Getting high and “getting God” might not be so different

Since most of us seem to be in vacation mode, myself included, I’m stealing the following passage from Shaun Shelly (with his permission). He in turn took it from Richard Wilmot, author of “American Euphoria: Saying ‘Know’ to Drugs“. The passage compares religious commitments to the commitments made by drug addicts (deals with the devil?). Here I’m printing a shortened version. For the full passage, and for some intriguing reflections on its implications, please see Shaun’s blog. I’m sending you there, partly because this such an unusual idea, but also because Shaun’s blog/newsletter is definitely worth exploring more broadly.


“Today one of the main criteria for a diagnosis of drug addiction/alcoholism is: continuing to consume alcohol or another drug “despite unpleasant or adverse consequences” (DSM). For the Christian martyrs the same criteria would apply. People of that time and place—Rome, 2nd century A.D.—could also say that this new Christianity was like a drug that endangered lives and that being a Christian had all the adverse financial, social, psychological and physical consequences that we now see in the lives of drug addicts and alcoholics. And yet Christians, of all ages, in spite of the consequences, continued to profess their faith… and continued to be eaten by lions.

Obviously there was something to Christianity that prevented the Christian from being abstinent from Christianity. It was something internal… an internal euphoria. It was something that could not be seen but nevertheless was something that was felt… and felt as something awesomely significant. It was something that made all the pain and suffering worthwhile: it was a religious experience.

Likewise, given contemporary social policy, adverse consequences befall those who abuse drugs. They lose the respect of their peers; they violate the expectations of family, friends, and colleagues; they miss out on educational opportunities; they have poor work performance and lose their job. They make harmful decisions. They “burn their bridges”. Their health suffers; they have overdoses, and they die.


My initial reaction to this quote was one of bemusement more than anything else. Okay, very provocative, but is there a serious point here? Is the comparison between religion and addiction just a high-level play on words? Just a number of descriptors — dedication, single-mindedness, sacrifice, isolation — that make glib connections between two fundamentally different phenomena? That was my hunch. But then I looked praying redemption briefly at Wilmot’s book. He makes the case (as do others) that the urge to get high is a natural proclivity, that we all seek what are often called “peak experiences.”  In fact, this idea is not much different from the idea of a God gene, as elaborated by Shaun. So not only might we be (at least partially) hard-wired to seek religious meaning, and to seek the sort of peak experiences that come through drugs, but maybe it’s the same urge, channelled in different ways.

Then more parallels came to mind. For me, people who are intensely religious are as scary as people who are intensely addicted. Both types are impossible to engage in any meaningful dialogue, they notice only what is of immediate relevance to their particular attraction, and they devalue jews in sunsetothers’ rights, opinions, and wellbeing in their pursuit of gratification. And here’s another parallel: religion and addiction look similar to one another at two different stages. Early on, religious zeal and drug attraction are exciting, often creative, and highly fulfilling. But twenty years later, both look like shit. The dogmatic, rigidified, perseverative ramblings of a long-term religious zealot are not much different in tone, quality, or relevance than those of the long-term addict. What was once an exhilarating journey of self-realization has become a bleary-eyed funeral march.

So, maybe the comparison is more enlightened than I first thought. But make sure you go and visit Shaun’s blog to see what he has to say about it.

66 thoughts on “Getting high and “getting God” might not be so different

  1. Shaun Shelly August 14, 2013 at 10:55 am #

    Thanks Marc for the reference to my site. I find much of Dr Wilmot’s work provocative and thought provoking, although he has a propensity for (what appears to be) flippancy and succeeds in pissing a lot of people off.

    Thanks also for your comments, which, as always, are the seed for further thought and examination.

    I must just note that I have tried not to provide any definitive point of view, but rather just leave many of the questions hanging and points of view unchallenged, for the sake of debate, and because I think that if I had to explore this subject in any sort of depth I may end up getting lost in the labyrinth!

    • Marc August 15, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

      Yes, it can be a bit of a labyrinth, but many of the comments below show that the comparison can be quite direct, clear, maybe even obvious!

    • William Abbott August 15, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

      I look at Christianity ( and Judeasm, Islam ) as a disease just like drug addiction. Useful for a time , but becomes harmful in extremes in some people. God just doesnt make sense to me. Organized religion was useful for a time, but its outdated now and its modern renditions negative impact now outweighs its benefits . Its become all too often a tool of abuse for those who preach it . And salvation is likely an illusion for the population who know no better way to deal with the fear of dying.

      Marx was right.

      Who ever said dying was bad anyway?? Just like ageing. Why not just accept it and enjoy the present as it is right now . Its nice to do that . And accept the inevitable. MInd you Im not looking forward to it but when it comes , it comes and Im fine with that too.

      • Marc August 17, 2013 at 5:27 am #

        I have to admit that I often see religion in a similar way. If we were to list the top five causes of suffering in our world, addiction and inter-religious conflict would both be among them. When I make this argument, though, I sometimes get the response that organized religion — especially of the orthodox variety — is a worst-case outcome of a fundamental instinct that can serve productive ends. Well, maybe. Some people use religion to provide a moral code and an instruction manual to do good in the world. And/or, a way to connect with a god-like presence in themselves. Others, like extremist Jews and Muslims, seem to use it as a rationale to try to exterminate each other.

        As you say, religion is a handy dandy way to cope with existential fears. And so, very often, is getting high!

        • William Abbott August 17, 2013 at 11:46 am #

          Organized religion was an evolutionary creation of early man to help with the basic fears of the unknown and worked largely well until about 1500 CE- the beginning of the age of reason and enlightenment. .Then with advances in philosophy and science, the organizers got defensive about it and hence the Inquistition and other delights. And its been a battle ever since. The problem is now the fabrication of God as a being and the perceived need to rely on an outside source for salvation and all other good things. And worse, since we were born into ” original sin”, in all the Abrahamic theosophies ( Judeasm, Christianity, Islam) we have to earn this thus rendering us flawed and unworthy right at the starting gate .

          The problem with this in the modern western civilizations is that it makes us look outward for things we can only find from within.

          The Buddhists got this right- from the get go . They realize that the Higher power is within .and have been saying so for 2500 years. Modern physics is now showing that alot of what they have been saying is correct. No faith in a god needed to do it.

          Dont get me wrong. The teachings of western religions is mostly not wrong where it pertains to ethical and moral behavior. But my rub is where you get the power to do what is right from. After all it is you which ultimately chooses to do it .


          • Marc August 17, 2013 at 1:10 pm #

            The shamanistic “religions” seemed to be able to capture “God” as a being without construing him/her/it as distant from the self. Rather, this being seemed to share some porous boundary with the self. Which is why ayahuasca, for example, shows you all kinds of beings “out there” who are also manifestations of good old you.

            I agree with you about the fundamental problem of looking for solutions outside the self. Yet, sometimes it works. The problem with the Judeo-Christian branch is that this being somehow became punitive, judgmental, demanding, authoritarian, etc, etc. Sounds a bit like, I don’t know, a parent maybe? Not really surprising that this hybrid God showed up on half the planet. But thank um goodness that the Buddhists look or a very different kind of guide.

            • William Abbott August 18, 2013 at 10:08 am #

              I dont for one minute disagree that looking outside isnt a fine idea .. that is however, looking for advice and counsel so that ultimately the inside you gains perspective and makes suitable choices to the given issue. Just dont ask that someone else to solve if for you , like AA tells you to do .

              I dont totally rule out the egoic self in our western existence as the Buddha counsels we do. C’mon. whats wrong with a little satisfaction of having made a good decision for your self . Karma . I gave up booze and feel good about making that decision .

              • marc August 21, 2013 at 4:23 am #

                I also felt proud when I quit. And I wore that pride….um, proudly. It was such a unique feeling after years of almost daily shame and disgust. I guess the Buddhists would say, okay, feel it, but let it pass. Like any other emotion. But y’know, they’re human too. When I heard this Rinpoche guy lecture about mindfulness and all that, he was also clearly enjoying himself and sharing his cocky self-satisfaction with the audience in a charming way.

                Also, see my reply to Mimesis below.

          • Pete August 31, 2013 at 1:17 am #

            Well said bill, my thoughts on religion too. It’s a far stretch for someone to pertain that they knew what was going through the minds and circumstances of people two thousand years ago. In my view all addictions are pretty much similar, religion included. They come from similar root causes and have similar effect on our brains. It’s up to us what poison we prefer.

    • John Belton December 28, 2016 at 8:49 am #

      Stumbled on Shaun’s article. This addiction has been a theory of mine as I have seen a few friends fall into this Religious extremist path. It’s amazing how a 40 year friendship can get so uncomfortable suddenly. I wish I could send this article anonymously to them. Of course they will shut down and dismiss it. That is, as you said, what addicts do.

      • Jake December 28, 2016 at 9:47 am #

        too bad this addiction is sanctioned by the Gov’t. Tax exempt. So that leaves little hope in combating it. Not to mention a single drug addict can be talked to as an individual. Religion is organized. therefore the big weekly ‘Fix’ is always there reinforcing to come back for more. Not to mention “Bible Study” which is nothing more then a group gathering to come up with defensive answers to whatever questions or comments someone may ask to get these people off their addiction.

  2. Peter Sheath August 14, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    Hi Marc/Shaun
    How goes it with you?
    I just had to respond to this, Carl Marx once referred to religion as being, “the Opium of the people”, but I guess it doesn’t really stop there. Anytime we end up being driven by an ego state, obsessing on the latest person place or thing, it manifests as a very similar process and could be defined as addiction. Bruce Alexander talks about the history of the word “addiction”, and says that pre the industrial revolution it was used entirely to describe devotion to god, substances didn’t get a look in.
    Personally I think that much of the problems mankind is now facing is as a result of our obsession and subsequent misguided attachments to things that continue to harm us and our fellow man and we keep using them despite this. Oil, gambling, motor cars, work, money, false pride and hubris all fit.

    • Marc August 17, 2013 at 5:36 am #

      Hi Peter. Good to hear from you! Amazing to learn that “addiction” was used exclusively to describe religious adherence. Well, maybe not so strange after all. In Dutch, the word “addiction” means enslavement. Enslavement implies submission to a higher authority. I was brought up Jewish, and I remember as a kid being mystified that so many of the prayers in the prayer-book had to do with obeying God’s commands, bowing to him, submitting to his laws, etc, etc. Who is this guy, I thought. And if he’s God, why would he need this kind of relentless devotion?

      So the parallel between religious conviction and drug addiction isn’t so hard to see. And, as you say, both can fulfill a powerful need for attachment. I find it heartening to hear members of my blog community talking about ego-states and such. After I shucked off Judaism I found myself in Berkeley, California. It was 1968, and the term “ego” was on everyone’s lips.

  3. Lumi August 15, 2013 at 4:37 am #

    See also “The thirst for wholeness” by Christine Groff, as well an insider view about being addicted as an at hand substitute for the humankind (unrecognized) longiness to spirituality

    • Marc August 15, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

      Interesting. This conceptualization is more widespread than I thought.

  4. Elizabeth August 15, 2013 at 8:47 am #

    A fascinating and challenging parallel. I think the point where addiction and religion parallel can break down is flexibility. Becoming an addict is inherently inflexible: the drug/reward must be pursued at all costs and at severe detriment to life. Religious dogmatism can become this way as well, but not necessarily. Adaptive forms of religion compliment and enhance daily life; a layer of purpose and meaning is added with an overarching goal to be more connected and loving within a community. It’s just when the fear of death, losing religion, etc… results in adhering to strict dogma that religion becomes like an addiction. It’s interesting to think of such dogmatism in that way. Much like quitting drug use, there seems to be a fear that altering one’s dogmatic beliefs will result in far scarier consequences than adhering to religious fundamentalism. Being from the “Bible Belt”, I’ve certainly witnessed the destruction religion has on families. Fortunately, I also grew up in a non-fundamentalist household and got to witness the good that religion can bring.

    • Shaun Shelly August 15, 2013 at 9:43 am #

      Hi Elizabeth

      As someone who considers them self a Christian, I also personally see that religion can encompass and inform without being exclusionary or prescriptive, as addictions of any kind tend to become.

    • Marc August 17, 2013 at 5:59 am #

      Thank you for this balanced view, Elizabeth. As you can see, your comments agree with much that has already been said by other commenters. But you add the idea that fundamentalists FEAR giving up their dogma, as if it’s opening a gateway to vertigo and emptiness — or worse. The parallel with addiction is striking. What will I do if I give up my attachment? How will I face the day without the “certainty” of my habitual way of plugging in?

      You say you grew up in the Bible Belt. Just a few nights ago we watched “Searching for the Wrong-eyed Jesus” ( Wow, what a film! It’s a documentary about poor southern whites — and their attachment to their version of Christianity is bizarre and frightening. The film shows how people begin to speak in tongues, rock and sway together, shout and gesticulate in synch with each other. They are getting not only a direct line to a sense of another presence, not only an ecstatic release — a unique emotional experience — but also a distinct bond with their community and a framework for defining themselves….as more than just poor and uneducated. Scary, but also understandable….as is the case with addiction.

  5. Guy Lamunyon August 15, 2013 at 10:14 am #

    I have long thought drug users (including alcohol users) are spiritual seekers, attempting to attain heavan/nirvana thru chemicals. Unfortunately, the results are artificial and soon lost when the drugs wear off. New problems of addiction/ dependence soon appear. This explains why when addicts sober up they seek spiritual solutions. It has always been about spiritual seeking ! ! ! !

    • Marc August 17, 2013 at 6:12 am #

      Your comment compels me to share an unusual bit of history with you. A recently published book is called Distilled Spirits by Don Lattin. Heres’ a synopsis of the book: And here’s the first sentence of that synopsis:

      “Distilled Spirits is an intoxicating concoction that blends a religion reporter’s memoir with the compelling stories of three men —Aldous Huxley, Gerald Heard, and Bill Wilson—whose work and inspiring friendship transformed the landscape of Western religion and spirituality in the twentieth century.”

      All three guys were deeply into drugs. For Bill Wilson, alcohol was obviously the drug of choice. Yes, that Bill Wilson. Huxley and Heard preferred the psychedelics, but they didn’t mind the effects of booze either. The book is very explicit in showing that, for each of them, intoxication was a way to get out of the self and achieve a spiritual frame of reference — a connection with God or with the universe.

      As to when addicts “sober up” — yeah, it’s not surprising that they turn to spiritual pursuits. For some, that means old-time religion. Better find something ready-made to fill up that empty space. For others, it’s part of an authentic project to grow and understand themselves.

      • Shaun Shelly August 21, 2013 at 12:25 pm #


        Wilson was a big proponent of LSD and in fact wanted to distribute it at AA meetings at one stage – he felt it was very useful as a cure for alcoholism.

  6. Nicolas Ruf August 15, 2013 at 11:14 am #

    When fanatical believers of one stripe or another were placed in a fMRI and fed data compatible with their extremist beliefs, their limbic pleasure centers lit up. When fed contrary info, not only did their cognitive circuits snap shut, but they were all the more convinced of the rightness of their beliefs. Fanatical beliefs are emotional, not rational, and to attack them is to provoke a SNS fight or flight response.
    Fanaticism, obsession, and addiction have in common their irrationality and their compulsivity. They are drive states, pushed by motivation, not pulled by outcome, so adverse consequences are powerless to modify them. They represent absolute and closed systems which do not allow for another side to the story, only confirmation.
    For fanaticism and addiction at least, we can chart a developmental course, and maybe for some OCD as well. One of the more controversial issues in addiction is whether and when an individual has lost control over the behavior so that moderation or control is impossible to sustain. The founders and early members of AA for example would be poor candidates for controlled drinking. They had clearly crossed over some line and their response to whatever obsession, conditioned cue, or urge to drink was as irresistible, automatic and autonomous as Pavlov’s dog’s, and we’ve all known of people who from all the available evidence could not control their use.
    Another interesting piece of the puzzle is what happens to cognition in these conditions. It becomes subservient to the condition. It rationalizes, it denies, it intellectualizes, it excuses, it justifies. Who is most likely to insist that control is attainable or that the behavior can pay off despite all the adverse consequences and evidence to the contrary?
    What I’ve seen in those who have some sustained recovery is that they gave up; they stopped fighting. Many had a moment of clarity or a spiritual awakening, or an epiphany, or they made a desperate plea for help. I know that AA has its zealots and true believers, but for the most part it distinguishes between religion and spirituality and lets people find their own spiritual path. I’ve heard the distinction described as religion saving one’s soul and AA saving one’s ass, not that they have to be mutually exclusive.

    • Marc August 17, 2013 at 6:32 am #

      Wonderful portrait, Nick! The role of cognition in confirming and protecting the underlying addiction is particularly spot on. Religious zealots will often try to argue from a rationale standpoint that it couldn’t be any other way. Look at the intricate complexity of the universe. How could that arise simply by trial-and-error (evolution)? Ergo, God the creator. When backed into a logical corner, they often resort to a grounded and supposedly ultimate proclamation of “the truth”. It’s all there in the bible. With addicts, you also hear all kinds of rationalizations, and all of them are completely impenetrable. That’s what I meant in my post. But when backed into a corner, addicts can’t cite any text or doctrine to support their contentions. What they do cite is some version of the disease concept. I can’t help myself! I’ve tried, but I just can’t. So can the disease concept be viewed as an authorization for addiction?

  7. William Abbott August 15, 2013 at 3:48 pm #

    Just a heads up here. I tried to post earlier and complained it wouldnt take it . Marc told me to clear my browser cache and that worked .

    Learn something every day 🙂

  8. Julia August 15, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

    Though I agree that there are connections within the human psych between the experience of getting high on drugs and high on religion, I think there’s a glaring philosophical gap in Shaun’s reasoning.

    First of all there’s a distinction between getting high as a positive, voluntary and mind-expanding experience (which is actually starting to be re-appreciated – see Dr. Roland Griffiths research with psilocybin) and the self-destructive compulsion to take drugs or engage in addictive behaviors.

    Those Christian martyrs were making an EFFORT to adhere to their faith in SPITE of the threats and dangers. When they fell short in their convictions they felt they had failed in their aspirations. For addicts, the failure is in NOT being able to stop pursuing the drug or behavior, which they know on some level is destructive to them. The conscious benefit they are trying (and often failing) to pursue is sobriety. So I think there is more of a parallel between sobriety and spirituality than between addiction and spirituality.

    To finesse the point a bit more, I do happen to think that there is often a similar motivation for the individual towards the initial experience of either addictive behavior and pursuit of intense religious experience. I think both can serve to alleviate psychic (or even physical) pain. But if they are simply blocking or anesthetizing the real problem, both taking drugs or religious engagement can become self-perpetuating to the point of excluding real growth and thus being destructive.

    I’m not at all saying that all religious or spiritual longings or pursuits are to assuage pain, not in the least. I am just saying that similarly to drugs or other behaviors, intense religious experience can be like an addiction (i.e. cults and the like) in their compulsiveness, single-mindedness and destructiveness.

    • Shaun Shelly August 15, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

      Hi Julia

      Personally I think there are a number of gaps in the reasoning I presented! I purposefully, for the sake of time and discussion, did not try and resolve those gaps.

      Having said that, I do see many who suffer from addictive disorders making real EFFORT to adhere to their “faith”/drug of choice/addict identity in spite of their consequences. It becomes real effort to use in late stage addiction, and I think we often underestimate the effort it takes. I’m not suggesting your point is not valid – I think it is – but just that in some cases it is similar.

      Thanks for the comments

      • Marc August 17, 2013 at 6:48 am #

        Shaun and Julia: I agree with Shaun that EFFORT is not the distinguishing feature. Indeed, there is great effort involved in pursuing the requirements of one’s addiction. (Don’t I know it) But what Julia is saying that is unique here is that addicts consider the results of their efforts as a failure. In other words, their success is also their failure. Whereas religious seekers consider insufficient effort as their failure. When they don’t try hard enough, when they don’t get to God, that’s the failure. And I agree that this is a fundamental (and ironic) distinction between the agenda of the religious seeker and that of the addict. Now, whether the seeker’s sense of success (I made the effort, now I can speak in tongues, and jiggle with the gospel music, and whole-heartedly give myself to Jesus) actually matches a more objective criterion for success — that’s disputable. Many of us have commented that it is the successful achievement of religious end-points that parallels the single-minded dedication of the addict.

        Yet I do see Julia’s point, as per my response to Bill Abbott above. There can be a quest for growth, rather than simply relief, when people turn to spiritual pursuits. And it may only be when that pursuit becomes self-reinforcing and dogmatic (and compulsive) that the parallel with addiction is valid.

    • Marc August 21, 2013 at 4:44 am #

      Julia, As noted, I agree with a lot of what you say. But see my reply, below, to Mimesis, for more thoughts about drug-use aimed at self-realization.

  9. Charlie Canada August 15, 2013 at 11:32 pm #

    I’ve been busy lately, and, though I always follow your blog posts, Marc, I haven’t made time to respond. My loss. But I had to pipe up on this post.

    I’ve made the connection and parallels between religious zealotry and drug and alcohol addiction for decades. My sister became a fundamentalist Christian zealot in the late ’80s, around the same time I recognized I was becoming an alcoholic. Even back then, I was easily able to liken her worship of and addiction to her version of god and her bible to my own increasing addiction to alcohol. Incredibly accurate parallels exist on all the levels you cite in your post. At the time, I called it a “crutch.” God was her crutch; alcohol was mine. The similarities are almost eerie.

    • Charlie Canada August 16, 2013 at 12:24 am #

      And Shaun — my comment is for you too. Sorry I neglected to include you!

    • Marc August 18, 2013 at 5:45 am #

      Good to hear from you, Charlie. I guess I’ve had a similar experience. While in Malaysia, age 21 or so, I was stealing methadone from my dad’s medicine chest and methamphetamine from the hospital where I was volunteering and getting some strong opiate for diarrhea from the drug store, plus lots of codeine. Meanwhile, my step-sister, who slept in the next room, was rapidly becoming a Jesus freak. Sitting and strumming her guitar to songs about God. Maybe it’s strange, but I was so ashamed of my own actions I didn’t quite make the connection. But over the years, she became more and more rigid and I eventually quit. I think her present dose of Jesus is somewhat like methadone maintenance. Enough to get through the day but no strong buzz anymore.

      • Charlie Canada August 24, 2013 at 8:41 pm #

        Sounds as if we had very similar experiences, Marc. I think my sister is the same as your step-sister these days. She doesn’t quite get the buzz she used to from God. I remember envying her that God was her crutch and the unfortunate bottle was mine. I would still have to admit that religion is a better crutch, but I can’t embrace it. I have find my strength from my own inner resources, which are fairly rich these days, but I still envy those who can find faith.

  10. Jeffrey Skinner August 16, 2013 at 10:34 am #

    Joe Campbell said (something like) alcoholics and spiritual seekers are close kin, The drunks just get the wrong spirit.

    • Marc August 18, 2013 at 5:46 am #


    • Charlie Canada August 24, 2013 at 8:42 pm #

      That’s a good one, Jeffrey!

  11. Mimesis August 17, 2013 at 7:24 am #

    I have been writing a lot about religion and addiction recently – mainly the difference between belief and faith – but this post reminded me of one I wrote a while back ..

    OK more clowns – skinny clowns.
    Posted on April 14, 2013 by catchmeawry

    Anorexia is first discussed not as a mental health problem – but as phenomenon associated with prophetic qualities – as a reaction variously described but essentially to a realisation of the flaws and mortality of man, and with a corresponding desire to escape this.

    Moving on from candy floss and dodgems – clowns, jesters in literature they have also been associated with prophetic qualities, and comedy still is most often a dry dark humour.

    Thinking about this and muddling through my own past, I can see that anorexia is not about wanting to die (very easy to jump off bridge) – it is also about simulating death.

    Anorexia is a “cry for attention”; but there are two different cries.

    The seeds of long term severe anorexia, anorexia that is a manifestation of self harm are invariably trauma, a sudden inexplicable loss of confidence, a sudden change in personal circumstance, family upheaval.

    The first cry is a relatively conscious decision. It is the cry of a person that has begun to lose language, to lose the ability to understand how they feel and to communicate how they feel, a cry of someone that feels that something is going wrong, and is trying to communicate without words.

    The second cry is far louder – it is the “silent scream” the hang on “drowning not waving”. This is the cry that will echo and colour and mimic for years. This is the cry for help – the cry that recognises all of a sudden how quickly we fall, how fragile we are, how little control we have, how much pain we can inflict. This cry is that is screaming “please wake up and understand how terrified you should be too, but you have not seen it, and I don’t want to die, but I have lost sight of the things that I need to believe or ignore to climb back.”

    This is the cry that can only ever be absorbed, that will never be understood in language, that will flow in and out and repeat and fade and grow – that can only at best be controlled.

    You can’t describe this without Larkin; after this cry you’re screwed – you only hear it if you say no “to the anesthetic from which none come round” – but once heard you spend years trying every other possible way to make it stop, and trust me the strongest drugs you find wont stop it.

    • Marc August 19, 2013 at 5:52 am #

      Wow, this is heady stuff. I guess you are referring to a kind of addiction that attempts to resolve the intense pain of life both by trying to destroy oneself and also trying to solicit help from others. That probably does generalize to other addictions as well. Is that also a basis for religious pursuits? Maybe it is for religions (like conservative branches of Protestantism) in which punishing the self is glorified or at least thought to be productive.

      • Mimesis August 20, 2013 at 9:47 am #

        Kind of, but that is also why i break it down into to phases. I view addiction as self-harm – I went through anorexia, over working, over running, over drinking. and fell down eventually into the last thing that was strong enough to keep the hit. I agree that the aim was self -punishment (though it was throughout unconscious – call it denial), I also agree again that the addiction was the aim – the productivity was not winning the race, it was in running the miles to get there. I think this is different from religion however. The aims of the addict can only make sense to themselves, whereas (and i am now full blown curious atheist) the pursuit of the moral life is something that is universally recognised. The addict is folding in, and reaching out as you say, however the religious/spiritual is trying to achieve something very different. They both require pain I guess and denial, but there is a fundamental different in this. Both may be running from life, however the former is burying themself to ignore the world, and the latter is getting high to try and understand.

        • Marc August 21, 2013 at 3:51 am #

          Yes, this is a great synopsis. I agree with just about everything you say. Just to poke to be provocative, though, I’ll name a couple of possible exceptions to the rule.

          The pursuit of the high and the accompanying self-destruction CAN be experienced by the group, not just the individual. The group who shares the crack pipe, the circle of addicts who meet and use in the same place…doing lines or shooting up together. ..There is a sense of a communal goal there. Sometimes, it’s just a single partner. I used to get high with the same guy quite often, and there was no doubt of a shared goal. Granted, it’s a perverse goal which could not easily be formalized into any kind of sect or order.

          With one exception: the urge to get high is sometimes dedicated to self-improvement, connecting, learning, etc, exactly as pointed out by Julia above. But this ONLY applies to the psychedelics, in my view, which are not in the least addictive. Ayahuasca (also psilocybin, as reported by Julia) is a good example in the present landscape, and here in the Netherlands there is even an ayahuasca church that meets formally, where 50 or more people take the drug together. Of course, this pursuit was a large part of Amazonian culture in the past — where it most closely resembles a religion. But the aim was really not getting high. It was to connect with the universe. More like a standard religious motive than one could possibly imagine with crack-heads or junkies.

          Another point of interest: the self-destructive urge is generally but no always unconscious. I clearly remember shooting up or even just scoring and consciously feeling a sense of “Take that! If that’s what you want, here it comes!” (in a contemptuous, condescending voice) I guess that’s why I feel that I understand the self-destructive urge. It’s not just some weird “thanatos” at work. It is literally a feeling of wanting to punish oneself.

          • Mimesis August 21, 2013 at 10:26 am #

            I agree with point one. Point two – Well kind of agree, but there is a post on my blog about Burrows about this. Point three – you got me. Spot on, but with one sight difference – I have done the same many times – but I always dressed it up as anger against the world, rather than myself. ie “if that’s what you think i am, I will just do it then, and again, and again”. This is obviously self destructive/harm – and it was conscious – but whilst in active addiction I did not understand that the anger was substantially directed towards myself.

            • Marc August 21, 2013 at 8:09 pm #

              Absolutely. And this is pivotal. For me, the anger I felt at others (for the anticipated rejection, the voices of contempt that I could almost hear coming from others but still in my own head, the cold loneliness that drove me to it in the first place and the resulting “fuck you” to the world) — that was THE anger that turned around and came at me. Seriously, I think that self-anger, as in depression and addiction, very often begins with other-directed anger. But there’s no one around to be angry at, no one to blame, except oneself. And when logic kicks in, about a half second later, it makes SENSE to blame oneself because I’m the guy who’s doing it! And then it becomes a habit, and you end up skipping the part about blaming the external agent.

              • Mimesis August 21, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

                First of all, I get a lot from the blog. Discussion, comments, comments back, recomments I believe fundamentally are how we begin to understand tricky issues like this. It is only with time and work that I can begin to understand my head and reactions, and I write through everything.

                This post has really made me think, and made me understand a little more. My initial steps into addiction were in fact not anger at the world. but rather exactly what you say. The cold loneliness. I guess this is exactly why I have written about it as stage one – the silent scream. The loss of language. I lost control of that scream, which was when stage two began, and the anger. The use of the word “logic” in your post is very interesting. I think I agree.

                • Mimesis August 21, 2013 at 8:57 pm #

                  And in terms of what I am working on really highlights the mental health element. I find it extraordinary that it is not recognised in the UK at least that to spiral down into hard drugs in dangerous places is not indicative of a mental health issue. People in general do not go out of their way to destroy their lives and anesthetise themselves for fun, because they are happy.

                • Marc August 23, 2013 at 7:24 am #

                  Glad to hear that we are making you think. I love the comments I get on this blog. They make me think too!

                  Send us a link to your blog, ok? Sounds really interesting.

  12. Mimesis August 17, 2013 at 7:42 am #

    I also agree with Julia, that the parallel between recovery and religion is stronger. Three main reasons. I was brought up in a strong catholic family. Ritual is important to Catholics, and importantly that when you begin to lose faith, those daily rituals will bring you back to God. This makes me think of the daily tasks and efforts that I make to continue my recovery. Secondly, there is the belief/faith issue. I have no belief that I will be clean and sober in one year’s time, I had no belief that I would be clean and sober now a year and a half ago, but there is something – call it faith – that continues each day to make that choice. Last one is confession – in the Catholic Church confession offers the opportunity to be born again each day. This is not a catch all – it entails huge responsibility you are forgiven on the basis to some extent of the effort that you make once confessed. You are not absolved of your sins, but you are allowed a new chance in the light of God. This parallel I guess is obvious. Guilt and shame for me have been the hardest things to work with in my recovery, along with trauma. This last parallel has been incredibly powerful.

    • Marc August 21, 2013 at 3:56 am #

      Yes, excellent parallels! Particularly the issue of faith. I’ve thought and written extensively about the value of self-trust, and it is sort of magical. There is no rational reason to have faith in one’s recovery after dozens or hundreds of failures. In fact, for me, self-faith directly corresponded with a ritualistic practice. I wrote the word “NO” on a piece of paper, decorated it as a mandala, and made myself read it 20 times a day. And that “gave me” faith that I could do it.

  13. Chris August 18, 2013 at 11:28 am #

    There is an oft quoted letter from Carl Jung to Bill Wilson. The member of AA who quoted it to me believed it was proof Jung believed the only path to sobriety and the only way to stay on the path of sobriety was through the direct intervention of God. I did not reach the same conclusion when I searched for a copy … though that, perhaps, is due to my non-theistic frame of reference. I believe Jung was saying much the same thing others have said here.

    From the letter:

    “His craving for alcohol was the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.

    “How could one formulate such an insight in a language that is not misunderstood in our days?”


    “I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society, cannot resist the power of evil, which is called very aptly the Devil. But the use of such words arouses so many mistakes that one can only keep aloof from them as much as possible.

    “These are the reasons why I could not give a full and sufficient explanation to Roland H., but I am risking it with you because I conclude from your very decent and honest letter that you have acquired a point of view above the misleading platitudes one usually hears about alcoholism.

    “You see, “alcohol” in Latin is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.”

    • Marc August 19, 2013 at 6:06 am #

      Interesting stuff. I never knew that Jung referred to the God-vs.-Satan version of religion, but it seems that, for him, these remain metaphors and not worth serious consideration.

      What keeps coming up in this dialogue is the notion of craving or thirsting for wholeness or coherence, which can be expressed either as the pursuit of God or as the pursuit of intoxication. That seems to be one of the strongest connecting threads. Yet, for Buddhists, craving is just craving. It never takes you toward enlightenment. It just hooks you to the objects of attachment that you pursue in a misguided effort to reduce existential suffering.

      It sort of comes down to fullness vs. emptiness. The theistic religions seem to support a reaching out for fullness. And so perhaps drugs and God can serve similar purposes. For Buddhism the goal is emptiness, and there’s no drug worth taking (except maybe ayahuasca) that promises that kind of redemption.

  14. Margot Tesch August 18, 2013 at 7:49 pm #

    Isn’t it all about chasing dopamine? Aren’t we all seeking experiences that we find fulfilling and that give us that buzz. As a fundamentalist Christian who walked away from her faith, I can attest that fundamentalism creates a sense of euphoria. And I agree it also can be devastating to relationships and even be a contributing factor in suicide (when one feels that should be can’t measure up to the moral code).
    Anything in extreme is dangerous and ultimately self-destructive from my perspective.


    • Marc August 19, 2013 at 6:14 am #

      Got it. Yes, dopamine, the neurochemical of ENGAGEMENT and ATTRACTION, with all its accompanying promises of fulfillment and its corresponding dangers, can surely underscore both fundamentalist seeking and drug seeking.

      You really must see that documentary I referred to above: “Searching for the wrong-eyed Jesus” — It portrays extreme forms of worship by Southern Baptists as a kind of intense intoxication — at least that’s how I see it.

    • Charlie Canada August 24, 2013 at 9:09 pm #

      I am still “chasing dopamine.” I know my dopamine levels are low, whether as a result of my alcoholism or whether they always were, I don’t know. Tried L-Dopa but it absolutely has no effect.

  15. Margot Tesch August 19, 2013 at 4:58 pm #

    I checked out the trailer and unfortunately, looks much like the kind of church I was involved in 🙁
    All sorts of weird things happened. I look back now and shudder.


  16. NN August 20, 2013 at 3:21 am #

    I think Wilmot is onto an interesting analogy, and thanks to Shaun and Marc for setting out some of the issues. In my opinion all these efforts to find commonalities between ‘addictive behavior’ and other processes, are to the good.

    In Wilmot’s case, the emphasis is on obsessive or fanatical undertakings. Others have emphasized the resemblance of addictions and compulsion. These sorts of investigations help one realize the arbitrariness, and socially defined nature of what are labeled ‘addictions.’ In the religious realm, there is real selectivity as to who the ‘fanatics’ are, who is ‘morbidly obsessed with sin’ and so on. One might celebrate all consuming devotion of the Christian anchorite who sleeps on a bed of rags, in a squalid cell, and in the next breath, show contempt for the ‘subhuman’ way of living of the crack addict squatting in a filthy, abandoned apartment.

    The fanatic, the addict, and the “abuser of drugs” have a kind of reality not unlike ‘thieving Gypsies’ or ‘lazy welfare bums’ or ‘jihadi terrorists.’ Books about “How to treat [or cure] the addict” are not unlike books on “Getting rid of weeds in your garden.” ‘Weeds’ are real in some sense, and weed killers do work, and ‘nasty weeds’ do get eliminated. There is proof! Weeds, however, are not real, in botanical or scientific terms. Persons singled out for treatment, as per DSM-V, usually have a way of being inconvenient in their obsessions, compulsions, consumption of pharmaceuticals… and lots of them (us) do make ‘satisfactory progress’ on FDA-approved drugs!

    • Marc August 23, 2013 at 7:37 am #

      Weeds indeed! Yes, addiction can be seen as a socially-defined condition. One of the people going to the meeting in Dharamsala is a social anthropologist studying addiction in Sweden. She is very convincing in her portrait of the social definition of addiction, and how that definition then determines the lives of those so-defined. I suppose that buying into the definition is a big issue because it leads to isolation, on one hand, and communality with a particular peer group, on the other. Of course Nora Volkow will say it’s nothing of the kind. So…the disease issue comes back into focus.

      I wouldn’t mind a spray to get rid of religious fanatics.

  17. William Abbott August 21, 2013 at 8:30 am #

    This has turned far too philosophic for a poor science guy like me.

    But the idea of chasing dopamine seems a common thread. We want to connect, we want to escape–seemingly non connected but thru dopamine they are similar

    I fall more in line with the cult of religion as addiction side and recovery as release or freedom .But I can see merit to religion and recovery too. But I love my friend dopamine.

    Thats why I felt good and still feel good about quitting. Rinpoche might say let it go, and I say BS , Im keeping it because it keeps me away from going back.

  18. Shaun Shelly August 21, 2013 at 12:13 pm #

    I have just returned after a few days away from the site and found this wealth of in-depth comments, each dense with thought provoking ideas and questions. Too much for me to digest right now, so thanks Marc for taking the time (as usual) to respond.

    I indeed see so much danger in zealotry, and any pursuit has the opportunity for misdirected/inappropriate/dangerous attachment, usually in the pursuit of dopamine, has the potential for zealotry. I think of some free-climbers and certain wall-street bankers!

    In a world where there is so often a lack of appropriate attachment, we as humans tend to search for some means of identity. We lack the 3 primary relational needs of spiritual connection (or connection to a deeper consciousness that transcends the reductionist view of self), the need for individual significance and social security. These needs are often met through addictive substances or behaviours.

    Even the solitary heroin user derives some sort of collective identity from his choice of heroin. The substances become a form of intimacy regulator, and feed into the avoidance of other forms of communication and create a pathological homeostasis of unresolved loss. Religion often does the same. It provides a collective voice, negating the need for individual thought or opinion.

    Having said this, religion or spiritual identity or connection can also form a bedrock on which an individual can build the structure of self upon. It is this firm foundation of quiet belief that is so secure that drives them to help others and love their fellow man no matter what beliefs their neighbour holds to be true.

    For others though It is the fear that perhaps they have chosen the wrong bedrock, or are unable to meet the onerous conditions of their piece of real-estate or the conflict between collective and self identity that creates a form of pathological relationship with the belief system that becomes addictive and dangerous not only to self, but to the wider community, and, in the case of religion, threatens world peace!

    In the course of treating many people with addictive disorders, there are only two things that I have seen that result in an almost instant cure from an addiction to a particular substance: 1) another more potent substance, so the coke user experiences Meth and never uses coke with quite the same fervor again (to use one example) and 2) there is some sort of massive “spiritual” event or Damascus road experience! So maybe addiction cures addiction, but its still addiction!

    • Marc August 28, 2013 at 4:09 am #

      Thanks for these reflections, Shaun. You do hear about massive spiritual transformations quite often when it comes to recovery. And I don’t mind that usage at all. It really is a life-changing step, and the word “spiritual” works well. I’ve heard some treatment people say that the one thing they don’t like about SMART recovery is the lack of any spiritual dialogue. I also like what you said about the solitary heroin user. He builds his world on the foundation of the drug and its associations, including a deep intimacy. As noted by the Velvet Underground: It’s my wife, and it’s my life.

  19. George August 26, 2013 at 11:23 am #

    I am usually a lurker, mainly because I am not a drug addict or a professional in the field. I have always had a connection with drug addicts, having grown up with so many who either were suffering or were recovering, one way or another. My grandfather stopped drinking when he lost most of his liver. When he had one lung removed he went from 3 packs of unfiltered camels to two. When he lost half the remaining lung he cut down to one pack. I remember wondering about that as a child of 10 or so, “Why didn’t he just stop?” So as a non-addict (by most definitions, but I am not sure there is such a thing), I rarely comment. I was drawn by Marc’s discussions and information about modern psychology and brain science and how that is playing out. The people who comment here are often insightful and communicative. I appreciate that.

    As for my comment, I am not sure Joseph Campbell got it right, I think religion may be the worse choice. It is hard to ignore the numbers of people killed by “the bottle”: disease, suicide, dui’s etc. Somehow though, it is easy to ignore those killed by religion. This was brought home recently as my wife read some of her mother’s journals. My mother-in-law died in December 2011 just four months after diagnosis with pancreatic cancer. about 25 years ago she traded the bottle for religion. In her journals she talked about being possessed by demons, and battling satan: headaches, stomach aches and anxiety attacks. I believe there is enough evidence in her journals to claim that she might well be alive today had she gone to the doctor 10 years ago to get an MRI of her demons. In fact, her untreated anxiety interrupted a scan on her lower abdomen that was ordered because she would not allow the scope up her rectum.

    My mother in law was clearly never considered an alcoholic: she never lost a job due to drinking, bu then she almost never worked. But there is no doubt in my mind she was one. I think that much of the fear and shame we feel about our differences comes from societal and familial norming. Should I feel shame because my ADHD renders me useless with remembering someone’s birthday in June (“Oh, my daughter’s birthday was in April”)? But if I was drunk and forgot to call my daughter on her birthday I would be a horrible father. One commenter stated that we seem to be made to (or wired to) seek religious fulfillment. I think that is not really true.

    Our brains are wired to find meaning and purpose (among many other things). I think it was Carl Sagan who said our brains are purpose and meaning making machines. Being able to root god out from our science and psychology is creating a lot of strength, and may actually be a key path to understanding things like mental illness, addiction, and even medical science. For example, the idea that the “mind” is something separate from our bodies causes a lot of personal suffering for people with mental health, addiction, eating disorders, obesity etc.

    Looking at how the brain works, and how that is different than what we verbalize about that experience is fascinating. I can only think of an example from cognitive science. Using the fMRI to study people as they made decisions showed that what actually happened in their brain was not what they described afterwards. So when we think we have a “rational” explanation for our choices, cognitive science is showing that we essentially made that up. What went on in the brain was completely different. It is as if we have saddled a super computer, or jet engine, but we don’t really have a stick to fly or wheel to steer. Now how is that different than an addict who keeps making the wrong choice?

    The commenter that talks about anorexia really drives this home for me. Having know people that have and do suffer it is some times acutely painful to see the extent to which the media, including social media even, worship the waif like appearance in models, and the extent to which we cause our teens to worry about these things, perhaps leading some further down the path towards an eating disorder. I was surprised to learn that there are so many blogs and hash tags for tracking photo’s and stories of those who are worshiping or obsessing over these waifs.

    I don;t know where to end this, so I will bow out, and try to get to work only an hour late.

    • Marc September 1, 2013 at 12:19 pm #

      Hi George. There is so much of interest in your comment that, rather than reply in depth here, I’d like to ask if you’d be willing to post it as a guest post. Comments that come out a couple of weeks following a post don’t get read much. Most people who’d be interested in this subject have already been here and aren’t coming back. But a new post will be read by hundreds.

      I would usually invite someone to be a guest poster by email, but I don’t suppose it matters much. I’d want to post the whole thing, almost verbatim. And — if I can be so bold — I would ask you to come up with a final paragraph, returning to your point that religion can be a dark, destructive force, often leading to horrendous anxieties and even death. You might even want to expand the point to include the swath of destruction that follows attempts to “spread” religion to others. The inquisition and even the crusades come to mind. Only if that feels right.

      Your point that we are designed to imbue the world with meaning is very well taken. And I especially like the way your talk about how, with god being stripped away from our meaning making, we actually have the capability for unimagined progress. I also really like your point that we construe meaning for what we are already in the process of doing, and studies in neuroscience and cognitive science have confirmed that awareness of one’s intentions comes after the brain has already decided to do what it’s doing. In fact, if you agree to this, I’d like to follow your post with another post on that theme. There’s a lot I’d like to add there.

      Let me know, by direct email (go to “contact”) or by a reply here in the blog. Thanks!

  20. Jane August 30, 2013 at 4:08 am #

    Like many people here I am struggling with (trying to make sense of) a life time of addiction to many things. I discovered Marc during a Tommy Rosen conference about addiction, along with Gabor Maté and I have started to learn a tiny bit about brain chemistry, which I find helpful. I have just bought Marc’s book, which I am looking forward to reading. I enjoy dipping into this site but I find the majority of bloggers seem exceptionally bright and very well read (I think some of you are “brain scientists” and academics!) This, of course, is not a criticism but I often struggle to keep up – is there anybody here who doesn’t have an extensive university education or several doctorates? 

    Anyway, I was wondering, could somebody explain in simple terms what “higher self” is? I like the sound of it.

    Incidentally, in relation to another blog, I loved Marc’s TED talk, which I found so accessible and helpful. I am looking forward to reading his book, which I heard Gabor Maté talking about in one of his YouTube videos.

    • Marc September 2, 2013 at 4:47 am #

      Hi Jane, First, all those years of professoring taught me to gauge someone’s intellectual competence by their writing. Anyone who writes as well as you, including perfect grammar and punctuation, has nothing to fear. But I take your comment with a grain of salt because I think you already know that.

      Yes, this is a surprisingly astute community. We have great discussions and debates, and commenters turn each other and me onto new sources that are really helpful for resolving our conundrums. So, we’ve been lucky, and self-selection of newcomers keeps things improving. Welcome aboard!

      Too bad your comment came at the end of a long string of comments, because people are less likely to respond this late after a post. But I can respond.

      Of all the themes I’ve used in talks and so forth, the higher self is the most confusing. When I (and others) meditate, there is often a feeling of a warm, full, larger “me” who is normally in the background or not anywhere at all. This self feels forgiving and accepting, sometimes I even feel it (me?) smiling softly down on me. Contact with this (or a related) higher self gives people perspective, courage, self-acceptance, and compassion for themselves and others — all critical qualities for beating addiction. What’s confusing is to merge east and west versions of “who” this self might be.

      Using ideas from psychology, I’ve also talked about a “future self” — this is specifically a sense of me that includes my future wellbeing. This self can be said to engage in a dialogue with a present-oriented self who can’t see beyond the next hit. I’ve talked and written about how dopamine focuses our perspective narrowly on anticipated rewards (e.g. drugs, booze, food), such that long-term “rewards” fade in comparison. It’s called delay discounting. Well I borrowed from George Ainslie the idea that the present self can have a sort of dialogue or negotiation with the future self, and that’s one way to let the craving pass and move on with one’s recovery. (for an excellent review, see

      One question that remains: are these both the same “higher self” — or is the concept getting too broad to be meaningful? In preparation of my talk for the Dalai Lama, I’ve been told to be really cautious about the phrase “higher self” — because Buddhists see it as a MUCH higher self — Buddha consciousness, I guess. So is that another version of the same thing? Or not?

      Hence the confusion. But all of these concepts are hugely worthwhile, and I think they are related in important ways.

      • Shaun Shelly September 2, 2013 at 10:42 am #

        Marc and Jane, this higher self concept is indeed fascinating. It is almost like the god within self. Victor Frankl encourages the conversation with future self in logotherapy, and I have found it a useful concept and exercise when helping those with addictive disorders.

        Jane, keep posting and answering questions. Even the brightest minds have huge gaps when it comes to understanding addictive disorders, and often, it is the seemingly “simple” question of an outsider that sparks new debate and thought.

        • Marc September 3, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

          I didn’t know that about Frankl’s use of this concept. Fascinating. As always, thanks for your input!

  21. jane September 3, 2013 at 7:27 am #

    Dear Marc and Shaun,
    I am thrilled to receive your responses to my question!

    Marc, I definitely resonate more with the concept of future self, so I think I’ll start there (thanks for the link). I heard you mention it in your TED talk, but I wasn’t sure if it was the same as higher self. Now I realise it is a hazy area…

    Shaun, thank you for your reassuring comments; I’ve just finished reading the third chapter of Marc’s book, so dopamine is my new buzz word, uh-oh :-). I’m sure I’ll have plenty of questions, and – hopefully – be able to contribute something, albeit non-academic, in the future.

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