Hi all. I recently got an email from Jeff Skinner, a member of this blog community, who came up with the following synopsis. To me, this brief statement (lightly edited) perfectly sums up the existential trap that awaits the addict facing recovery, like some lurking monster that you simply cannot sneak past. You have to face it head-on.
A high functioning addict has many degrees of freedom [i.e., choices] in handling the proverbial monkey. The addict can take a night off from drinking or drugging (or fooding or gambling). He/she can take a week off. He/she can reduce intake temporarily, even for long periods. What doesn’t change is that the meaning of existence is measured relative to the next time. This kind of freedom certainly produces tensions, sometimes big ones, but they can be tolerated.
The crisis comes when “the next time” is moved out to infinity (abstinence). Now life becomes existentially meaningless. This causes an unbearable anxiety/panic — one that can only be alleviated by taking, or at least scheduling — [or at least imagining] — the next drink or drug.
I have thought about this problem many times, and I still do. But I think Jeff expressed it with unusual clarity. He and I are both interested in your comments and will respond to them…
I’ve written a lot about the battle between craving and self-control, as have others. I’ve pointed out the neurophysiological events that stack the deck: the role of dopamine in narrowing attention and boosting desire, the resultant “delay discounting” that makes it so hard to think outside the moment, the nonstarter of “ego depletion” — a fuel tank that reads EMPTY before you get to the top of the hill, and the growth of synaptic networks (in cortex and limbic system) that colonize your psychological world with too many associations, action tendencies, and feelings related to the thing you want so badly, so often.
But I’ve never quite figured out how to capture the loss of meaning that stares you down when you think about quitting — FOR GOOD. For sure it’s about the accumulated synaptic restructuring (network pattern) that has strangled half your forebrain like some crabgrass invasion. It’s about the weakening and dissolution of the other synapses — the ones you might have used if activation didn’t keep returning to the more familiar circuits. It’s about all the goals your striatum forgot how to strive for, or even notice, over those years of seeking one thing above everything else. I can explain it in brain terms fairly well. But what’s hard to put into words is the feeling — the deadly vertigo, the whoosh of the void suddenly opening right in front of you, as you contemplate giving it up FOR GOOD.
How can life possibly be meaningful without IT? — when it’s been the foundation of meaning, the hallmark of value — for such a long time? And not just “meaning” in the abstract, but the sense of being taken care of, however perverse that is; the sense of where you belong in the world; the sense of who you are; the sense of what it is you do…
How do you overcome that ultimate challenge? How do you cross that gulf? I guess the answer is to start building up other networks of meaning and value, before you’re able to quit, maybe even before you can seriously try. Or at least at the same time. (For me, returning to graduate school was a big deal.)
But what if you don’t know where to find another source of meaning? What if you don’t know where to start? What if there’s just nothing else in your world, because you have no resources, no real friends, you’ve burned up all your other opportunities? What if you look out at the universe and all you see is a featureless horizon?
When the degrees of freedom shift from some to none, when there are no other choices, when you pack up your home, sell your furniture, and drop off the key, there’d better be at least one other place to go. Or you’re probably not going to make it very far.