locomotive breath

I’ve been thinking about the nature of addiction lately, and how it relates to mental illness and the urge to violence. Drugs, many of them anyway, serve to curb/diminish/push away the urge to violence that arises in us.

Not just the urge, but that feeling of losing ourselves in our violent urges. The feeling that tells you “if I start hitting something, I won’t be able to stop.” That feeling is a feeling that no one wants to feel, so we do whatever we can to push it away. No, wait, that is also too simplistic.

We are afraid that if we allow our violent feelings out, they will take over. We know that being violent is wrong (in addition to all the other judgments we put on it), so we act by whatever means necessary to prevent our violence from taking over. When we don’t know what else to do, suppressing these urges with drugs becomes necessary.

So, if I suppress these urges with cannabis or if I suppress these urges with Prozac, what’s the difference? Am I addicted to Prozac if I take it every day to prevent the thoughts of violence? What if the violence is directed towards myself? How many people feel suicidal and are given antidepressants on a daily basis? Are they addicted?

The author of a recent memoir recalls his teenage friend, Jeffrey Dahmer, showing up for class in high school drunk and “reeking of alcohol”. It is obvious to him, in retrospect, that Dahmer was doing his utmost to suppress his urges towards violence. He was, in a word, self-medicating.

Ultimately, Dahmer’s attempt at self-medication failed. He then made a choice: he could have sought further help or he could give in to those urges. The fact that he could not control those urges does not negate the fact that he had a choice, as do we all.

Medicating these urges away, whether the medication be prescribed or self-prescribed, is not enough to solve the problem. We need to learn how to deal with these feelings as they arise. Only then will we be free of the need to medicate our urges into oblivion.

Whether our urges to violence are directed at ourselves, our children, or random strangers matters not. We must meet ourselves with compassion and acceptance. Our thoughts are not who we are. Thoughts arise and dissipate, yet we remain. It is only when we choose to act on those thoughts that we create karma. Thinking “I want to punch you in the nose” does not create the same karma as punching a person in the nose. Yet we must see the thought for what it is: “I want to punch someone in the nose. That is a violent thought.” It is easy to then allow ourselves to get caught up in the why of the thing. “I want to punch them because they were mean to me” is usually what we think. But this is not the truth. We need to look deeper. Often, we want to strike out because we feel hurt and something, somewhere, has taught us that striking out is how to deal with feeling hurt.

What’s the answer? Feeling hurt is how to deal with feeling hurt. Violence is another drug that we use to avoid feeling. This is why self-harm goes along with post-traumatic stress. We will do anything to avoid feeling the pain that is inside, including hurting ourselves or those we love.

Learning how to feel that which we fear most, allowing it to arise, be, and diminish as it must is the real medicine. Drugs, legal and otherwise, are a crutch. Crutches allow us to walk when we are still injured—they are neither good nor bad. But they are not helpful if we insist on using them instead of healing the real problem. They are then a symptom of the real problem.

The real problem is learning to accept our feelings as they are, without judgment. They are what they are, it is what it is. We are not our feelings or thoughts. When we step back and watch ourselves and our feelings, who is watching? The solution is awareness and acceptance.

When our feelings and thoughts are barrelling down at us like an out-of-control locomotive, we need to see the train without getting on board. So simple. Not so easy. Yet necessary if we don’t want to live our lives on an out-of-control train.