The Good Thing about being an Addict ...
19th March, 20130 Comments
There's no point pretending that cocaine doesn't give its users an enjoyable rush. Nor that cannabis can make you feel cosily safe and talkative. Why preach that alcohol impairs judgement and makes you fall over? We all know that it reinvents that suave and sophisticated you.
When a stressful job puts more pressure on you than you can handle, you might be turning to these or similar substances to cope. The daily commute, the need to be performing at your best all day, maybe in a highly competitive environment, eventually put unbearable strain on all but the preternaturally ambitious and outgoing. So you get stressed. Funnily enough, cocaine (which is so often used to grab a europhoric high with its concomitant sense of increased energy and effectiveness) works by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. That's the system which manages the fight or flight survival response - and when that survival response flares up, it needs time or physical exercise for the biochemicals which run it to be recycled. So something like coke or crack is giving you a double-dose of stress and flushing away your 'happiness' hormones into the bargain. As for those boozey lunchtimes, you probably already know that alcohol is a depressant. One fascinating study tested groups for drunkenness: one group was given real alcohol, the other fake (a placebo). And yes, the placebo group got happily drunk on nothing. Even the effect of our strongest painkiller, morphine, is fifty percent placebo. Think of that: to a significant degree your reactions to any and every substance are 'all in the mind'.
It might not make neurological sense to turn to synthetic highs like cocaine, but is it so abnormal to seek them out in order to escape the stress of boredom or the stress of Stress? We have a powerful inner drive to reward ourselves with pleasure, to imbibe energy from all available sources, to enhance our senses and just generally get more out of life. And when you think about it, there's nothing wrong with that. It's a survival advantage. When our ancient ancestors found, for example, a store of honey long, long ago and tasted for the first time its sweetness, they returned again and again to garner it. They may even have invented Bee Goddesses and Humming Rituals to ensure that the honey would always come back. Whatever they did, we do it still. We like it, we try it again, we crave 'that first, fine careless rapture', we keep on craving and trying to find it ... and when it eludes us, we just try again, harder. Rarely do we consider that the 'rapture' was more about the company we were in, the ambience, maybe the exhilaration of risk-taking. Adrenaline-junkies will tell you that the most powerful natural high comes from pushing yourself outside your comfort zone. You don't have to go cliff-jumping in Croatia to reap the sense of elation that comes with adrenaline. Just choose a fear and master it.
One of the big mistakes of well-meaning health advice is to tell us all about the harm from 'substances' (for example, cigarettes) by trying to frighten us into abstinence. But those scare-tactics actually stimulate the same part of the brain (the nucleus accumbens) as registers cravings. Pretend that people don't feel they gain something from their substance of choice and you lose credibility. And of course, having Big Brother tell us not to do something only makes the rebellious streak in all of us want to do it even more. Just as in a destructive love affair, if an outsider dare criticise the object of desire, the effect is to make that object even more desirable. It takes on fantasy dimensions of independence and rebellion.
The point of No Return for an addict comes only when the perceived benefits of getting and consuming the substance are outweighed by real-time inconvenience: present danger to health, damaged relationships and painful squeezings of the wallet. The full consequences of a harmful addiction bite very hard indeed. As in that destructive love affair, one day the glamour is gone and you find you're living with a psycho. Addictions really are trance states in which the overwhelming focus on the substance causes time to distort, negatives to become invisible, memories to get forgotten and illusions to seem real. Yes, you guessed it, these are some of the signature phenomena of deep hypnotic trance.
I don't want to tell you that addictions are easy to quit, because I know that you already know that you've moved on from all kinds of outmoded behaviours at many stages of your life. (You're not still carrying teddy everywhere, are you?) And that's one key point: people really do grow out of addictions. With the exception of cigarettes and alcohol, for the vast majority of us, drug abuse falls off after the age of about 40. So you will probably be leaving that expensive and damaging habit behind anyway - you might as well cut your losses and make the decision to quit right now. And why not alcohol and tobacco? As we saw, a big reason so many of us keep on using these (even past that sell-by date of 40) is that we mistake the substances for the friends and good times we had when we imbibed them. Not to mention product placement: in Telly land, no scene involving 'adults relaxing' is complete without a pint or a wine glass somewhere in the background. Do you get the feeling that we're being manipulated?
Finally, if you are reading this because you or a loved one are addicted to a harmful substance, I would like to emphasise again that addictive behaviour is a natural, effective survival tool. Anyone can become an 'addict' (and that means that your genes have not set you up to be a heroin user or a drunk all your life). We can become addicted to any behaviour or substance which rewards us. We've already noted that substance abuse is usually associated with risk-taking and socialising. We imagine that we need the substance to connect with other people, to enhance our status and therefore to become more attractive or charismatic. And we mistakenly assign the magical effects of the neurotransmitters and hormones in our own amazing biochemical body-mind system to the substance itself.
In reality, you can access any of the highs (or lows) experienced in your life without the aid of drugs.Your unconscious mind knows all about them. And it knows how to run incredibly complex processes, like your immune system, without any meddling from your will power. When you relax very deeply, focus inwardly and learn to communicate with your inner mind, you can begin to set up.
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