as a Substitute for Meaningful Living
Maple Ridge, British Columbia, Canada
James Frey has been justifiably given a rough
time over his book, A Million Little Pieces (2003), when it was
confirmed that he embellished key events in his memoir. Frey appeared
uncomfortable as Larry King grilled him on his 'facts'. And he was
very uncomfortable as Oprah confronted him, declared that she felt
duped and lied to, and expelled him from her book club.
many of my colleagues in the addictions treatment field were not
so upset. Of course, most had dismissed the book even before the
controversy started. After the revelations, they tended to remark,
'He's an addict'. I emphasize that being an addict is not a license
to lie. In fact, a fundamental part of recovery is for addicts to
accept that truthfulness, facts, and honesty matter. I'm certainly
not approving his lies; my intention is simply to highlight his
behavior as a springboard to help readers gain an understanding
of the nature of addiction.
The addict's life: meaningless, monotonous,
Narcotics Anonymous describes the addict's life
as "meaningless, monotonous, and boring" (1982, p. 80). For all
the money, effort, and creativity spent maintaining the drug habit,
nothing is accomplished-other than lost family and friends, deteriorating
health, depression, lost jobs, jails, and hospitals. Most clients
enter treatment when the shame and guilt overwhelm them: 'I have
so much potential, and I've made a disaster of my life'. An alternative
to recovery, suicide, is all too common for addicts.
No one can live a meaningless life for any length
of time. The addict uses two tactics to survive: the drug and the
Tactic one: The drug-induced altered-state-of-consciousness
One of the great blessings of being high for
the addict is that pretty much everything is interesting. Under
the influence of the narcotic draft, an addict can spend hours watching
grass grow or just sit in a corner. The experience of music is heightened,
jokes are funnier, life is more vibrant. And under hallucinogenic
drugs, the user is witness to such marvels as the color of music
or the sounds of colors.
There are practical benefits of being high.
Those who are homeless turn, for instance, to stimulants to keep
awake: falling asleep often means getting robbed. At a deeper psychological
level, David Lensen (1999) reports research that the drug's appeal
for an addicted construction worker is that it inspires the worker
to find interest in a job that has, while sober, no personal meaning.
Without the drug, the worker would be overwhelmed with boredom and
Tactic Two: The drug lifestyle
The second tactic is the lifestyle. For non-addicts,
one of the more baffling dynamics of addiction is the addict's apparent
need to live life at the level of a soap-opera. In my last article,
I mentioned that this was likely Frey's motivation for distorting
the facts. "We made mountains out of molehills," says Narcotics
Anonymous (1982, p. 93). When I counsel addicts, I am always struck
by the intensity of their lives. Relationships are often rancorous,
thoughts of revenge rival any Hollywood movie, facts are embellished
to make life-stories more interesting. Even a simple flat tire is
used by the addict as proof that God, Himself, has singled out the
addict for punishment.
One of my former clients, a professional ballet
dancer, robbed banks when he was high. He told me that it was a
"rush." Other clients liked to get drunk and then go to the bar
to pick a fight. They told me that when they are drunk and fighting,
their senses are at peak alertness. As one client reported, "It's
the only time that I feel really alive."
Vancouver newspapers and television regularly
report that addicts are condemned by poverty and homelessness to
live in Vancouver's notorious, drug-infested Downtown Eastside.
This is usually followed by demands for more affordable housing.
But the media has yet to appreciate that this neighborhood offers
a very powerful appeal. One non-addicted resident once put a sign
in the window of his apartment that read, "This is better than television!"
The Downtown Eastside is filled with intensity, action 24-hours
a day. Each year my friends and family provide Christmas dinner
for one apartment building in the Downtown Eastside. Even at 8am
Christmas morning, sex-trade workers, drug dealers, police cruisers,
and ambulances prowl the streets. Visitors to Vancouver are often
eager to visit the Eastside because its notoriety has been promoted
by television shows and movies.
Addicts are famous for living on the edge of
society. The non-addict tends to think that they are pushed to the
margin or that they are antisocial. But a more useful way of understanding
this phenomenon is to recognize that it is at the fringes of society
where life is most intense.
Even in recovery the impulse toward excitement
is strong. The residential treatment center where I work is regimented,
and clients are busy from 8am to 9pm. There are no adrenalin-producing
events, nothing that provides a "rush," just the work of process
group therapy. After two or three weeks of this routine, some clients
succumb to boredom. Their tactic is very often to create crisis,
conflict, and drama. If things are too calm, addicts tend to go
out of their way to create excitement. I jokingly tell my clients
that if a police cruiser pulled up to the front door of our treatment
center, there will be more energy expended in the next 10 minutes
than clients have spent in the last two days on issues that may
save their lives.
Emotional intensity is the key to the addict's
life. And addicts don't seem to care whether the emotion is anger,
love, hate, happiness, or sadness. As long as the emotion is raised
to the level of a soap opera, it's good: "We made mountains out
To put it another way: The addict substitutes
living intensely for living meaningfully.
There is a theory in psychology known as Flow
Theory. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1996) created Flow
Theory to understand how creativity works in human beings. A common
quality of the creative person, artist or scientist or businessperson,
is total absorption in her work. When I first read about Flow, I
was struck by its similarity to the drug high. All but one of the
eight main elements that Cziksmentmihalyi describes about flow also
describe the drug-induced altered-state-of-consciousness. For instance,
action and awareness are merged, there is no worry of failure, self-consciousness
disappears, and the sense of time is distorted.
But addiction lacks the first element of Flow:
There are no clear goals every step of the way. Although Cziksmentmihalyi
(1996) maintained that Flow results from absorption in an activity
that is intrinsically interesting, he emphasized that the activity
must be meaningful. The drug-induced experience may be intrinsically
interesting, but, for the addict, as Lensen (1999) pointed out,
nothing meaningful is accomplished.
The problem with intensity: no substance
This lifestyle is at odds with the natural inclination
to grow and become true to the self. Essentially, the problem is
that living intensely is all flash and no substance. Think of John
O'Brien's alcohol-soaked novel, Leaving
Las Vegas. O'Brien, who took his own life at age 34 as a
result of alcoholism, highlights the addict's intensity. The protagonist,
Ben Sanderson, dramatically plans to drink himself to death in a
month. O'Brien chose as his background the city of Las Vegas. It's
a good choice. Vegas is famous for its superficiality: making a
quick buck, sexual frivolities, finding love in a bar - even Britney
Spears married there as a lark. All glitter and no guts. (True to
the addict's reality, Ben's death is not celebrated with flashing
lights and sirens, but with empty, lonely, silence.)
The appeal of intensity is a major theme for
the great alcoholic-writer, Eugene O'Neill. In
The Iceman Cometh (1939) the characters who inhabit a flophouse-bar
would commit suicide if they truly faced the reality that their
lives were meaningless, monotonous, and boring. They survive by
distracting themselves with booze, gossip, hanging out with prostitutes,
aggression, insults, and playing at being anarchists.
Intensity thus allows addicts to distract themselves
from facing the reality of their existence. But this is a dangerous
game. Psychologist Rollo May (1953) observed that much of modern
humanity was trapped in a meaningless existence: "…the chief problem
of people in the middle decade of the twentieth century is emptiness"
(p. 13-14). He went on to caution:
The human being
cannot live in a condition of emptiness for very long: if he is
not growing toward something, he does not merely stagnate; the
pent-up potentialities turn into morbidity and despair, and eventually
into destructive activities. (p. 22)
May would likely have included addiction as
one these "destructive activities." Viktor Frankl (1977) was more
direct. He described addiction as one negative alternative people
chose because they did not have the resources to find meaning in
their lives. "[A]lcoholism…[is] not understandable unless we recognize
the existential vacuum underlying [it]" (p. 169-170). Psychologist
Jefferson Singer (1997) similarly concluded that addiction is a
problem of meaning. Those suffering from "chronic addiction either
had never found sufficient meaning in a sober life or through years
of addiction had squandered any meaning they had once possessed"
The addict's yearning
What does the addict yearn for, if addiction
is a distraction? The same things that any person does: to discover
who they are, their place in the world, a sense of belonging, a
connection with something that makes life meaningful, the means
to transcend their suffering selves.
To put it another way, they seek spirituality.
This isn't a new idea, by the way. It is the entire basis of the
12-step program, created in the late 1930s. And I mentioned in an
article a few months back that the Greek dramatist Euripides (1981)
described the same idea in the fifth century BCE.
Writers who have written thoughtfully about
addiction, such as Nelson Algren (The
Man with the Golden Arm, 1949/1999), William S. Burroughs
(Naked Lunch, 1969), and Eugene O'Neill (1999), emphasize the drug
lifestyle as refusing to follow a herd mentality, being true to
the self, overcoming self-consciousness, paying attention to the
non-rational self, connecting with a greater reality. As AA-cofounder
Bill Wilson observed, being drunk is not so much an escape from
life as it is the attempt to satisfy the impulse toward spirituality.
Revisiting Frey's A Million Little Pieces
Perhaps it's because I deal with addicts every
day, I've grown accustomed to their embellishments, to their crisis,
conflict, and drama, to their making mountains out of molehills.
In fact, I use these examples of intensity to help clients gain
awareness of the dynamics of addiction-and to help them appreciate
that a part of recovery is to accept reality as it is.
As I mentioned in my last article, I didn't
find Frey's book particularly insightful on the nature of addiction
and recovery-he's no William S. Burroughs (1985) or Malcolm Lowry
(1971). Like Leaving Las Vegas,
A Million Little Pieces
is not particularly useful for the author's interpretation of addiction,
recovery, or life. Rather, its value lies in being an example of
the addict's mind at work.
But, in Frey's defense, he seems to have found
a better life, which is no small feat in the addictions field. Most
addicts succumb to addiction and die miserable, unnatural deaths.
But I suspect that, because of the book's soap-opera quality, Frey
has yet to find serenity.
Meaningful living as a foundation for recovery
I also mentioned in my last article that Frey's
recovery seems to have been achieved a measure of recovery by making
sense of his suffering, finding some sense of connection with others,
and achieving this through sheer cussedness.
This process of recovery is typical. Growing
research in psychology, 12-step programs, and addicted writers all
tell us that a fundamental part of recovery demands that the addict
grow psychologically to discover his unique, personally meaningful
Most people I know interpret addiction as a
problem rooted in the use of drugs. But this perspective tends to
detour us into damaged neurobiology and unhealthy habits. To appreciate
the role of spirituality in recovery, it is more helpful to interpret
addiction as the incapacity of the individual to live comfortably
in the world day after day, week after week, month after month,
and year after year-without the use of drugs.
There is an emptiness in the addict's life,
a lack of meaningful living, a feeling of disconnection with the
world, a feeling of being a stranger and not fitting in. The addict
turns to the drug precisely because it eases this suffering.
The need for an adjunct therapy
Mainstream treatments pay little attention to
the spiritual aspects of recovery. For instance, the 17th International
Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm will take place
in Vancouver from April 30 to May 4 this year. It's very expensive
to attend (US$890), and its principal sponsor is a pharmaceutical
company that makes HIV/AIDS medication. The organizing committee
members are experts on HIV/AIDS, health care and epidemiology, political
drug policy, needle exchange programs, and drug enforcement practices.
All of these issues are important. But not one of them focuses on
concepts such as living a life that is infused with personal meaning.
The harm reduction approach is focused on pursuing
immediate, achievable goals. Any pretense that we can help addicts
live productive, contented lives is dismissed as unrealistic; rather,
counselors resign themselves to helping clients reduce the harm
that drugs have caused.
Christopher Ringwald (2003) laments that most
mainstream texts on addiction pay only lip service to the need for
spirituality in recovery. He uses as examples a text from the National
Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA), which provided only a single paragraph
on 12-step programs, and the 10th special report to the US Congress
on alcohol and health prepared by the National Institute on Alcohol
Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), which provides only a single page
on spirituality out of 492 pages. This seems especially odd, since
both NIDA and NIAAA report that research has confirmed that importance
of spiritual approaches in addictions treatment.
Many treatments do include spirituality. I confess,
however, that I'm often frustrated coming to terms with the nature
of this treatment. It is extremely difficult to pin down precisely
how the authors define spirituality, the logic that they follow,
and their theoretical (and philosophical) foundations. Similarly,
despite the fact that research has confirmed the efficacy of 12-step
programs, I continue to be surprised by how difficult it is to engage
addictions counselors in nuanced discussions on the spirituality
in the steps.
Hope for the future of treatment
How refreshing to read Ernest Kurtz's (1992)
The Spirituality of Imperfection,
Alan Marlatt's (2005) Mindfulness
Meditation in the Treatment of Addictive Behaviors, Stanton
Peele's (see, for eg, 2000) prolific writings that reach a deeper
psychological level rooted in attitudes and existential issues,
J. Scott Tonigan's (see, for eg, 1999) scholarly research on the
efficacy of spirituality in treatment, Linda Mercadante's (1996)
Victims and Sinners: Spiritual
Roots of Addiction and Recovery, Jefferson Singer's (1997)
Message in a Bottle, and
Francis Seeburger's (1993) Addiction
We will promote these and other ideas at our
conference on Addiction, Meaning, and Spirituality in Vancouver
on July 21-23, 2006. A growing number of researchers and clinicians
are convinced that an adjunct treatment focusing on such issues
would transform addiction treatment.
But integrating meaning and spirituality in
treatment must proceed from a solid psychological (and philosophical)
foundation, based in research evidence, and applied with wisdom-no
half-thought ideas or pop psychology.
We need a deeper psychological understanding
than James Frey can provide us. The welfare of addicts, their families,
and the community is at stake. And the opinions of people such as
Oprah and Larry King.
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