The Addict's Plight: Hungry Ghosts
In Buddhism there is a myth about a hell-realm populated by beings whose appetites exceed their capacity for satisfaction. Their stomachs are huge but their throats are tiny. No matter how much they try to eat, their hunger remains. In ancient India, they are called hungry ghosts. We call them alcoholics and drug addicts.
We’re all in some sense or another hungry ghosts. No matter how much we get we aren’t content. We eat and drink and smoke and use and gamble and love and lust and shop and exercise and obsess about anything that resolves the sense of incompletion, imperfection, or suffering we find inside. We believe if only we can obtain just the right combination of drugs or alcohol or sex or love or food or money, we’ll find the serenity we so desperately seek.
Sometimes we do this at the increasing expense of our selves, families, friends, work, health, and ultimately our lives. These efforts evolve from being merely delusional manifestations of ego to something far more insidious. It doesn’t matter whether it’s alcoholism, drug addiction, over eating, or behavioral addiction, the underlying process is essentially the same. For we who fall fully into the realm of hungry ghosts, the pain and suffering these issues cause are almost beyond comprehension.
People who aren’t inclined towards such an extreme fate have serious difficulty understanding addiction. The outward behavior they observe seems grossly and obviously dysfunctional, the consequences horrific, and the solution simple. And because they themselves aren’t addictive in this extreme sense, they struggle to comprehend why people with substance or compulsive behavior issues don’t simply cease their dysfunctional ways. Of course, just not drinking or using (or whatever) isn’t really an option for hungry ghosts. Were it so, we would not be addicts in the first place. No one – absolutely no one – meaningfully chooses to drink alcohol or use drugs to the extent of addiction, destroy their loved one’s lives, ruin their jobs and careers, fail in school, commit a majority of society’s crime, and eventually die in any of the myriad and especially unpleasant ways addicts meet their demise. This isn’t, after all, the manifestation of some improperly applied act of free will.
In fact, there’s plenty of science explaining the addictive process. Hungry ghosts are wired differently. We’re biochemically inclined towards addiction. Whereas non-addicts learn early in their adult lives the perils of such behavior, we who don’t possess quite so luxurious genetics find ourselves compelled towards abuse because the alternative, without more, leaves us fundamentally unhappy, anxious, and overwhelmed. For most active addicts, no matter how far into suffering our lives spiral, when push comes to shove we simply cannot fathom an existence without our medicine.
And worse yet, it’s in the nature of addiction that the sense of pleasure, completion, and meaning our use gives us decreases over time, so that the task of sustaining some sense of balance even with the drug of choice becomes dramatically more difficult. Our usage increases exponentially as we chase after the sunrise our egos tell us we once enjoyed. The highs we seek occur less and less frequently, the pain we avoid at all costs reoccurs more regularly, and so our addictive behavior intensifies. Eventually, at least for many of us, we face only four options: we either enter recovery, we’re sent to prison, we go insane, or our addiction kills us.
Escaping the realm of hungry ghosts, for those who’ve made it our home, may be the most arduous task anyone can imagine undertaking. The work of recovery involves a kind of change nearly everyone can only at best imagine very abstractly. The physical addiction issues alone keep many from ever honestly considering sobriety. Having drunk and used to the point of physical dependency, our bodies require more in the same biochemical way we require food and water. This makes the physical detoxification aspect of recovery an overwhelming event that usually requires medical intervention and often hospitalization.
And resolving the physical addiction is by far the easiest part of recovery.
The problem that haunts addicts, alcoholics, and anyone who makes a conscious effort to understand addictive dependencies is the question of what it is exactly that makes recovery so difficult? After all, we’re not strangers to sobriety, if for no other reason than when we’re in jail, in detox, or otherwise temporarily unable to feed our addiction. We repeatedly go through treatment programs, make sincere pledges to change our ways, and sometimes even string together significant amounts of clean time. And yet, relapse rates from these sorts of efforts alone are horrendously high. Almost no one sustains recovery based solely on that initial determined effort.
This is why, historically, the view has been that addicts were somehow weak willed, lacked fully formed adult senses of responsibility, or were in some way morally impaired. We were seen as genuinely incomplete, lacking in an adult sense of reality, and simply incapable of manifesting sufficient character to remain drug free. The solution therefore was to lock away the worst of us, put up with higher functioning addicts, and occasionally help to educate the few who seemed amenable to the necessary “character growth.”
The truth is addicts are anything but weak. In fact, our ability to charge ahead into difficult situations may be unequaled. When we set our sights on goals, likely as not what we seek will indeed come to pass. So too, addicts are emphatically not irresponsible. Indeed, an over-active sense of ownership regarding events far and beyond anything reasonable is a common perception of hungry ghosts. And finally, addiction is no more a moral issue than depression, cancer, diabetes, or any other illness. Addict’s behavior may often appear ethically impaired, but right conduct requires free action, and addictive behavior is by definition never freely chosen. And while a great deal of work in recovery goes towards making amends for past harms caused, this endeavor has much more to do with therapeutically reclaiming ethical autonomy, as opposed to genuinely correcting past wrongs.
Like everyone else, addicts’ experience is governed by our sense of ego. We’re driven by the same kinds of concerns, worries, desires, and motivation as other people. Indeed, although researchers have sought for years to secure a diagnostic method of predicting substance dependency, the data show there’s no particularly reliable way to discern who becomes addicted and who doesn’t. There’s no such thing as an addictive personality disorder that predicts future dependency. And while it’s true that children from exceptionally dysfunctional families, people with serious mental illness, and individuals with chronic pain issues more frequently become drug and alcohol dependent, the data suggest such persons mostly do not become hungry ghosts.
If nothing else, addiction is a sensitivity problem. We experience the world, including our thoughts and emotions, at a very very high volume. Everything impacts us. We internalize and memorialize life such that it routinely seems impossibly overwhelming. In order to cope, we feel compelled to seek distraction through any mechanism available. And while solutions like watching television, a nice meal, or even a few cocktails fit the bill nicely for non-addicts, these remedies come nowhere near resolving the sense addicts have that life is simply too much. Indeed, the joy most people obtain in life’s simple pleasures seems to us seems utterly empty, overwhelmingly dull, and ultimately wholly inadequate to meet our needs
Without more, we believe we’re doomed to meaninglessness, lack of purpose, and an absence of joy. In such a world, our thoughts and emotions remain chronically entrenched in perceptions of sadness, anger, remorse, incompetence, and fear. Nothing exists, we’re convinced, that holds sufficient power to relieve us of our pain.
We seek a bigger and more comprehensive solution. We experiment with extremes. We’re daredevils, artists, athletes, lovers, and deep thinkers. We’re ruminators, poets, people of great beauty and deep conviction. And most of all, we’re determined survivors.
Ultimately and unfortunately, only the big bang of our substance or behavior of choice fits the bill. In it, we finally experience the exhilaration and relief we’ve sought, directly through its specific effects and indirectly by how it resolves our larger issues. In short, our high allows us at best to finally let go, experience joy, and capture some semblance of completion. And at worst, we at least obtain a measure of relief from the agony of existence.
Even then, though, it’s a temporary measure of decreasing effectiveness and increasing complication at best. Of course, even a temporary solution is better than no solution at all. Even the momentary relief proffered by a drink or a pill still counts, especially in comparison to the alternative.
Just like everyone else, addicts live under the auspices of ego. We possess any number of varying beliefs, perceptions, ideas, concepts, and truths through which we make sense of the world. But whereas most non-addicts find sufficient stability to allow a modicum of joy, peace, meaning, and success in ways that don’t trigger massive suffering, we hungry ghosts routinely struggle simply to get through our days without being overwhelmed.
We perceive ourselves continually under assault from life’s demands, usually in the guise of what our loved ones, friends, colleagues, coworkers, employers, and teachers expect. Our efforts to satisfy these requirements may or may not prevail, but regardless, the price we pay is in our own horrific suffering. We find our lives continually unsatisfying. The world seeks more from us than we can give, and from this place we quite reasonably crave some sort of relief.
We discover our substance of choice usually by accident. We don’t know before hand the wonders drugs and alcohol create for us. We expect we’ll be like most, who drink and use drugs moderately, who over time realize the price misuse carries, and who aren’t driven towards addiction.
For us, however, such self-regulation becomes impossible. Instead, what we’re aware of is simply that when we’re drunk or high, we aren’t in pain. Our problems fade to the background, our concerns ebb like low tide, and our lives seem – at least for the moment – manageable and worthwhile. As foolish as this appears to others, intoxication completes us.
Being drunk or high becomes our nirvana. We experience it as a state of grace within which we find some semblance of joy, peace, meaning, and purpose. We romanticize and gradually allow its splendor more and more space in our lives. We suffer the hangovers and calamities inebriation requires as the relatively small price of admission to heaven. And we increasingly find our lives devoted to the eternal quest for the sweet spot that occurs in the space between butter sobriety and unconsciousness.
The truth, of course, is our medicine’s side-effects can and often do ultimately kill us. Along the way, its effects diminish and change. The sweet spot turns coy and evasive like an ambivalent lover who only appears when she sees fit. By now, though, wholly and fully embedded in the realm of hungry ghosts, we have only this single remedy. Our cravings explode and we chase even more madly after the rainbow our minds tell us lies just around the next corner. While before we maybe possessed a variety of solutions to existence’s demands, now our eggs occupy a single basket. Without alternatives, and finding sober life intolerable, only one choice carries sufficient force to solve life’s quandary.
No meaningful decision but to carry forward exists. Like a rudderless boat in turbulent waters, we weave and bob along with little regard for anything other than the illusive peace we believe with every last ounce of available conviction awaits us in our substance of choice. We abandon our families, our loved ones, our friends, jobs, and routines. We defend and protect our way of life at all costs. And with fierce determination we vow that nothing shall come between us and our insatiable hunger.
Still, the price escalates. What started with hangovers, obsession, and single-minded determination now evolves a far more horrific and sinister face. We’re always either sick, hungry, empty, and sober or we’re sick, hungry, empty, and drunk or high. Our use changes. Before, it was something we did; now, it’s something we are. Our days and weeks of frozen floundering bliss turn into months and years of numb and blind insanity, as everything – absolutely everything – worth having in life disappears.
And in the end, and but for the chance-spark of realization that what we’ve seemingly become dooms us to something far worse than whatever we thought before we needed, our addictions continue to ruin ours and our loved ones’ lives.