How drug addicts are more functional than normal people

I’m an addict in long term recovery, and I hang out with lots of addicts trying to get or stay clean. Obviously this crowd has problems!

But what’s interesting is that as I’ve been making friends who aren’t addicts, they have problems that are every bit as messed up as the recovery crowd. There are two main differences, though: “normal” people are much more committed to hiding their problems (I feel as though I only learn about them because people assume I won’t judge them), and normal people don’t recognize that their unhappiness is a solvable problem.

Furthermore, most of them aren’t really into the solutions: a leveling of ego and pride, humility, rejection of desire and attachment, and living for something greater than themselves. Addicts, of course, have no choice – we either develop the skills and tools needed to be happy enough to stay clean, or wallow on in the misery of drug addiction, often to an untimely death.

It’s kind of sad, but I have no idea how to convince normal people that they can be happier by changing themselves instead of acquiring things or relationships or any other external thing they think will finally make them happy.

I feel as though erikpukinskis’ comment about capitalism is a big part of the problem, but I’m not sure how to use that observation to help more people be happy.

I think this is a very potent observation.

normal people don’t recognize that their unhappiness is a solvable problem


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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.)


This point is interesting, but it’s a double-edged sword. By self-identifying as an addict, it’s easy to slip into thinking your addiction is an immutable characteristic that you simply are forced to work around, because you are unable to fundamentally change it – unable to fundamentally change yourself.

To some extent (or: for some types of addictions and for some levels of dependence), that is physically true.

But also, it can be dangerously comforting to believe that “I have a problem” and “I am not in control of this part of my life”. It absolves you [me] of the responsibility to make the (painful) effort to fundamentally change yourself [myself].

For concrete examples of this: cf. wide swathes of Twitter, TikTok, and Reddit. (…also: introspection…)

TLDR: “normal people [as opposed to ‘addicts’] don’t recognize that their unhappiness is a solvable problem” – yes but ideally you want to simultaneously (1) recognize the capacity for self-improvement, but without (2) having a self-conception that you are ‘broken’.

(see also)


Most of the big problems I see are relationship-based and there’s a default assumption that those take at least two people to fix, prisoner’s dilemma style. It’s like trying to get two or more out of a bad habit, not just one.


Ha, this is a very good point. Reminds me of:

I bet that 90% of severe mental illnesses can be cured by removal of the most toxic relative this person physically or mentally depends on.


Is it possible that normal people without problems don’t hang out with recovering addicts and this is just selection bias?


By OP’s logic, the world should be dominated by people who:

  • Had serious problems
  • Developed effective coping mechanisms
  • Overcame the original problems
  • Now effectively have super powers

E.g. If you can deal with an abusive relative, surely you can deal with unpleasant coworkers.

This might be true in startups:
“almost all my CEO’s came from very tough childhoods”

Though maybe you just end up traumatized and totally dysfunctional. The startup mythology stance is that being a founder is a uniquely chaotic position well suited for these kinds of people, but that they wouldn’t necessarily thrive elsewhere.

FWIW, there are a shockingly high number 1st and 2nd generation immigrant founders.


Well, Elon Musk was famously bullied to the point of being thrown down the stairs…


Jerrod Carmichael says it best