I remember, quite clearly, the first time I tried crack. I'm not sure what the allure of the drug was, exactly, but as I exhaled my first hit, I distinctly recall being thoroughly underwhelmed. And yet, just a few short months later, I’d been smoking it every day since, staying up night after night in an attempt to satisfy the urge for more.
The effects of the drug were incredibly subtle – for me, at least. It lacked the wow factor of the other drugs I’d indulged in, and yet it had me hooked. In the blink of an eye, I’d crossed the line from recreational drug user to 'crackhead'. It began to consume my thoughts on a daily basis. I pretended to myself that I could take it or leave it, but was certain to make sure I had enough to get through the night ahead. Afraid that my friends might discover the extent of my using, I became something of a recluse.
So what was it that had me coming back for more?
During this time, I realised a funny thing. I saw that the mentality that was driving my drug addiction was no different from the mentality that fuels just about any addiction. I recognized that although addiction can manifest in many ways - how it is expressed depends on circumstance - the mechanism is essentially the same.
My addiction seemed to be based upon many different levels of abstraction. There was the substance itself, and the rituals involved in taking it, including the construction and loading of the pipe. Then there were much deeper mental and physical factors that escaped my notice until much further down the line.
Let me break down the process, as it happened for me, so that you can get a clearer picture.
When I hadn’t smoked for a while, the chattering voice in my head would begin to pine after “just one hit.” As time went on, the voice would ramp up, like a persistent salesman. It would give me the pitch as to why it was fine to have another go. “No big deal,” it would say. "You’ve got it under control," it would assure me. At the very same time, another voice, not dissimilar to the salesman, would be whispering, "What would your family and friends say if they knew?" and, "Why do you have to lie about it if it's not a problem?"
These two concurrently running voices would go back and forth until I inevitably decided to get my hands on some more.
What then happened was really quite curious. For me, the hit was ultimately contained in the exhalation of the smoke, something that took only a few seconds at most. But for those few seconds, and for maybe five minutes afterwards (if I was lucky), the persistent voices in my head would cease to torment me. A moment’s respite from the push and pull between the angel and devil on either shoulder. I'd sit back and enjoy, slowly exhaling the smoke and witnessing the diminishing volume of those battling elements. Then I might role a joint to keep them at bay a little longer.
Notice that my faith was always placed in an external object to try and calm my stormy mind, more through distraction than anything else. After another twenty minutes or so, at a push, the mental anguish would again begin to arise, with suggestions of just one more, and the guilt that followed. So, relying upon my tried and tested method for subduing the anguish, I’d lean over and, once again, pick up the pipe in the hope that the hit of quietude contained in the little white rock would do its work and make it all just go away for a brief moment.
So, you see the loop I found myself unwittingly stuck in. Setting up the craving in order to satisfy it. Quite simply, that was the hit. Reaching the goal of exhaling.
As far as I can see, you can replace the word 'crack' with almost any object of addiction. It may be relationships, spirituality, food, shopping, sex, weed, alcohol, TV, porn, gambling...the list is endless. We are very creative, and equally subtle, in our addictive tendencies. All these objects are pursued in order to get a moment’s relief from guilt, pain, shame, anger, resentment, thoughts, fears, worries.
What we fail to see is that the relief sets up the craving for more. This leads you down the rabbit hole of becoming addicted to your preferred way out, and any addiction can be detrimental to our wellbeing. You become enslaved to the idea that your relief is contained within the substance or activity. The real question is: what are you seeking relief from? Perhaps there is a simpler way out of the dilemma. It may be that the form of pain relief that you’ve chosen – for that’s just what it is – may be fuelling what it is you want relief from. And then you find yourself in the double bind that I experienced.
We’re encouraged by our society, by our culture, to adopt this mentality as the norm. By this, I mean that we’re caught in a perpetual struggle to reach that point of exhalation, in order to satisfy our cravings and desires. Take a look. Where is your satisfaction right now? Is it here? Or is it contained in a 'something to be achieved', or 'somewhere to get to'? Then, and only then, can you rest fully, if only for a brief moment. And then what? Experience suggests that the voice says 'just one more'. And so the cycle continues.
We’re all crackheads in our pursuit of what we think of as happiness. More accurately, what we’re really pursuing is, in fact, a temporary cessation of the mental agitation, the silencing of that endlessly chattering voice in our heads.
The first step out of the cycle was simply to recognize and accept that I was addicted. It sounds so simple and yet it's the hardest thing for any addict to do. Remember, I’m referring to addiction in all its forms here. If you are compelled to do something in order to seek relief from what's happening, then you are an addict. Like it or not. Know it or not. So this step is essential to being able to bring the addiction to a halt.
I was lucky enough to see the mechanism from head to toe. To see the beast in its entirety. Only then do you have a chance of being free from it. And as luck would have it, my stopping was almost instantaneous. With that recognition came the freedom from the loop.
The thing is, the unconsciousness of the process is the reason it's able to play itself out so readily. In bringing awareness to it, it is no longer able to operate in the shadows. And is seen as it is.
I clearly saw the endless nature of the craving versus the satisfying of the craving, and I saw the futility of it all. Basically what i desired most was to not desire. If only briefly.
Don’t think for one moment that this was the end of addiction for me, because it wasn't. I was, however, off a particularly rocky road that I’d been blindly wandering down in an innocent attempt to just get a little peace of mind. When we judge addicts, we overlook the innocence of it all. That they simply seek relief from suffering. We all want that, do we not? Nobody wants to suffer, and we all have our little ways of trying to escape the things we don't want and move towards the things we do. Or, at least, the things we think we want.
For me, the energy of addiction recharged itself and shifted into spirituality. Spirituality seemed more noble, or in some way higher, and appeared to offer what I thought may be an everlasting solution called Enlightenment or Nirvana.
See what happened there?
My head very subtly (or not so subtly) shifted the object of my compulsion – the thing that would make it all okay – from a rock of crack to enlightenment. In a moment, I was hooked again.
The interesting thing was that spirituality seemed almost less reliable as a means by which to exhale. Sometimes the practices worked, sometimes they didn't. This is almost more enticing, because then you are simply rolling a dice and hoping. “This meditation will do it,” or "The next retreat will take away all the pain.” Spirituality also gives us a sense of belonging, a feeling I’d sought for a large part of my life and that I’d also found in using drugs. Any addiction makes you part of the 'in' crowd or 'out' crowd; in either circumstance you belong, and that in itself can help alleviate some of the pain temporarily.
I have referred to pain and suffering, to escaping and to relief. From what?
The thoughts in my head, primarily. The commentator. Having its say on all things possible. And judging me for my actions, even my thoughts. How ironic!
Now, here's where it gets tricky. The 'I' that wanted to escape my thoughts was, in fact, a product of the thoughts I wanted to escape. But once my belief in the idea that I was 'the one' having the thoughts dissolved, so did the desire to seek relief from them. It was this that broke the spell of addiction, and brought me stable relief from the suffering that I was going through.
The illusory ‘I’ is the agitation of mind that we want to escape from. When I had rare glimpses of peace, the narration ceased, and with it the sense of ‘Michael’ that the narration produced was gone too. All agitation ceased. In that very absence was a great feeling of presence, and when ‘I’ was present again, there was a great feeling of absence. A deep longing for a quiet mind. The agitation was seeking stillness. Utterly impossible.
Once this was clear, the idea that any external thing – crack or enlightenment - could bring about peace was no longer there. The peace is, in fact, inherent. It is the stillness of mind once the rippling has ceased. Ripples are born from and die back into stillness. Never separate from one another, the two are all the same water.
Likewise, thinker and thought are the same thing. How can the thinker, as a thought, shake off its thoughts? Both are simply movements on the water’s surface. And so any way you try to manoeuvre just makes things worse, and causes more agitation, which you then seek relief from. No wonder we will go to the ends of the earth to try and get a moment’s pause from thought. And we rarely notice that in the moment when the pause comes, the thinker vanishes too. And all that remains is what is. With no desire to move away from or towards anything else. And that is the true peace we so desire.
~ Michael McCaffrey