Honoring Our Hunger for the Ecstatic

A recovering addict defends the search for relief, release, and joy in a society drunk on money and power

| September/October 2001

Drugs and Addiction 
Ayahuasca: Sacred Tea from the Amazon
-Jeremiah Creedon,

Honoring Our Hunger for the Ecstatic
-Fred R.

Seeking Peace in the War on Drugs
-Ethan A. Nadelmann

Discuss ayahuasca in the Currents forum at Café Utne's: cafe.utne.com
It’s heartening to see people across the country working to end the hideous war on drugs, and replace the current military-penal approach to the problems of addiction with a medical model of treatment.

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."

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