed, "Darlings, becoming a woman was a breeze compared with getting clean!"
I began to look around and saw that some of the obviously successful "high-functioning" members of society resembled the hungry ghost I was trying to stop being: type-A hustlers, power addicts, money junkies. I picked up Anne Wilson Schaef’s 1988 book When Society Becomes an Addict (HarperSanFrancisco), which applied the addiction formula to practically every aspect and level of contemporary American society. I’m skeptical of this large-scale addiction paradigm mainly because it seems that on average the power and money lords in our country are having quite a lot of fun compared with sick junkies and desperate drunks. (If everyone’s addicted then no one really is.) Still, the gap between the behavior of many "normies" and most of my fellow addicts who had been humbled by substances was striking. The game that most of my AA friends talked, and many actually walked, was an honorable struggle to put what was really important ahead of the power and money shuffle. They, and I, really had no choice. We had all made a royal mess of the other way.
In the course of my recovery I began to need, and to experience, God. Artificial ecstasy had crapped out on me long before, and life without my chemical crutches made me nervous for a very long time. I needed something new, and good, on which to be dependent, and, following AA’s suggestion, I began to pray to something greater than myself for relief from my disease and my terrors.
AA has come in for a good deal of criticism for its supposedly religious emphasis; I only know that I felt great spiritual freedom in the fellowship, and when God came to me, it was in a manner powerful and convincing and uncoerced. I had an hour of genuine ecstasy in a dark little apartment. I began to measure the distance between the idols I had worshiped—academic brilliance, intellectual up-to-dateness, cultural sophistication—and the beauty and abjectness of my new relationship with God. In this new relationship I was naked and needy, calm and happy, fulfilled and doubting. I was human.
Yes, the first requirement in handling addiction is treatment—competent medical help. But recovery is something else. Because the drug and drink quest is in its doomed way a journey of the soul and spirit as well as the body, recovery is a thing of the soul and spirit too. When recovery happens, it transforms addicts by alchemizing their vulnerability and brokenness into something new, wondrous, and a bit strange. Something that no longer fits easily into our compulsive, perhaps radically addictive, society. The recovering addict’s hold on sobriety is bought with the coin of questions that all of us should be asking, every day.
In keeping with AA traditions, Fred R. is a pseudonym for a writer working on a memoir about spiritual exploration.