When it comes to drugs, patience really is a virtue. If you ingest a high dose of magic (unless you have an anti-magic antidote – which you don’t) you know that you are in it for the duration. And in the case of ayahuasca, the duration can be up to ten hours (!) Especially if things have taken a turn for the worse and the bad angels are dragging you through a bad trip backwards, you had better have a bit of patience.
The same is true of our inner drug cartels. When your partner says something that really winds you up, a certain cocktail of drugs is released from the various glandular distribution centres of your inner endocrine drug factory. If you’re really pissed off, your whole system will be flooded with adrenalin. And if it starts to get particularly stressful, it will also be flooded with cortisol. This is probably not a good time to sit down and work it out between you – probably best to just smash a few plates and slam a few doors.
Alternatively, you can patiently wait for the drugs to wear off. Which may take a while. No clicking your fingers or expelliarmus magic spells can relieve you of the hormones swilling about in your bloodstream. But if you are patient, take some time out, and stop producing more fight or flight drugs by continuing the argument in your head, you will calm down and come down soon enough. Then we can talk.
Psychedelics famously (and infamously) produce altered states of consciousness. But so do all drugs, including coffee, Red Bull and prescription psychiatric drugs. And so do our own inner pharmacies. Since time immemorial, human beings have experimented with altered states. They are kind of fun and kind of fascinating. They also seem to give us superpowers. For example, when I am perfectly level-headed, calm, relaxed, integrated and equipoised, I don’t tend to write very much. When I am manic, and my creative juices are flowing, I can write reams of (to my mind) inspired prose.
This manic state is addictive. When I’m deep in an intense conversation, firing on all cylinders, I feel great – energized, excited, intellectually stimulated. Many celebrities have built huge followings from creatively harnessing their manic energy, Kanye West, Russel Brand, Jordan Peterson, Alex Jones and Madonna, for example. But often celebrities crash and burn, or rather, burn out and crash: the other pole of mania is depression and all five examples above are excellent examples of this.
If you are addicted to mania, you are an inner drug addict. If you can manage your habit and keep it within reasonable bounds, all well and good – you can use it to your advantage as a performance enhancing drug. If it goes too far, however, the magic turns sour and toxic and begins to poison you. In excess, all drugs are poisonous. Which is to say, in excess, all altered states, and all emotional states, are poisonous.
Even love can be poisonous. If you fall head over heels in love, it’s the most wonderful feeling in the world. You want to dance and sing in the rain. But if you overdo it, it becomes obsessive and weird. Introspection and psychological self-awareness are good, but in excess, they becomes narcissistic and weird. Generosity and selflessness are good, but in excess, they becomes martyrish and weird.
Then again, you should take everything in moderation, including moderation, because the converse error to that of “excess addiction” is “excess phobia”. How many middle aged couples do you know that have settled into a placid truce of non-sympathetic-nervous-system-arousal? No raised voices, no crazy conversations, no crazy adventures. No alarms and no surprises. The discomfort of stress hormones persuades them that the benefits of arousal and excitement are just not worth the costs.
The extreme cases are those psychiatric patients who are so tortured by their emotional altered states, that they would prefer the whole thing be shut down, whether through surgical or medicated lobotomy. They would rather be a member of the walking dead than of suffering humanity. In the absence of such radical interventions, however, there is always that commonest and most time-honoured form of shut-down, self-medication with alcohol.
The point is not to avoid altered states altogether. We don’t want to be cold, rational, calculating Dr Spocks or unfeeling zombies. Neither is it to chemically excise them with some psychiatric brain suppressant. We don’t want Brave New World style regulation. Or to slowly kill yourself with booze and fags. The point is to ride the waves of alterity, but with skill and restraint. In other words, to know how and when to pull back from the brink of toxic overdose, where life-giving drugs becomes pure poison.
Drug addicts are not addicted to drugs in general. They are addicted to a specific drug. What’s your poison? Heroin? Cocaine? Love? Mania? Anger? Stress? Depression? It can get very messy of course, especially when alcohol is mixed up with the others, but generally speaking, addiction is usually associated with specializing too much in one particular direction, with poisoning yourself with one particular poison. Heroin addicts are rarely also Coke addicts and vice versa.
A fulfilling life is one that is filled with a wide range of human experiences, which means a wide range of emotions and altered states of consciousness. If you are addicted to one or two to the exclusion of all others, you will narrow yourself down horribly, to the point where you may even appear sub-human to yourself and others. On the other hand, if you are phobic of all states other than your base-line “sober” state, you will soon become a cardboard caricature of a regular guy or gal, fine for a lifestyle magazine perhaps, but no good for real life lived deeply and fully. That’s a painfully slow and boring death.
We need to be patient with ourselves and others. And we need to be patient with drugs. We can’t live without them, but only when we learn to live with them, will we learn to truly live.