Books in the Hangover Sun

Many-BooksI was a user and a drinker for 15 years.  I’ve used cocaine, crack cocaine, ecstasy, MDMH, LSD, mushrooms, marijuana, mescaline, meth-amphetamines, snorted Ritalin; drank wine, beer, vodka, whiskey, whatever I could.  I never did heroin (though one night we thought we scored some in Harlem to snort, but it turned out to be bunk), so I don’t have any personal experience with that.

Mostly, alcohol was my drug of choice.  I started drinking in my early teens and kept on until I was 33.  Sometime around when I was 21, I noted to a friend gleefully: “I’ve been drunk every night for ten days straight!”  A triumph.

Before the DWIs, dysfunctional relationships, and squandered opportunities, I actually enjoyed alcohol.  I even enjoyed hangovers.  The thing about hangovers was that you kept feeling better as the day went on – and I am addicted to feeling better more than anything else.  As Frank Sinatra said, “I feel sorry for people who don’t drink; when they wake up, that’s the best they’ll feel all day.”  However, once my drinking was no longer socially acceptable, it became the behavior I concealed and protected.  Those walls can’t last forever, though, and soon began to crumble.

So I say I was a user, or an addict, for 15 years because that’s a rounded off number.  Really, though, I was born an addict, and still am an addict.  But it was that 15 years which was the period that marks my journey from first coming to see that alcohol and drugs were negatively impacting my life until the time, wracked with constant guilt, paranoia, anxiety, and health problems, that I finally hit rock bottom.  That I finally quit.

Glass molecules on a chemistry chart

In a way, we’re all addicts.  We all have a hypothalamus gland and cells with receptors for the peptides which feed them a variety of “chemical emotions.”  We all have brains equipped with neurotransmitters and the chemical-messengers dopamine and serotonin and others.  We have cells in our brains with opioid receptors, and we produce natural opioids like endorphins.  The chemicals we contain have many functions – endorphins have much to do with everything from childbirth to exercise.  They are responsible for many of the natural highs we talk about, called endorphins because of their endogenous nature and their similarity to morphine.

I learned a lot of this thanks to Gabor Mate’s  In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts.  Mate, a Hungarian-born, Canadian-dwelling doctor, has produced a book as much a confessional as it is a series of jaw-dropping anecdotes about his work in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, where he spends his days dealing with the most desperate and forgotten kinds of addicts.  Mate’s own admission of addiction to classical music CDs seems absurd by comparison, but underscores the point: that addiction is addiction.  It is not caused by drug use; drug use is one of its expressions.  Mate asserts that both nature and nurture are at the root of it.  Certain genetic propensities create a vulnerability to stress, and when triggered, the coping mechanisms realm of ghostswhich either exist inherently in other people or are taught to them successfully don’t exist in the nascent addict.  Hence, he begins a lifelong pattern of poor coping skills.  Depending on the support in his life, or lack thereof, this often leads to a downward spiral.

Mate’s book seems relentlessly dark at first, but then illumines with hope as he progresses through coping with his own problems, and displays an admirable veracity for dealing with some of the worst addicts in the country.

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When someone tells you they love you, on a chemical level, your body literally feeds its cells the molecular equivalent of the abstract concept of love.  Your glands wash your cells in the peptides which correspond to the brain’s ideas of “love” – what it means to be validated, to be respected, and so on.  When you have a bad break-up with someone, it is literally like a withdrawal from a drug – the love drug is gone, no one is telling you they love you, and you have to “come down” from it, as your body replenishes the chemicals in other ways.

Some people over-eat.  Some people don’t eat.  Some people get into serious exercise, some dive into work.  Whatever it is that “distracts” the mind from feeling the loss of love also produces new chemicals to supplant the absent wash of the love-feeling.

It’s like cross-addiction.  It’s like suddenly discovering a zeal for coffee when alcohol gets the boot.  (I drank so much coffee after getting off booze that I felt like I could blow things up with my mind.)  We’re constantly switching and regulating so that we can keep our equilibrium, our medium of feeling.  And we tend to want more, too.  Whether it’s shopping to feel fulfilled, or it’s sex, or sports, we often aspire to feel better. We habituate ourselves to what rewards us.

There are those of us who use the less socially acceptable methods than others, and some who use methods which can wreak havoc on the body and deteriorate the mind.  The habits we form can kill us – but we can learn how to change them.

book-cover-duhiggIn his book The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg talks about the basal ganglia in our brains, the very primordial underpinnings of our habit-forming minds.  Everything, according to Duhigg, comes down to the simple equation of cue, routine, and reward, from brushing our teeth to picking up a drink.  It is not possible, he surmises (or at least not probable) to try and disassemble this equation, it is, to borrow from a concept in Darwin’s Black Box, “irreducibly complex.”  Rather, what works is to swap out the routine.  If the cue is stress, and the routine is beating the crap out of elephants (not good for elephants or the ecosystem) and the reward is a feeling of stress-relief, then that middle part of the equation needs to be switched for something else, like jogging, like meditation.  It may sound oversimplified, but it’s the way our minds work, boiled down to the basic mojo.  Duhigg’s writing is a little dry and you can feel some distance from the author, but perhaps this is the way the book is so effective in its delivery of these simple no-nonsense truths.

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During my active addiction, my mind was unraveling.  I was often locked in a hell of fear and guilt.  My habits were so strong they had altered the chemistry in my brain, the topography of my mind.

I couldn’t imagine walking through the door into someone like Gabor Mate’s office and saying, “I have a problem,” much less facing a group of people and saying, “Hello; my name is…”  It was inconceivable.  So, I kept using.  And eventually, to combat such seriously debilitating feelings of crushing depression, I started drinking in the morning, too.  Three, maybe four beers in the shower.  A couple more to make a six-pack’s worth in my bloodstream before walking out the door to take care of business.  Not long after that, a flask in my pocket filled with Jack Daniels or Kentucky Bourbon (it didn’t really matter the brand) and I was self-medicating all day long.

I finally managed abstention one Christmas Eve, five years ago from the time of this writing.  After many months of post-acute-withdrawal, I was able to start putting my life back together.  After that, I was able to build an even more improved life.  Now, while every day still requires the work of recovery, I can’t say I’ve ever had it better.

Surely You're Joking, Mr.FeynmanEarly in my time of repair, Mircea Eliade’s book The Sacred and the Profane helped me to gain perspective on some of the religious / spiritual concepts I was wrestling with.  Yamamoto Tsunetomo’s work, Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai was a must-read (just as the Jim Jarmusch film, Ghost Dog, which references the book, is a must-see).  Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers helped dispel my constant self-deprecation over why I wasn’t a best-selling author yet, or a film god, a professional hockey player for that matter, or an astronaut.  “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!” by Richard P. Feynman nibbled away at any lingering notion I had that I was some sort of amateur physicist, and helped me move on.  Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser depicted the last seventy years in a way I could finally relate, never having realized the wondrous connection between the paving of our country and the thirty-second hamburger.  And retreating into David Mamet’s Bambi versus Godzilla allowed me to vicariously feel and say everything I had ever wanted to about the fractious movie business I had crawled away from, under a scorching hangover sun.

It is my deep conviction that the way a person is advanced (and the way that the world is advanced, collectively) is through the evolution of thought.  The brain is an organ, and that organ can be sick.  But there is something we each have in us that is a “wise heart” and a “wise mind,” which allow us a sort of meta-cognition, or “thinking about thinking,” and can transcend biological limitations. Reading the works of the author’s cited above tapped into that seat of my soul, and helped progress my thinking to where I was not only able to get out of the trap, but find the hope and reinforcement to stay out.  This is crucial for any addict, anywhere.

Feed your mind now that your stomach is empty.

Others:

The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure – Chris Prentiss

The Tao of Abundance – Laurence G. Boldt

The Tao Te Ching – Lao Tzu

The Denial of Death – Ernest Becker

The Road (fiction) – Cormac Mccarthy

This is How – Augusten Burroughs

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