My first job as an addiction counselor was at a clinic in a housing project near Baltimore. It was a dangerous place to work because the drug trade was open and the police presence was insufficient. It wasn’t uncommon to hear gunshots in the neighborhood at night.
The director of the clinic was just the kind of guy I needed: an experienced, street-wise counselor who was willing to take me, a suburban kid, under his wing. The closest I’d ever been to heroin addiction before then was watching movies about it. He and I would sit by a darkened window and watch drug transactions happening across the street from the clinic. He pointed out the crack cocaine users; they came and went several times through the evening. For the heroin users, one purchase was all they needed before vanishing into the night.
This criminal scene, while instructive, was very painful to watch. The drug buyers were subject to numerous humiliations, which I discovered were the inevitable outcome of addiction. And I learned that beyond the humiliation of addiction was death; and not very far beyond either.
How is one to understand this behavior, when the pursuit of a fading pleasure so predictably brings degradation with it? The substance users desired something, and they desired it more than they dreaded humiliation, more than they feared death. But what was it they desired? What was missing?
In natural and human ecology there are curious cyclical connections between death and renewal. Plants and animals die and become part of the soil that produces food for the living. One generation leaves resources for the next. Death precedes rebirth. Human transformation is often understood as the old self being mortified in some fashion to allow the new self to emerge. Transformation rituals, rites of passage, are legitimate and necessary for healthy progress through the stages of life. This is often represented symbolically, as in baptism or graduation ceremonies. In authentic rites of passage, participants are willing to accept humiliation and perhaps risk death for passage into a higher way of life with a better self. If our culture fails to provide productive ways for us to find this renewal in a death-and-rebirth cycle, we seek it out ourselves in ways that are sometimes more destructive than renewing.
Drinking and drug use in college is spoken of by some as a rite of passage, allegedly aiding the transformation from youth to adulthood. The idea is that intoxication represents a sort of death, a passage into a transcendent state, from which the person returns changed in some important and useful way. In legitimate rites of passage, the participant goes through the death-experience in order to receive a gift, after which he or she reenters society with a new and elevated social status, and with a new contribution to make.
The pursuit of intoxication does not accomplish this. It does provide the metaphoric death (transcendent separation from my sober self, entering into a substance using culture) without the subsequent returning to society with genuine, newly acquired gifts to offer. The substance user is seeking something ennobling in an ignoble way, destined to fail because the experience of intoxication eventually takes more than it gives.
A literal death came to the clinic where I worked. A patient who had been building a seemingly healthy recovery from heroin addiction, a guy who was an example and inspiration to other patients, died of a heroin overdose. I visited his family and loved ones who were still dumbstruck by the news. I sat on the sofa in his mother’s living room trying to console his best friend, but not knowing what to say. The friend described how well his buddy had been doing, how bright the future seemed, and how incomprehensible was his return to heroin use. Everything seemed to be going so well. In wide-eyed grief he looked at me and asked, “What was missing?”
What was missing? A tragic question when asked in the past tense. Of all the questions we ponder in life, this question, asked in the present tense, may be one of the most important. If heavy drinking and other drug use are supposed to be rites of passage to a better self by providing something that’s missing, is the strategy succeeding? What is missing and what is gained? Without honest answers to those questions, authentic passage to our better selves is hindered.