So, it took me nearly 6 months of
procrastination deep reflection and research to come up with the last blog post, in which I then rashly gave myself a fortnight to come up with this one. I have decided that deadlines and structures are good for me (much as I resist them), while “getting around to that at some point…” is a drug so potently addictive and destructive that it makes methamphetamine seem relatively benign. I am only half-joking there, by the way.
But have I just given myself a soft-option? A spurious mission? Just running over the same ground again, to put off coming up with something new? Well, I hope not. This blog doesn’t exist for its own sake. There is no purpose to these scribblings besides a hope that they will be of use to someone, and my goal now is to see how much that was of use to me – in the context of being a Dhamma-practitioner in a monastery – can translate over to other places, and other people who may not wish to “buy in” as much as I did, or even at all for that matter. So my immediate plan is to start pulling out key elements from the story already told, rinse off any overt “Buddhism”, and see if we can distil any principles that might be more universally applied.
Well, no point shilly-shallying around, then – let’s get stuck straight in, you be the judge of whether it’s any use or not:
The story of Quang Duc – the burning monk of Vietnam, as related in the prologue – became part of my story long before drugs did, let alone addiction to any of them. But it subsequently became the beginning of the story of my journey out of addiction, because it provided inspiration, when inspiration was most needed. You might perhaps reasonably think that a situation of being hopelessly addicted to cocaine and heroin, having made a mess of my life, and realising that there was no way forward until I had stopped pumping large quantities of both uppers and downers (an “expensive way to feel normal”, as we sometimes call this curiously contradictory cocktail) into myself; should have been inspiration enough, but it wasn’t. Why not?
So many reasons, gosh – where shall we start?
Perhaps here: Drug addiction isn’t the problem. Well, strictly speaking, it isn’t really even a problem, as such. If you’re very attached to your morning cup of coffee, but you can generally ensure that you can get it, and you can afford it without resorting to piracy or prostitution, then who cares? Maybe once in a while you will carelessly run out, of a morning, and then you’ll be a bit grumpy until you can line up your fix. This is a negative consequence of caffeine-dependency, but you can take it in your stride. It strikes you as being minor enough – worth it compared to the pleasures and benefits, and to be not messing up your life.
Let’s say though, that more profound negative consequences start to manifest – perhaps palpitations, anxiety, insomnia – and these then do start to interfere with your life. This is clearly when it would be good to quit, or at least cut down. If you find that difficult, or even seemingly impossible, despite persistent negative consequences – well then that’s the best useful definition of “a drug problem” that I can come up with.
I think this is worth unpacking and defining, even though it may at first appear rather stupidly elementary and redundant. You might be surprised at the number of people who show up, apparently expressing some vague intention to quit using something, but when asked “why?” (my all-time favourite question) seem somewhat at a loss for words. I don’t think that’s a promising start. It often leaves me wondering whether they haven’t really got anything much there beyond, “because that seems to be the kind of thing that I’m supposed to say, and it usually meets with approval. I like approval – or at least, it usually seems to be the best way to get people to stop hassling me. Why are you still hassling me? I’m “being good”…”
Okay, well – this article is about personal motivation and inspiration, so “because I’m hoping you’ll shut up and go away” isn’t going to cut it here (unless of course you happen to find me very, VERY annoying indeed, I suppose). Know why you’re doing something, or you’re very likely beaten before you’ve even started (and how will you know if you’ve succeeded??). Anyway – so if we’ve established that there’s something we’re calling a “drug problem”…
Maybe you’re the kind of person who can nip this in the bud. You can “pull yourself together”, take a deep breath, accept that it might be a bit unpleasant for a while as your body and mind adjust to the absence of a former pleasure – which you now clearly perceive to be more of a burden – and that habits take a while to re-train; and you get on with enjoying a life that is free of it, largely untroubled. Perhaps only by the occasional merest whiff of nostalgia.
This is a matter of personality, not of the substance, let’s be clear about that: I know two people who did this with heroin, and have known several who were unable to do it with carbonated non-alcoholic beverages. You are probably not that kind of person, I am guessing – not if you’re reading this. But if you are, then you could stop reading now, because the undesirability of negative consequences is enough motivation for you. You may have a drug problem, but you are not (what I might usefully sometimes refer to as) an “addict”.
Let’s create a metaphor. That’s the kind of thing that self-identified “writers” often like to do, in order to look like they are doing some work: Let’s say that a drug problem is a tree. Even if it is a mighty oak, some people can just chop it down (perhaps because it is blocking the light to their kitchen – yeah, that works, go metaphor!) and then that’s that. That’s firewood. Then some people may lack the tools or the strength to chop it down, but they might still do so with a little help, encouragement, advice, or chivvying – they just need to borrow a metaphorical chainsaw, and face up to the task. There is of course no tree that simply can not be felled – no, that’s not how this metaphor is going to work…
Then, again – some people might manage to chop it down, but then it turns out to be one of those species such as Ash, or Willow, which are “coppicable”. This means that saplings regrow from the stump (and should be harvested every 4-7 years, for maximum timber productivity). If regrowth is to be prevented then the stump must be uprooted.
It is an axiom of mine that metaphors, like jokes, should never need to be explained after the punchline, or they are not good metaphors, and then the “writer” is merely performing spurious acrobatics (presumably in an effort to pretend that this is a real job). Metaphors may however be extended, in order to see whether poetics can shed any light on prosaic reality, (and to further indulge my arboreal nerdiness in this case) so:
Consider the Aspen. A nondescript relative of Poplar, fairly common in cooler temperate zones throughout the Northern Hemisphere. Not very in-demand as timber, or even firewood, since it’s mostly water – hella heavy when fresh, but then dries out to something very light and insubstantial. Sometimes used for matchsticks and traditionally for Camembert cheese boxes (fun fact only – not an active part of this metaphor, sadly – believe me I tried hard to meaningfully work that in somehow).
The most interesting thing about the homely, humble Aspen though, is that it seems to be unkillable. Like the sturdy, regal Ash, it will regrow from a stump, but also more than this – uproot the stump and it still comes back. You can even poison it and concrete it over, and then it will just come back in a different place. How is this possible?
Well, it only seems unkillable. Because “it” is not in fact the thing we tend to look at and call “tree”. The true life of an Aspen is in the extensive root system, almost more like the life of a fungus, than of a typical plant. The “tree” itself exists for a short time (by tree standards), usually not even a century, but it is thought that some root colonies may be a thousand years old. They don’t even need a breeding partner to propagate, since they can simply clone themselves multiple times across a wide area via the roots. They lap up forest fires, scoff at bulldozers, and thrive on many other kinds of natural or human disasters – popping merrily up again the following year, with all their competition obliterated.
Not all of those tree-facts were strictly necessary for the extended metaphor, which, (if this drug problem were a tree that was a horse) I may have just flogged to death. But I’m a tree-mendous nerd, and so I thought they were kind of fun.
And so now, to balance things up, and for dramatic shock-contrast, here’s a no-fun-at-all fact:
On the evening of the day that I began writing this piece, I received some news. Someone had died. It was not quite the first person I ever did heroin with, but the first with whom I seriously regularly did it, in the flat that we shared in Hackney, East London. We were co-conspirators and co-enablers of each other’s decline, and now destruction.
I’m not blaming myself too much for that – she was far more experienced than I in such matters at that time – but then again, I’m not blaming myself too little either. It had been her boyfriend, and supposedly my friend, who had suggested that I move in there, rather than one of her “druggy loser” friends taking the extra room. He had a lot of empathy for addicts, since he had already lost his brother to heroin, and some of his own childhood innocence to his (famous musician) father’s addiction. I think he thought I might be a stabilising and sensible influence on her, but instead we did a lot of drugs together and periodically cheated on him. Classy stuff. It was he who contacted me. I suppose he must have really cared about her, and perhaps also forgiven me – a good man, then. It seems that he stayed in touch, even though they (mercifully) broke up, whereas I just abandoned her to her fate when it was time to save myself. Didn’t spare her much thought since then, until just now.
She was witty, unconventional, entertainingly extroverted, and astonishingly energetic when not monged out. A good singer, a passable guitarist, a skilled and very competitive Backgammon player. Gone in her forties. I can only hope that the time between then and now contained some better moments.
I am not really sure how, or even whether, that information fits into my theme for this piece. It certainly wasn’t in my (very) rough draft. But serendipity has spoken and so, then, have I. That has been in the back of my mind all the time that I have been trying to formulate this piece in the front of it, so perhaps it belongs somewhere in yours while reading it.
Perhaps I could use this to highlight that I do in fact take this stuff very seriously indeed, despite – or perhaps even hence – surface levity. Hence? Yes, well – if we’re talking about the world of chronic addiction to the heavy goods, then miserably wasteful quietly sordid tragedies are so utterly commonplace, that you just can’t go around demonstrating an “appropriately” long-face every time you become aware of another one that has either happened, or is in the making. Au contraire, you just acknowledge that those are the kind of stakes being played for, and carry on as normal. Or beyond normal – perhaps with a heightened appreciation of the value of things which can give lightness to existence, however fleetingly. Or perhaps I could just use it to segue back into talking about “the roots”.
Whatever existential difficulty is being patched over by addiction – that’s the root problem, obviously, you figured that out. So just chopping down the tree – just leaving out the drugs, and leaving it at that – could well leave you arguably worse off than before. Whatever it is, and what it will take, is going to differ for every person, but I would be willing to bet blind, without even knowing you, that it isn’t going to be anything like as straightforward, predictable, and easy to put a time-frame on, as how long it will take to detox from whatever is our apparent, surface “drug problem”. We will be left with whatever gave rise to the problem, now shorn of the coping mechanism/escape/distraction/whatever else you want to call it.
Even if the addict isn’t precisely conscious of that, or able to articulate it, we all know it in our bones. We see that in the contemplation of a theoretical life without drugs – if that’s as far as we take our vision – appearing to be a barren, treeless wasteland, devoid of colour, and without shade or shelter. Not very inspiring.
However, contemplating the possibility of becoming the person that could be questing purposefully and fearlessly through that wasteland, well – that’s a bit more like it.
And of course, it only looks treeless. This is Aspen country – we need to get moving. See what I did there?
Notice that all this flowery talk of stumps and roots isn’t introducing any straight talk (flower-free) about “identifying childhood trauma”, or anything of that nature. That might be the obvious way to decode it. It’s also a popular approach to put the main focus on such things, like it’s a pre-condition to working on behaviour. There’s certainly validity to such undertakings, and for some people, probably a lot of validity. But I quite strongly feel that any such work is for later on. Whatever your “roots” may consist of, I am afraid that I have many, many – too many – times observed that people approaching whupping a destructive addiction while holding up trauma as the flag they march behind – just don’t do so well.
Dwelling on “why I am so unhappy/dysfunctional for reasons that aren’t my fault” at this early stage can very reliably lead one self-righteously back to “why nobody should criticise me for being a mess” which so very often leads back to – being a mess. There’s no lack of compassion in my saying that I don’t want to hear too much about that stuff – I have known men who were incinerated by roadside bombs as naïve boy-soldiers, disfigured and disabled when they were just into their twenties, hooked on hospital morphine, sent home with a Purple Heart, a tiny pension, and a heroin/opioid dealer never far away in the crappy neighbourhoods they can afford to live in for the rest of their unemployable lives. I have known women who were relentlessly sexually abused by those who had a duty to protect them, since before they should have been allowed to cross the road without holding mummy’s hand.
And I have known rather too many people who persisted in expending most of their finite energy and time on the burning question of whose fault all this is, and isn’t – right up until the day they died.
Whatever the back-story, we just have to decide what we are gunning for here. Do you want us to say “Never mind, it’s not your fault”? Or do you want out? However bad it may be, one thing can be guaranteed – life always has something worse up its sleeve, even if it’s only – all of that, plus now you’re older. More ravaged, Less to look forward to, more to regret. And that’s if nothing else goes wrong. That’s the best case scenario.
Maybe you could start to look back, and deep within, after half a year of clean time. Or whenever you decide that you feel secure enough in your ability to struggle through a few of life’s challenges and inner weaknesses without returning to the trough. You need to have faced, and passed enough dicey moments that you can have reasonable confidence that lifting the lid on resentments is not just re-booting the self-pitying, self-justifying, downward spiral into the familar comfort.
Or in more mythical terms: When you’re venturing down into the Underworld, you’d better be sure that you’re equipped with your vorpal sword, and your big, practical, dragon-slaying trousers (and probably some sandwiches). Make sure that you have not packed your quill-pen, and your big thick notebook (or perhaps notetome, in this metaphorical milieu) that has, “see what I have to put up with?” gold-embossed on the cover.
This is my take on it, from what I have seen over the years, partly in an environment that is, admittedly, devoid of trained therapists (Thamkrabok), but also out in the world, observing friends and peers struggling sometimes more, sometimes less, successfully while taking different approaches to sorting out their woes and weirdnesses. And from monitoring myself, of course.
“No offence” clause: I would like to emphasize that I am talking about what I perceive as the person concerned’s stated personal interests and priorities in their plan for sorting their shit out – not criticising any approaches that some mental health professionals (who presumably know their stuff) may be taking, with the benefit of planned structures and evidence-based strategies. And I would be very interested to hear from anyone with positive experience of how to integrate therapy with the early stages of recovery, while avoiding any encouragement of self-defeating self-pity, blame-mongering, etc.
To be frank, I suspect that what I am taking exception to here, is a half (if that) understood notion of what therapy is presumed to consist of, that being essentially: droning on incessantly about what a rough deal we have had. Oh, and also saying “I’m working round to doing some work on that” at all times when we might perhaps be able to say, “yeah, I should probably cut that shit out”. Oh, and also referring to any problem, unpleasant emotion, or especially shortcoming, we may have as if it were a medical condition, which probably makes it someone else’s fault that it exists, and someone’ else-else’s job to sort out.
This last factor seems to have so permeated our thinking and vocabulary when talking about any of our “issues” that many people seem to be losing any ability to think about them in any other terms. Does anyone remember sadness? Before we were all getting depressed constantly? Or getting justifiably worried about something that actually is a bit worrying, especially if we’re not doing anything about it? I used to get that sometimes before I discovered “anxiety issues”. Not to mention “shitty things I have done” which all miraculously went away after I realised I had “behavioural issues” (that was soooooo cool!). These are the kinds of issue that I am taking issue with. P.S. “issue” as a noun just means “thing that comes out from/matter in question”, not “things we need therapy for”. [End grumpy rant]
Meanwhile though while I’m still awaiting an update/upgrade on my knowledge of actual therapy – I’m sticking to my contention that the safest, most reliable priority for anyone facing up to booting the habit, is to first foster and nurture a heroic spirit. The spirit that is going to proceed towards its noble goal – no matter what, and come what may. Come on then, if you think you’re hard enough! Inscribe that upon your sturdy shield. In Latin, of course – looks classier [Venis ergo si putatis quod tu duris satis es].
A powerful spirit is going to require some powerful inspiration. For me, it was to be a monk. And not just any monk, but a monk aspiring to be like THAT one – who could sit in roaring flames without so much as asking for a paracetamol. A guy aiming at that should surely guffaw at the thought of requiring intravenous diamorphine in order to cope with being a bit frustrated and disappointed and sorry for himself.
One way to think of this in more general terms could be: If a problem (such as an addiction) seems huge because it appears to fill your life, well – you can’t immediately shrink the size of the problem, but you could instead try to enlarge your view of what “your life” could be. Make sense?
Now there are a number of ways in which my initial conception of the monkly ideal was a bit more sophisticated than just a bunch of assumptions I made from seeing a picture. And also a large number of ways in which it was not nearly sophisticated enough, and which I had to correct as I went along, but the main thing is that I went along. It got me moving. It immediately framed addiction as an obstacle on the path towards a far greater aspiration. That vision then sustained me through ensuing months of treeless wasteland, when I was still periodically mourning the loss of my familiar – if slimy and Gollum-like – companion, while not yet enjoying the fruits of my new life-choices to any great, or reliably steady, extent.
Never mind being a monk – I wanted to be a better man. And a MUCH better man, at that. So my loss was re-framed as a worthwhile sacrifice leading to a potential gain. Perhaps think of it like: If I just told you there were a whole load of nice things you’re not allowed to eat now, and that you have to get up early and work your arse off every day, then that doesn’t sound too inviting, does it? But if we say that you’re aiming to be a champion athlete, and that this will involve doing such things, then that should shine a rather different light on things, no???
I have of course encountered people, many people in fact, who described their motivation to quit only, or mainly, in other terms. Terms that I might describe, reviving the tree imagery I used just now, as “branch problems”, as in they are secondary effects, that sprout from the “trunk” of the addiction. They’ll list all the negative impacts that their addiction has had on their lives – their health, wealth, appearance, career, relationships, etc., and declare themselves “sick of it”, “so over it” to have “had enough”, or things expressed in far stronger terms than these, but along similar lines. They just want out. Wouldn’t that work? It seems perfectly logical, after all…
Well, it usually doesn’t. I really wish it did – because I have met numerous people over the years whose story was that they had been appallingly punished and penalised by their habits, and who I don’t doubt desperately wished to be free to try to establish some kind of better life for themselves. It is rather horrible watching someone slide back into the pit, sometimes obliviously, sometimes in defiant denial, and sometimes with an awful kind of dull hopeless resignation, as if they always knew it was an impossible fantasy – like the way we always know that the psychopath isn’t really dead at the end of any of the Halloween/Elm Street franchise numbers (or similar).
But why doesn’t it work? Well, I don’t really have to say why not, since I am all about data these days. As I admitted in the previous piece, I don’t actually have archives of long-term outcomes (although am working to fill in my knowledge deficiency here), just a lot of anecdotal evidence. But memory serves me well enough to pretty confidently state that pretty well everyone I know to have done well approached their detox transformation with some kind of loftier positive ideal animating them. And furthermore that I remember many others who spoke only of negative drivers they wished to escape, who sank again, and quickly and undeniably enough that I bore witness to that sad finale.
No harm in a little speculation though, as long as we don’t get so interested in the problem that we forget to do anything about it (a fault that I, for one, am prone to). So, if data’s the thing, if data is king – let’s ASK SCIENCE…
SCIENCE (which must always be capitalised) has made some pretty comprehensive studies of motivation. Most of the really juicy stuff involves non-human subjects, because there are some things that you’re just not allowed to do to people (thanks a lot, PC brigade), but that’s very arguably still quite revealing, because the systems governing the big, basic positive and negative emotions – desire, satisfaction, fear, anxiety, etc., are pretty ancient, and so basically work quite similarly across all higher species . Studies like this, for instance:
There was, in a time and place I will not name (since this really does sound like some kind of awful rodent gulag), a large study on motivating rats to run against resistance. The scientists could accurately measure how hard the rat pulled, and how long it would keep pulling before it gave in to exhaustion, and accepted its fate – its spirit having being broken. They experimented with a range of both positive and negative drivers – such as the smell of a receptive mate in front of it, the smell of a cat behind it, a giant piece of cheese, etc., etc. – until they were satisfied that they could predictably calibrate and control the amount of positive or negative motivation they were applying to any individual rat. So that they could dial up the motivating factor 50% and get 50% more effort from the rat, roughly speaking.
It was very reliably found that when positive and negative drivers were applied simultaneously, rather than the expected increase in effort reflecting these two figures added together, it was more like they were multiplied. I am not about to go down a rabbit hole trying to get precise figures, or how they were adjusted for things like physical limits (when you’re already running flat out, you can’t go any faster, however much Gorgonzola may be at stake), but essentially the message is this: When you’re moving purposefully away from something, and also purposefully towards something, that’s when you’re really firing on all cylinders, and the difference is not trivial. A moderately scary thing behind, plus a fairly desirable thing ahead still gets more out of you than just your worst nightmare chasing you. Or indeed you chasing your heart’s desire.
There was some more SCIENCE stuff investigating hows and whys, such as looking at brain activity and biochemistry. I’m not educated enough to go into any detail beyond that there are different neurological circuits and systems for the yays, and the nays, and different hormonal systems for stimulating physical activity and mental endurance, etc. These can be maxed out, so that additional stimulation of the same kind doesn’t yield a significantly greater output. But stimulating the other circuit as well still could.
Alright, I’m paddling out of my depth here, since I’m basically a woolly-thinking artsy-fartsy type. To flail back to the more familiar shores of unsubstantiated philosophical musing:
Well, I have two main readings of that. The first is kind of geometrical, or perhaps cartographical (a bit of pseudo-science for you, as a “gateway drug” to hardcore wooliness). Let’s imagine a sketch-map that we’re drawing on a blackboard. We’ll draw a point and label it “hopelessly and destructively addicted”. That’s where we don’t want to be, where we want to proceed away from.
For the first few steps, any direction is good, since it is away from the starting point. After that though? Well, people lost in the desert tend to walk in a big circle. Actually I am not sure whether that well-known “fact” is really true or not, but the myth will do for the metaphor. And more certainly, random turns will quite likely bring you back through the starting point, eventually. More than likely in fact, since that isn’t just any point on the board, like all the others. It is a known place, a former home. Even unhappy homes start to look attractive when we have been lost and wandering for too long. So it has a gravitational pull.
So now our map could be starting to look like a graphic on those clever astrophysics documentaries that always seem to have a representation of a flat plane, that morphs into a kind of funnel-shape, and they say things like, “space and time, or spacetime (since they’re really the same thing, as we have demonstrated) are curved…” and then I say things like, “whaaaaaaaaaat???”. You don’t have to understand the physics bit – just the picture. It’s like a sheet suddenly develops a plughole that water would swirl down. You know – that one.
Okay, so what did we learn from this metaphor? Three things: From the two-dimensional map image; that setting a clear destination will ensure that you are consistently trudging away from the start point of addiction, and in the same direction, so that you won’t blunder back into it, or exhaust and frustrate yourself by trying lots of different ways. From the 3D universe-graphic image; that we need a destination point that furthermore exerts a gravitational pull of its own, to counteract the old familiar one. At this point, Professor Brian Cox (for it is he) would probably say something like, “space-time is in fact saddle shaped…”.
And from the whole exercise, we most definitely learned that I should drop, and step away from, the “science” right now, with my hands where you can see them. No, Constable – I don’t have a permit for this thing…
Back on home turf, then:
Despair – that’s the thing. That’s the bugger. Negatives can motivate you up to a point, and the worse they are the more they motivate – up to a point. A strongly undesired outcome can stimulate effort and endurance greater than you thought possible, up until the point where that effort in itself seems to be equally tormenting you (subjectively, in the moment, anyway) and at that point, despair becomes an option. Quite an attractive option, and I speak from personal experience. There’s something rather comforting, that is quite a relief, in the moment when you say, “I caaaaaaaaaaan’t…” and give in. Accept your inadequacy. Accept that you will be punished for it. Perhaps even terminally – at least you can stop scrabbling now, with your tiny claws.
Of course, often in the kinds of things we are talking about – whether or not this particular attempt to quit using drugs, or drinking, will succeed – we are not really at such a dramatic point, not literally anyway. A symbolic death is what will happen – the death of an aspiration to be, and to show others that you are, a greater and more formidable being than had been hitherto assumed. Perhaps you are just a catastrophic numpty after all – not to be relied upon, not destined to achieve much, not very impressive. There now – how hard was it to say? Hurt a bit? A blow to your pride, or dignity. That sometimes doesn’t seem so bad, especially if you have a loving/long-suffering/naïve family or partner. You can just go back to how things were; eating a little humble pie, dependent, self-pitying, and whining – hoping that others too, will pity you, and forgive, and tolerate. Using your weakness to get by in life, rather than your strength.
Not always – we also do see cases where much more is at stake, and this really may well be the last chance; perhaps to continue living, or at least living in any particularly meaningful or dignified way. And there is nobody left who will still bail you out. The same principle applies though. Despair is a strong force, and it retains its attraction, even when it really does quite clearly mean accepting literal annihilation. If you don’t know from examples in your own life, then don’t mess about – read up on Auschwitz, or the Soviet (human) Gulags, or any of the (horribly) many laboratories for studying despair that this world has produced. There comes a point where hope is too painful, the possibility of doing better seems too accusatory, and dull resignation feels like a warm blanket in comparison to maintaining the thought that you don’t necessarily have to be experiencing this – but you are, or that there is a way through this – but you’re too weak. You’re not good enough. Not on current showing, at least.
So, if hope isn’t a reliable positive opposite pole to despair, what then? I don’t want to drop too many spoilers, because I really do thoroughly recommend spending some time with the Concentration Camp/Gulag literature – as a bloody good cure for self-pity, if nothing else, but actually much else. Solzhenitsyn is a great place to start in this context, because he survived, not only physically, but also spiritually and morally, which most people didn’t. How?
Most of us Western types are more familiar with the Nazi Camps than the Soviet Gulags. They’re a bit different, although it would be hard to pick a least favourite hell. Auschwitz had murder as its primary function, and the degradation of the body and spirit was a secondary, or auxiliary purpose, although still highly developed as an artform – it was a close second. The Gulags switched those priorities, although still managed to dispose of many millions of lives. That’s another good reason to start there, since that makes them (slightly) closer to “regular” human awfulness, in quality, if not in degree. Yes, the degree is extreme, but suffering is a spectrum, like many things in life, and going to the far end of it to start looking for strategies has two great advantages – one is that there is no room for bullshit there, and the other is that it ends all objections that begin with, “yeah, I can see that might work for some people, but you don’t understand how hard it is for ME…”
As I said – no spoilers. I might return to this in another piece, which allows you at least a fortnight (probably more) to go to the source, if you wish, and it really would be a shame to spoil it if you think that you might, because Solzhenitsyn does explain his philosophical survival strategy wonderfully succinctly. But I will drop two hints: firstly, it’s just past the middle of “The Gulag Archipelago” abridged version (the unabridged is massive) and fills about 20 pages. Secondly, a part of it (and the most directly relevant part to my current theme) is to prioritise meaning to one’s existence over anything resembling any obvious kind of happiness. A sense of meaning is robust. It is no less present – or perhaps even more so – when things aren’t going so well. It doesn’t depend on something you make yourself believe you will get in the future, if you play your cards right, and so is not subject to fluctuations of mood, or crises of faith, to anything like the same degree that hope is. And it is something that you can have immediately, just by making a decision.
And curiously, I have found it to be a far more effective generator of happiness, almost as a byproduct, than aiming directly at happiness itself. I’m just going to let that assertion stand, for now at least, since this is already going on a bit.
But before I wrap up, here’s one more, that I’ll just – for now, anyway – throw out there: Above, I drew a distinction between people who really are at the end of their rope, seriously in danger of losing everything, including their lives; and those for whom whether or not they overcome their habits right now may appear to be far more of a “first world problem” as the (highly dismissive and contemptuous) saying goes. Now, while I am a big fan of de-dramatising ourselves, and our problems, removing ourselves from the centre of the tragic universe, and contemplating often how very much worse we could have it – and many do have it – There may be more overlap than first meets the eye.
Again, experience and observation tell me to not be surprised how quickly the one can come to resemble the other. The road from London to Lesotho can be deceptively short, and just plain deceptive. In plainer terms, I’m never overly astonished when I hear that someone who presented with the most first-world seeming of problems, and left with them blithely unaddressed, but with bucketfulls of self-belief, turns up dead – or as good as – within a relatively short time.
Despair is a killer, because spiritual, moral, or psychological defeat and symbolic death, swiftly reveal the many forces that can precipitate a physical one. They are all hiding behind the curtain, only just out of plain sight, and we are so often unaware of all the things we barely-consciously do every day, to keep them at bay for now. Merely to cease – to stop seeing meaning in the struggle and the drudgery, which are an inescapable part of existence – can be enough to invite them in. And they are house-guests who are hard to get rid of.
So that’s the outline of my thesis: Negative motivations – just wanting out – aren’t enough to sustain a trek to freedom, even though they are almost certainly what initially impelled us onto such a course. Even if the first few days or weeks can seem joyous enough, especially if detox has liberated us from the daily physical cravings for one of the drugs that produces these. I can still vividly recall the almost rapturous (if rapture can be dozy) feeling of realising that I had semi-awoken from a comfortable and natural slumber, after a week-and-a-half of near-total insomnia, which is the most punishing aspect of opiate withdrawal. I can recall the return of appetite, and (some days later) the perception that digestion was normalising, so that the food sat comfortably in my belly, and (I know it was probably imagined, but still…) a visceral sense of delicious vitamins, calories, and proteins being harvested and pumped at high pressure into my starved and shrivelled cells. The gradual, but perceptible, return of energy, humour, engagement, imagination (applied to anything besides how to score more drugs, pay for them, and lie about what I was up to).
All of this is wondrous, and should be savoured to the full (should in fact be meticulously given thanks for, so that you’ll never again take a normally-functioning arsehole for granted – it’s a privilege, and one worth maintaining). Nevertheless, it doesn’t last, it won’t sustain. Because it is still just basically the relief of having got away from the cat. Like the unfortunate science-gulag rat, you’re now just still stuck in a tube, with a resistance band around your little furry waist, or to re-employ my other previous image, schlepping through the shrub-free wasteland. It’s great that it isn’t actual, active Hell, but it still isn’t exactly a Club 18-30 package holiday in Magaluf, either (if that’s your bag – otherwise feel free to insert alternative idyllic leisure option of your choice, to make the metaphor speak to you).
Right, that should do for now. Fobbing you off with self-assembly metaphors is surely a warning sign that a writer’s mojo levels are dropping perilously low. I mean, what is this, IKEA? Must be all this cheery talk of despair. Let’s get some sunnier vibes going next week and look at things that may bring the mojo back, by which time, hopefully, I will have found some.
Thanks and acknowledgments to Ani Chötso, Phra Phillip Kantajaro, always on hand for consulting porpoises.
In memory of H.C.
P.S. 30/11/21: the following news item has just come to my attention. The world’s largest living known organism is in fact an Aspen colony that may be 14,000 years old – https://phys.org/news/2021-11-world-largest-slowly-eaten-deer.html