Addiction, Depression, Insanity, Peace
January 17, 2019
For many people, life seems to amount to little more than a constant struggle with personal problems. Some of these problems are imposed on people from the outside (other people or external situations), other problems are generated by the individuals themselves, and still other problems arise from internal biochemical mechanisms beyond the individuals' control.
The most horrific personal problems revolve around mental illness in its various forms. Where does mental illness come from? Does it develop from unsuccessfully trying to cope with the endless difficulties of external events? Or does it develop from internal biochemical malfunctions, which may be present at birth? In most cases, I suspect, it is probably some combination of both forms of causation.
I consider addictions to be types of mental illness, and I have suffered from my own versions of such illness. Addictions are potentially life-destroying psychological conditions that are aggravated by the problems of life. I would guess that many addicts have a genetic, biochemical predisposition to become addicts. When they are born, addiction is already inside them, like a time bomb set to go off when outside circumstances reach a certain, crucial point. Susceptible people might become clinically addicted to any of numerous diverse habits. Alcohol use. Drug use. Gambling. Sexual activities. Pornography. Internet use. Shopping. Basically anything that brings pleasure or escape. In clinical addiction, people continue these habits as the habits become increasingly more consuming of their lives—and even as the addicts know that the behaviors are harmful. Over time, the addictions gradually cause addicts’ lives to spin out of control, perhaps leading to financial, professional, and personal ruin. In the worst, most severe cases of addiction, death—by suicide, murder, or physical illness—becomes the direct end result.
Oh, the horrors of addiction! Nothing is more tragic that an individual captured in its grasp. But some addictions may seem superficial or even comical. Sex? Shopping? The Internet? Nevertheless, no type of addiction is a laughing matter; all addictions are gravely serious. Any addiction can seize control of a person's conscious and unconscious thoughts, his everyday behaviors, and his bank accounts. Any addiction can cause an individual to lose his job, his money, his relationships, his reputation, his health, and essentially everything he has. Furthermore, addicts are at great risk of getting into major trouble with the law, as their messed-up brains lead them into irresponsible, illegal behaviors. Addictions provide the temporary intense pleasure and euphoria that the addict craves, but the costs can be immense and the regrets enormous.
I struggled fiercely for many years with addictions, mainly involving alcohol abuse and sexual compulsions. It was the most terrifying and challenging struggle of my life, and I feared it would never end. It did end, but the details of these addictions and their consequences remain painful for me to contemplate. Suffice it to say that they primarily consisted of me frequently drinking to excess and spending a lot of time and vast amounts of money in strip clubs, leading to a DUI arrest and steadily depleting bank accounts. I may eventually put the salacious details into a book. (A lot of crazy, illegal activities go on in strip clubs, and strippers are, generally speaking, about the craziest, wickedest, most troubled people you could ever have the misfortune of knowing.)
To summarize that time of my life, my alcohol and sexual addictions made me act very stupidly, wastefully, and irresponsibly. However, I must add, when I look back at that time now, those addiction episodes were also valuable, revealing, raw, real-life experiences, providing brutally honest insights into human nature and into my own existence that I would otherwise never have obtained. Those insights too may one day wind up in a book.
After many years of intense struggle, I believe I have tamed the personal demons that drew me into that whirlpool of alcohol and sexual decadence and that storm of psychological disease. But the demons of mental illness never really go away. They are always there, lurking somewhere in the dark corners of the mind and soul, waiting to pounce on you again when they sense weakness. The best that one could do is to eventually gain better control over the demons, through one's own personal determination, through the support and assistance of friends and family, and/or through professional help. The ultimate, realistic goal is to minimize the effects of the addictions on one's life and to arrive at a sense of some peace of mind. However, it is a long, trying, exhausting, and expensive process.
Depression is a big reason that it is so difficult to conquer addiction. As you increasingly realize that you have a problem with alcohol or some other addictive habit, and that it is severely and adversely affecting your life, this realization can lead to deep depression. This depression, in turn, digs you deeper into your addiction, to which you turn to help you forget about your depression and other problems. It is the proverbial vicious cycle.
The Addiction is a great movie from 1995 that combines something I love (horror movies) with something I know well (addiction). It is about a philosophy PhD student (Kathleen Conklin, played by Lili Taylor) who is a vampire addicted to human blood. There is a keenly insightful scene in which Kathleen is in the back of a taxi on her way to a party to celebrate obtaining her PhD—a party that will turn into an orgy of blood. As she puts on her earrings and lipstick in the cab, a voiceover reveals her inner thoughts. I found myself strongly relating to these thoughts:
"There is a dual nature to the addiction. It satisfies the hunger, which evil engenders. But it also dulls our reception, so we are helped to forget how ill we really are. We drink to escape the fact we're alcoholics. Existence is the search for relief from our habit, and our habit is the only relief we can find."
The movie, which is peppered with philosophical references, shows Kathleen growing more and more disturbed by her condition as she battles her out-of-control cravings. She apparently finds redemption at the end, though the multilayered final scenes are open to interpretation. The full movie, which is well worth checking out, was posted on YouTube in 2013 by someone named Dario Lopez, but I'm not sure how long it will remain there: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Js1a1AR41FY. The cab scene is around 58:06.
The self-loathing, depression, and desire to escape that are associated with addiction may or may not, depending on the case, sink to the level of clinical depression, which is typically a chronic condition involving physical as well as mental symptoms. Whatever the case, addiction-associated depression is a personal feeling of depression in which you may, at least temporarily, lose interest in most things other than your addiction, lose your sense of self and self-worth, and lose all sense of hope. In your despair, your demons and their dark forces consume your consciousness, leaving you feeling alone, empty, and abandoned in your private deep gloomy hellhole where no one else can reach you. You know you are trapped—lost and trapped within your own mind. It's like being in a prison. You come to believe that your life is at an end. And you may be tempted to make that belief real by killing yourself.
Suicide may seem insane to people who have never experienced profound psychological troubles. But for those who have had such experiences, it may seem like the only sane option left in their miserable lives. A few years ago, I edited a novel by a wonderful writer named Sheila Corneil. The novel (Butterflies Among Us, Crystal Dreams Press, 2014) was inspired partly by her father's suicide after years of struggle with schizophrenia and depression. Maddened by the voices inside his head, he killed himself by jumping in front of a speeding train. Mental illness, in any form, is real-life horror.
At what point does addiction, depression, or other mental illness cross the line into insanity and madness? Clinically, it is difficult to say, because "insanity" is more of a legal concept than a medical one. The law recognizes a defendant as insane if it can be shown that he cannot distinguish reality from fantasy, cannot conduct the basic affairs of daily life, and is subject to uncontrollable impulses that may lead him to harm himself or others. There were times—during my worst episodes—when I felt this way about myself—though I would have harmed only myself, nobody else. Does this mean that I have been insane—"temporarily insane"—from time to time? I have no doubt that I could find a clever lawyer who could convincingly argue that to a jury. A skilled, unscrupulous lawyer could probably make such a legal case for any person (or at least any person who paid him enough money). Thus, pursuing the legal discussion of insanity is unlikely to yield interesting insights into the workings of a troubled mind.
Perhaps greater insight could be obtained by reflecting on the inner feelings that one experiences when in the most troubled state of consciousness—when in the firmest grip of addiction. When I am in such a state, my thoughts and behaviors seem like they are being controlled by pure impulse and compulsion. I must drink for the main purpose of getting drunk. I must fulfill my sexual fantasies in the private back room of the strip club. Oh yes, I know that what I'm about to do is bad for me, but I must do it anyway, regardless of the consequences. Some unseen evil force is making me do this, and I have no control. I hate this force, but I am eager to obey its commands. There are wild, distorted, scattered thoughts and feelings rushing through my mind, many at the same time, like flashes of lightning and chaotic blurs of abstract images and colors. But there is an underlying compelling attraction to the chaos—and it keeps drawing me inward and pulling me onward like a powerful magnet, to whatever unpredictable dark event—possibly my doom—may await me. It is irresistible as I jump off the cliff!
In short, when I am in the grip of addiction, I feel like I've lost my hold on myself, my hold on my sanity—like I've become someone else, someone who I'm not, someone who I don't know and don't understand and don't like—I feel like I have gone insane! I am insane. I'm mad. I'm crazy. I wish somebody would lock me up or shoot me before I hurt myself any more than I already have, because I can't stop myself…
Does that sound insane to you? Well, that is how I would honestly describe the feelings of addiction. Then—after inevitably weakening and giving in to the addiction—those feelings are followed by feelings of guilt, self-loathing, and depression. Ultimately, with the realization of helplessness and hopelessness, there comes the desire to put a final, guaranteed end to the insanity. To finally find peace. That is called suicide. Thank God—or, more likely, my own inner stubborn determination to get well—that I never reached that point.
Suicide is one way to find peace. But are there other ways? That probably depends on the individual, his particular version of addiction or other mental illness, and his particular combination of experiences, beliefs, and values. I realize that this is not the socially acceptable answer, but it is the honest truth. Some people may have allowed themselves to fall into such a deep dark pit that, unfortunately, there is no ladder long enough to reach them, no way for them to ever get out. They may have only two options left—adjust themselves to living in that deep dark pit, or not live at all.
Fortunately, for other people dealing with mental illness, there are additional, better options. Hope and peace might be obtainable for them in this life. Perhaps they can climb out of their dark pits with help—whether self-help or the assistance of others. I suppose that some individuals find hope through religion or spirituality, though, because of my own beliefs in only what I can see for myself, such an option would not be viable for me. Alternative options might involve shaking up your professional life by embarking on new career paths, or shaking up your personal life by starting new relationships. Or you might take your psychological suffering and turn it into art and essays—become the crazy, creative, eccentric artist and writer of your anguished dreams! Yes! How cool is that?
Whatever you do, you will probably need to fill in certain gaps in your life to be successful at conquering your mental illness, such as the gap left by giving up your particular addiction. Perhaps you could replace alcohol with a new hobby, such as (for the more independent person) art, music, writing, or reading, or (for the more social person) sports, clubs, or some community activity.
Change—any kind of substantial change in your daily routine—might be all you need to shake you out of your current negative mental condition. However, it should be kept in mind that substantial, meaningful change may be extremely difficult for some people to achieve. They may need to make repeated attempts at change before they find something that works for them. And it might be difficult to maintain the strength and willpower to keep making these attempts. As for myself, I intend to continue to persevere, tweaking my life here and there, searching for answers that work for me. I will get through all of my psychological struggles, and I will come out on the other side as a stronger and wiser person.
I sometimes think that my life is in pretty bad shape, and I can wallow in my self-pity like a self-centered pig. But then I think about the tragic story of the brother and sister-in-law of an editing acquaintance. The couple was experiencing serious financial difficulties, and the wife had a long history of health problems and depression. One day, she locked herself in the bathroom and fatally shot herself in the heart. Two days later, the husband had a heart attack. As they were rushing him to the hospital in the ambulance, he repeatedly cried out, "I want to die. I want to die." He died in the hospital.
I guess that's what reaching the bottom of the pit is truly like. I've never even been close to anything like that. So I’m probably doing rather well, despite my worries.
When I'm thinking most clearly, I figure that I will probably be okay the rest of my life. But if I'm not okay, then I won't be okay. Pretty simple dichotomy there. Either way, life will go on, with or without me. It may sound trite, but each of us really is just an insignificant speck in an incomprehensibly vast universe. No matter if we're a famous, pompous, self-loving loudmouth (like Donald Trump) or a humble, self-doubting individual that no one ever heard of (like me), we all end up the same way. One day, regardless of how great we think our ideas or accomplishments are, we will be dead and gone and eventually forgotten. And the rest of the universe will go on for billions of more years without us. The cosmos will not care. It will forget we ever existed. Other entities will replace us. When you think of things that way, we're essentially just gerbils running and running and running around in a wheel inside a cage, but going nowhere. The gerbil dies, and the kid gets a new one.
Nevertheless, I'm sure that even a gerbil would like to feel some sense of peace and satisfaction in his little gerbil brain while he is here. He doesn't want to spend his brief life feeling hungry or afraid. And even a gerbil deserves to be treated nicely and live his life in peace. His life may be insignificant to other gerbils or to that cat prowling around the house, but it’s the only life he has, and it is pretty significant to him.
When all the words have been cleverly spoken, written, edited, proofread, and spell-checked, I know one thing is true: peace of mind is what I want the most in my life. I want to clear away all the chaos, confusion, and clutter, all the fear, frustration, and futility. I want to see clearly, to feel calmly, and to think quietly. I want genuine and lasting peace. Peace of mind—without addiction, depression, or insanity.
Peace—in this life. That’s all I want. With a song for my life.