A few relevant passages from In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Maté.
“The reason I do drugs is so I don’t feel the fucking feelings I feel when I don’t do drugs,” Nick, a forty-year-old heroin and crystal meth addict once told me, weeping as he spoke. “When I don’t feel the drugs in me, I get depressed.”
A sense of deficient emptiness pervades our entire culture. The drug addict is more painfully conscious of this void than most people and has limited means of escaping it. The rest of us find other ways of suppressing our fear of emptiness or of distracting ourselves from it. When we have nothing to occupy our minds, bad memories, troubling anxieties, unease, or the nagging mental stupor we call boredom can arise. At all costs, drug addicts want to escape spending “alone time” with their minds. To a lesser degree, behavioral addictions are also responses to this terror of the void.
Addictions, even as they resemble normal human yearnings, are more about desire than attainment. In the addicted mode, the emotional charge is in the pursuit and the acquisition of the desired object, not in the possession and enjoyment of it. The greatest pleasure is in the momentary satisfaction of yearning. The fundamental addiction is to the fleeting experience of not being addicted. The addict craves the absence of the craving state. For a brief moment he’s liberated from emptiness, from boredom, from lack of meaning, from yearning, from being driven or from pain. He is free. His enslavement to the external—the substance, the object, or the activity—consists of the impossibility, in his mind, of finding within himself the freedom from longing or irritability.
Ralph shakes his head impatiently. “Okay … yogurt and banana. Then you go to the office and you see a couple of dozen patients … and all your money goes to the bank at the end of that, and then you count up your shekels or your doubloons. At the end of the day, what have you done? You’ve collected the summation of what you think freedom is. You’re looking for security, and you think that will give you freedom. You collected a hundred shekels of gold, and to you this gold has the capacity of keeping you in a fancy house or maybe you can salt away another six weeks’ worth up and above what you already have in the bank. “But what are you looking for? What have you spent your whole day searching for? That same bit of freedom or satisfaction that I want; we just get it differently. What’s everybody chasing all the money for if not to get them something that will make them feel good for a while or make them feel they’re free? How are they freer than I am? “Everybody’s searching for that feeling of well-being, that greater happiness. But I’d rather be a dog out in the street than do what many people go through to find their summation of freedom.” “There’s a lot of truth there,” I concede. “I can get caught up in all sorts of meaningless activities that leave me only temporarily satisfied, if that. Sometimes they leave me feeling worse. But I do believe there’s a greater freedom than either your pursuit of the drug or my pursuit of security or success can provide.” Ralph looks at me as a benign but worldly-wise uncle would gaze upon a naive child. “And what would that freedom of pursuits be? What would be the ultimate freedom to be searching for?” I hesitate. Can I authentically say this? “The freedom from pursuits,” I say finally. “The freedom from being so needy that our whole life is spent trying to appease our desires or fill in the emptiness. I’ve never experienced total freedom, but I believe it’s possible.” Ralph is adamant. “If it could be different, it would be. It is what it is. Let me put it to you this way: why is it that some people, through no merit whatsoever, get to have whatever they think will give them happiness? Others, through no fault of their own, are deprived.” I agree it’s an unfair world in many ways. “Then how can you or anyone else tell me that my way is wrong, theirs is right? It’s just power, isn’t it?” I’ve often heard Ralph’s worldview espoused by other drug addicts, if less eloquently. It’s clear and obvious that his (and their) rationalization for addiction misses something essential. The defeatist belief that all pursuits arise from a selfish core in all humanity denies the deeper motives that also activate people: love, creativity, spiritual quest, the drive for mastery and autonomy, the impulse to make a contribution.
Figured I’d share since these passages came to mind, and it’s easy to grab Kindle highlights. (Got through most of the book but didn’t finish it. Maté’s stories about fieldwork are interesting, not so much his tendency toward sermons.)