Asymmetrical Information - Megan McArdle

03.07.13

There's a Reason That Addicts Say Yes to Drugs

How can reality compete with bliss?

Years ago, I attended a seminar on evolutionary psychology that inevitably came round to the discussion of drugs.  It was a small group, and one of the attendees had obviously lost someone to addiction.  Since I, too, have watched people I care for destroy their lives this way, I was somewhat sympathetic to this person, who had a visceral, horrified reaction to the dispassionate tone in which the rest of the group was arguing.  We had undammed some fairly fresh anguish, which poured out in an angry and righteous tirade about the terrible things that happen to drug addicts:  lost jobs, destroyed marriages, broken friendships, ravaged bodies.  

"But that's not necessarily an argument that cocaine is bad," someone pointed out.  "It could be an argument that cocaine is so great that it's worth losing your job, your marriage, your friends, and your health."  

And of course, in some sense, he was right.  Though I should pause to note that I am not really speaking from personal experience here.  Opiates make me very badly nauseated, so my only experience with them comes from the Vicodin I took during a dental emergency back in 1996.  On the other hand, I am tremendously addictive to stimulants, which is why I have never tried any, except for the caffeine and cigarettes on which I was near-instantly hooked.  And while I do drink, my body won't tolerate the level of alchohol consumption required to sustain a problem habit, especially now that I've reached that marvelous age when one can easily skip the buzz and go straight to the hangover after two glasses of wine. I like to think that I have the strength of character to avoid addiction, but the fact is, I've never really put it to the test.  And thus cannot speak with any authority on the joys of drug use.

But from talking to friends who developed more-than-recreational habits, and observing the behavior of addicts worldwide, it seems obvious that they do find the drugs even better than jobs, wives, friends, and health.  It isn't that they don't want those other things, too, but at the moment of choice, they prefer the drugs.  

Writing about addiction, even in memoirs of addiction, tends to gloss over this aspect.  Which is why Russell Brand's latest piece for the Spectator is so remarkable: it captures the joys that addicts are chasing.  It conveys what recovering addicts are longing for, even to those of us who don't feel it:

The last time I thought about taking heroin was yesterday. I had received ‘an inconvenient truth’ from a beautiful woman. It wasn’t about climate change (I’m not that ecologically switched on). She told me she was pregnant and it wasn’t mine. I had to take immediate action. I put Morrissey on in my car and as I wound my way through the neurotic Hollywood hills my misery burgeoned. Soon I could no longer see where I ended and the pain began. So now I had a choice.

I cannot accurately convey to you the efficiency of heroin in neutralising pain. It transforms a tight white fist into a gentle brown wave, and from my first inhalation 15 years ago it fumigated my private hell. A bathroom floor in Hackney embraced me like a womb, and now whenever I am dislodged from comfort my focus falls there.

It is ten years since I used drugs or drank alcohol and my life has immeasurably improved. I have a job, a house, a cat, good friendships and generally a bright outlook.

But the price of this is constant vigilance, because the disease of addiction is not rational. Recently, for the purposes of a documentary on this subject, I reviewed some footage of myself smoking heroin. I sit wasted and slumped with an unacceptable haircut against a wall in another Hackney flat (Hackney is starting to seem like part of the problem), inhaling fizzy black snakes of smack off a scrap of crumpled foil. When I saw the tape a month or so ago, what was surprising was that my reaction was not one of gratitude for the positive changes I’ve experienced. Instead I felt envious of this earlier version of myself, unencumbered by the burden of abstinence. I sat in a suite at the Savoy hotel, in privilege, resenting the woeful ratbag I once was who, for all his problems, had drugs.

From the point of view of the addict, drugs are great.  He doesn't have a drug problem: he has a reality problem.

From the outside, of course, we can see that reality is going to win; that he is making a pleasurable short-term decision which is also a disastrous long term decision; that the drugs that give him peace are also creating the chaos from which he needs to escape.  Perhaps he can also see it from the inside. But he can also see what outsiders tend to forget: that life is not an ABC After-School Special, and many people would like to choose peace over reality.

Both commentary on, and portrayals of, drug addiction, discuss it entirely from the outsider's view: unrelenting awfulness that is chosen only by the weak or depraved.  But of course, subjectively, they are not simply staggering around like idiots before passing out in a compromising position, losing half their teeth, and overdosing.  If that were all there were to the subjective experience of taking drugs, people wouldn't do it.

It is a constant struggle to choose the unpleasant and real over the blissful unwinding of our evolutionary danger signals. This is where all discussion of drug policy should start.