The Hidden Challenge in Alcohol and Drug Abuse
“Alcohol and drugs are essential to my creative process” is a thought, sometimes a confession made, usually privately, by millions of creative people, many of them at the pinnacle of success in their fields. Yet, I have heard very little serious discussion by substance abuse professionals about the profound implications of this phenomenon.
Some say that psychoactive drugs will be with us forever and maybe they will. However, my life improved immensely and was probably saved by my liberating myself from the pleasures, enthusiastic bursts of creativity and agonies of alcohol and smoke.
In fact, our society has declared a “war” on drugs and a sort of “police action” on alcohol. Humorous, isn’t it since far more damage is done in the aggregate by alcohol than by all other drugs combined?
As a society we believe that we must solve this catastrophic problem; or at least understand it enough so that we reduce the destructive pressure on our culture. Having come from a family of beautiful people who have been tragically impacted by alcohol and other drugs, I have had an intense interest in how and why this disaster happened to my dearest loves and beyond that to our civilization as a whole. What is the most effective way to heal the damage already done and reduce the problem in the future?
This led me into one of the most fascinating investigations of my life. I delved deeply into all of the conventional wisdom I could find… and I did most of my investigation while continuing to drink and smoke. I was what you call a highly functional substance abuser. In fact, my problem was never diagnosed by a professional or even a friend. I had to come to the realization that I had a substance abuse problem through self study.
Self study which involved a lot of EEG biofeedback and meditation.
In the course of these studies I had what I think is at least a relatively original insight. This insight enabled me to walk away from the substances that had become so integrated with my own intellectual, creative, even spiritual life. This personal discovery made by many millions of others before me was that I must quit all by myself. Another critical aspect of the discovery provided the burning sense of mission required to be successful as well as the realization that I must discover how to do this as though it was being done for the first time ever. The path to success came to me in a number of progressive meditative reveries.
The kind of energy needed to go deeply within the mind (meditation-contemplation) is constantly dissipated by psychoactive drugs. This means that the very energy needed to “make one’s life work”, to get work done, to be innovative and to have the sensitivity to make one’s relationships better is absent. For me, the concept of meditation, profound attention learning…entering deeply into the creative process, became so incredibly alluring that I realized I had to quit because that is the only way to get the energy and sensitivity needed for the next stages of this immense journey.
Although I have discussed this concept with a number of substance abuse colleagues, the response is (with a few exceptions) usually cool and even uneasy as though admitting that alcohol and other drugs can actually stimulate the creative process will unleash the forces of hell.
Yet, I believe that until we recognize the power that alcohol and other drugs has to influence creativity in the normal human being and offer another, superior way to stimulate and lubricate the creative mind we are fighting our war on drugs with water pistols.
Asking a person to give up booze is one thing, asking him to give up his booze dependent creative process seems to the alcoholic like asking him to give up his soul. There is a reason we call liquor “spirits”.
Who can deny that if we abruptly pulled all of the functional substance abusers out of business, politics, science, art and religion our society would collapse? It is intriguing to imagine what might happen but then we will never know, will we? Because most are light years from even acknowledging they have a problem. However, those that have a sneaky feeling that their already functional lives could work better are very much worth targeting. I believe they are a big enough number to make a tremendous difference in our culture as a whole…maybe the critical difference.
Also, if this issue of the creative stimulus that alcohol and drugs induces is addressed better then we can be much more helpful in assisting those dysfunctional and devastated legions of drug abusers in rescuing themselves.
The concept can be explained fairly easily. Activating the implied principles is much more difficult but certainly achievable for those motivated enough. Unfortunately, that motivation usually comes from hitting bottom hard….. immediate disaster, overwhelming loss, pain and agonizing sorrow.
There is however, another more upbeat kind of motivation which can be added to the above and this powerful force can be the critical catalyst which in turn produces the special ability to allow the addiction to fall away without the usual depression. In fact, many who recover using this principle experience profound and healthy personality transformation. In short, they often achieve real change not just another case of the “dry drunk” syndrome.
The relationship between drugs and creativity may be described in the following way: alcohol and other psychoactive drugs can produce a temporary release from conditioned perception and behavior. This quieting effect allows a release of archetypical or creative imagery. Although much research in this area remains to be done it seems to me that the evidence is growing that the brain waves of addicts of many types are deficient in Alpha and Theta.
Furthermore, that the intake of the drug at least temporarily enhances Alpha & Theta. Precisely those brain waves that are missing are to some extent replaced( at least in the early phase of intoxication). Indeed, the rapid growth of EEG biofeedback is due largely to the studies published by Dr. Eugene Peniston starting in 1989. If the original results of these studies continue to hold, then EEG biofeedback represents the most effective form of substance abuse therapy ever developed, especially when combined with the best of the traditional strategies.
The point is that Alpha and Theta brain waves during normal consciousness are often accompanied by an increase in creativity, less conditioned perception and behavior, and usually a decrease in anxiety. Increasing, or better put, correcting deficiencies in these types of brain waves seems to accompany reduced stress, increased problem solving and most importantly the kind of insight that produces peak (spiritual?) personal experiences, long deemed to be essential to the kind of healthy recovery that avoids the “dry drunk” syndrome and leads to a transformation of life style.
I realized that there was some kind of powerful relationship between alcohol (and presumably other drugs) and creativity when I started looking at the numbers of artists who had serious addiction problems yet also had successful careers. I did a simplified survey of the top 100 writers of the last 100 years. It is not so difficult because their private lives are usually quite public.
I discovered that approximately 80% of these literary giants were alcoholics by any current professional definition of alcoholism. Of that 80% about 40% made a lot of money, enjoyed some fame, had some fun and destroyed it all, often losing their life to the booze. Roughly another 40% lived a more or less normal lifespan, continued to be successful but still paid dearly for their addiction in terms of personal relationships, career opportunities lost and health problems. The remaining 20% did pretty well and were truly functional. However, I think even a superficial investigation would show their addiction cost them much more than it was worth. But then they all had been trapped by what I dubbed the “Hemingway Syndrome”.
Hemingway was archetypical in many ways and one of them was that he was a classic alcoholic artist. In his early years he could out drink almost anyone. He could drink and write and talk and do all kinds of physical activities much better than the drinkers around him even if he drank a lot more than they. Then, over the years more and more alcohol was required to sustain his creative output. Finally, ravaged by his addiction, no amount of alcohol could help him sustain his creativity and while living in paradise, a wealthy and honored giant in his field, married to a fine woman who loved him dearly, he killed himself.
For many years I felt quite alone with this “creativity-and -drugs” hypothesis; however, last year I discovered a group of British addictionologists who have been working on this problem for decades and who have done numerous studies bearing out this idea.
So what is this hidden principle which I assert makes all the difference for many with addiction problems? And if it is as powerful as it seems, what are the implications for healing of this formidable disease? And how can it be implemented?
The territory can be described very quickly and simply; however, just as a map is not the actual terrain, the description is not the described. The following will generate much adversity because there is no universally accepted scientific language for the bed rock, basic, principle or principles that we assert is both the problem and the solution…at least not yet.
It is exceptionally encouraging to see that there is tremendous momentum building to develop words and mathematical symbols for this principle…or principles. In point of fact many world class scientists have been intensely aware of the ideas I am discussing for a very long time. Recently a first rate scientific society called ISSSEEM (International Society for the Study of Subtle Energies and Energy Medicine) has been formed predominately for the purpose of proving the existence and developing methods for wiser applications of the principles we are pointing to.
Since there are no words in English for this fundamental principle and dynamic, we have borrowed words from other more mature languages. Hence, the terms Chi, Prana, Ki, Kundalini, Odic Force, etc. are often used. The closest we come in English is something like nervous energy, psychic energy, adrenaline rush, being in the zone, peak performance, sense of mission, etc.
But in the end, all of these descriptions point to the same thing…a quality and quantity of energy which has everything to do with the quality (and quantity) of life and the ability of a human being to unfold his/her potential…the energy or energies associated with creativity.
In youth, there is this continuing hunger to break free and be all one can be. But thickening layers of conditioning gradually smother this flow of potential and vitality and most of us are reduced to survival…existing.
The urge, finally the desperate urge to break free of this consciousness crushing conditioning lies at the root of substance abuse. This is particularly true of those mind altering drugs that at least temporarily break down habitual ways of perceiving, thinking, etc. such as alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and many other hallucinogens. This drug based sense of freedom, of energy, of creative capability is so fulfilling (at least temporarily) and at times so pleasurable, even thrilling and euphoric that almost no one who has tasted it can resist it.
Of course, there are apparently people for whom these drugs have very little effect. Or who never encounter all the right circumstances necessary for a series of seductive experiences to occur. However, dealing with those for whom addictions are simply no problem is not the focus of this piece as fascinating a phenomenon as it is.
There is also the sense of healthy “addictions”. How does one draw the line between an addiction per se and the enthusiastic love of some activity which has beneficial results? People who love their work, art, sport, exercise, helping others, volunteerism, good deeds may be said to have a kind of addiction. In fact, the brain chemicals which constitute our reward system drive healthy as well as unhealthy behaviors.
For the purposes of this essay we are not addressing those healthy or even potentially healthy addictions but rather focusing on those addictions which cause trouble…big trouble and which inevitably lead to what is called in the trade “hitting bottom”.
One who has hit bottom, usually many times, has become aware that the pain/reward ratio of using the substance is changing. It has become less fun and the physical and emotional pain has become greater. This leads to a sense of being trapped by the drug as repeated attempts to learn to drink, smoke, etc. moderately or healthily fail.
Even those who stop the drug and thereby save their life often become depressed. Or better put, the underlying depression emerges. An addictionologist once told me that the suicide rate amongst male alcoholics who had stopped drinking was three times greater than when they were drinking. Of course, a problem drinker (drug abuser) is committing a slow suicide anyway…unless accident or violence, etc speeds things up.
Perhaps one of the reasons that brain wave training seems to be effective is that it may also treat the underlying depression.
The solution to the problem lies within it. The actual technique or methodology for working one’s way out of an addiction is implied in the description of the principle which follows.
THE DRUGS WE HAVE BEEN ADDRESSING IN THIS PIECE DERIVE MUCH OF THEIR FORMIDABLE POWER FROM THEIR ABILITY TO TEMPORARILY BREAK THE BARRIER OF CONDITIONING AND RELEASE SUBTLE ENERGY (CHI, KUNDALINI, ETC). THIS RELEASE IS ACCOMPANIED BY ARCHETYPAL IMAGERY AND A SENSE OF HEIGHTENED CREATIVITY.
I assert that these releases are premature and inappropriate and that constantly tapping of this energy through drugs prevents the healthy build up of this energy. When this subtle energy builds up it can “explode”. This “explosion” produces a much more natural, healthier creative unfoldment. In fact, this “explosion” is the creative process.
The typical grass addict is a classic example. (S)he will be very articulate about his groovy dreams, ambitions, etc. and even sound philosophically well worked out (after all the drug has enhanced some types of perception.); however, months, years, decades may roll by and yet he never really makes it happen. (S)he often falls into the category of the talented under achiever.
Every sound minded person I have ever known has hungered to produce healthy change in his life (unhealthy change is quite easy to bring about). The addicted person is too asleep to see that the energy needed to break out of the prison and begin the process of achieving worthwhile goals is available by stopping the drugs. Once this insight is acquired and sustained in consciousness, I assert that success at ending the addiction and creating the possibility of personal transformation will probably follow.
This leads to a dangerous but apparently highly effective concept I call “progressive actualization”. This concept as I perceive it always emerges from crisis. Crisis means danger and opportunity. The progressive part of progressive actualization is the dangerous part because time is implied and to the mind struggling to wake up time (especially psychological, ego oriented time) is a sleeping pill and breeds procrastination.
The opportunity lies in the principle and accessibility of actualizing ones potential by employing the law of La Via Negativa. Come to the truth by eliminating the untrue. Gain the energy you need to produce healthy change by reducing the unnecessary dissipation of energy, especially subtle energy.
Implied in the following example is one of the most important perhaps most powerful therapeutic strategies that exists in addiction. IT IS THAT THE INSIGHTS WE HAVE BEEN DESCRIBING MUST BE ACQUIRED BEFORE THE ADDICTED PERSON BEGINS THE JOURNEY TO FREEDOM. Insight does not have to be articulated or even fully conscious. But at some level, the pilgrim must be sensing these principles.
At this point, I want to suggest that not only is this strategy so extraordinarily effective that it ought to be made the centerpiece of our national and for that matter any substance abuse program; but that further, it already is and has been for all history the most powerful strategy for ending unhealthy addictions of all kinds. This becomes obvious by observing the way that most people who end their addictions succeed. It is well known in the substance abuse field that the majority of people who healthily end their addictive behaviors do so without the assistance of a professional. Make no mistake, I am not in any way denigrating the role professionals play in the treatment of addictions. On the contrary, a very large part of my life is devoted to assisting health care professionals in improving their results with substance abuse.
What we are asserting is that most people are still using the drug while they gain the insight necessary in order to free themselves. Most substance abuse programs operate from the premise that the patient must be free of the drug in order to begin the program. I understand that such programs are necessary. However, I believe they are effective with far too little of the addicted population. And because they lack the means to instill the insights and skills we have discussed, the recidivism is far too high. Imagine a person who must learn how to untie himself and his teacher says “first remove the rope from around your wrists and then I will teach you how to untie yourself”.
Apparently, almost all of the third party payment sources are questioning the cost effectiveness of the traditional drug rehab model. In my view this makes the adoption of this concept and these strategies all the more urgent.
I propose that the most productive way to free the greatest number of addicted people is to develop programs which they can enter into BEFORE or AFTER they are able to stop the substance abuse. Fundamental aspects of the program should include:
- Teaching stress management skills that enable them to cope in the here and now (offsetting the drug as stress medication).
- Assisting them in learning to quiet and clear the mind enough to gain the INSIGHTS we have been discussing.
- Assistance in acquiring the skills that deepen the insight and accumulate the energy necessary to change healthily.
Change, real change requires a sense of mission. I have observed how quickly a sense of mission builds when individuals see that the possibility of change actually exists for them here and now. So, again this sense of mission is generated by a fundamental insight.
It is important to recognize that people learn to do things by trial and error. Most people who end addictions try many times before they succeed. The process is:
- Have the insight that it is more rewarding to stop than continue.
- Make the effort to stop.
- Fail, grapple with the problem and try again.
- Continue this process until successful. Brainwave Neurofeedback appears to be an extraordinary tool for the actual implementation of these principles because:
- It shows people how to actually quiet the mind. This EEG practice usually becomes pleasurable and the client learns to do it without the instrument.
- It provides a powerful method of stress management (self regulation of central nervous system activity profoundly affects the rest of the body).
- The Alpha/Theta capability learned is in fact a peak performance, creative, problem solving strategy. Enhancing problem solving capability is valuable for everyone but it is critical for people who have addictions.
- It is widely accepted that unresolved, repressed psychological material (known as clinical or sub clinical Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) contaminates the consciousness and is a driving force behind depression and addictions. Researchers hypothesize that Alpha/Theta training appears to allow the release of this repressed material in many clients in the form of healthy therapeutic abreactions.
- Normalization of brain chemistry. Although, much more research is needed, researchers specializing in Neurofeedback for addictions hypothesize that EEG Biofeedback assists in the process of normalizing the brain chemistry including the reward system.
- Researchers further hypothesize that EEG biofeedback is also effective with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD people are 80% more at risk for substance abuse), and traumatic brain injury (also can contribute to substance abuse).
Regardless of whether or not EEG training is available, the concepts presented in this essay point to a strategy which engages the addicted client in substantial educational and therapeutic training in order to build up the strengths (primarily insight, a sense of mission and effective methods for dealing with stress and reducing overthinking) necessary to quit and do so without going through the “dry drunk” syndrome. Above all, it is critical to realize that human beings have a fundamental hunger to live creatively. Intoxicants provide a temporary method for accessing archetypical, creative imagery (or at least the illusion that one is being more creative and is breaking down the psychological walls of conditioning).
In order to assist the recovering individual we must go far beyond getting them to stop one particular addiction which is usually simply replaced by another. Studies indicate that even traditional substance abuse programs that are properly run return four to seven dollars for every dollar invested. The addition of the strategies discussed herein should return a minimum of ten dollars to one and an incalculable enhancement of quality of life. WHAT ARE WE WAITING FOR?