Substance Use

A Question of Spirit


We don’t often talk about spirit when discussing substance useI’d like to tell you about how I arrived at a personal understanding of this defining part of existence.

But first, let me ask you something: Have you ever been afraid?

I mean, where you’ve momentarily had the wits scared out of you?

And what happens to your body in that situation?

Your breathing shallows; your heart rate increases. Your blood pressure rises and thinking narrows as you look for escape. It’s classic fight or flight.

Now consider what happens when you drink a couple of beers or smoke a joint or take any mood altering chemical, prescribed or not.

Sure enough, it’s the same: your heart rate goes up, blood pressure too, breathing shallows and thinking narrows. 

Your body goes into a similar fight or flight state.

The body, unaware that’s it’s “only a couple of beers” or “just a haul on a joint” or “my medicine,” is instead under threat from foreign chemicals.

It’s put off-balance, out of something called homeostasis. Here it does everything possible to restore itself back to normal, including engaging the sympathetic system.

Perspiration, breath, heart rate, liver and kidneys are all put to overtime use. Adrenaline and cortisol course through the blood in preparation for fight or flight. The body responds as if under attack.



Simultaneously, the reward neurotransmitter, dopamine, is engaged in the habituated user making them feel good as they buzz along.

However, if you could recall your first experiences with any of these substances, you may remember how your body and mind reacted with fear.

Be it dizziness or vomiting from alcohol use, or an intense fear from cocaine or marijuana. Some say smoking pot for the first time they didn’t feel it, but if they keep at it, eventually they do. I won’t even mention acid trips.


Remember in high school being over at that one friend’s house with the “cool” parents? There, you passed the bong excessively. Stoned silly, before long someone would say, “Dude, your cat is staring at me” And later, “Seriously, do you think your cat knows we’re stoned?”  Laughter ensued… maybe.

Not long after that, we’d be semi-comatose, staring straight ahead while listening to loud music and being unable to move. We called it being “buzzed”; in truth, we were immobilized by fear



Nietzsche said, “All credibility, all good conscience, all evidence of truth comes only from the senses.”

The brain relies on what comes in from touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight to log onto our world. Experience is derived from the senses; undermined sensory inputs means compromised experience.

Alcohol and drugs create a fear response in the body while dopamine triggers reward centers, temporarily masking fear symptoms. Beneath the surface a tug of war is going on while you sit and get high. 


Feelings are experienced mostly in the body through the tenth cranial nerve; the vagus complex connecting your brain stem to most of your internal organs, including the heart and gut. 

Feelings come from experience. Think of what kinds of feelings a baby has compared to an adult. As the baby matures, the variety of emotions displayed increases with experiences. Emotion is constructed from experience.

Feelings are predictive. In any given moment, your brain is scanning its bank of experience for matching emotions from your past to prepare you for the circumstances at hand.

Science tells us we live emotionally and use our brain to explain things after the fact. Emotions rule because they are milliseconds faster than we can think. They act as our early warning system.

The line between reality and imagination increasingly blurred during substance use, the body keeps score.  The brain’s memory doesn’t discern between stoned or drunk and straight. It’s all just input.


After decades of smoking hashish, the last few years as a nightcap to my day the way others use a glass of wine to unwind, I noticed my physical symptoms and asked myself this question:

Can you be afraid and feel confident at the same time?

Most people’s gut answer is no; it’s one or the other as the feelings are mutually exclusive. If you are in fear, you may still be in action but it is unlikely to be with much confidence. It’s more likely you are going through the motions rather than giving things your best.

If emotions are constructed from experience and linger in the body; moreover, if they rule my actions without me even realizing it through a databank of recalled events, I had to ask myself what effect substance use was having on my confidence.


I’m talking about real confidence, the kind gained from trial and error.  Sometimes it comes from taking a big leap of faith; other times it arises from a series of small victories adding up to a quiet competence.

Math is like that, so is spelling and writing. Even riding a bicycle results a lasting physical confidence. Whereas doing something like public speaking for the first time can vault a person into a new sense of self.

So much of our progress in life is as a result of these quests to add to our repertoire of skills and emotional durability.

So who needs confidence? Well, we all do.

I’ve heard it said confidence is the stuff that takes thoughts and turns them into action.  This has broader implications, especially in how it influences our decisions and direction.

Let me ask you another question:

Can we expect to maintain our highest level of confidence when we regularly subject our body to a fear that cannot be resolved with action? 

I had to answer no to this question. I’d work hard at gaining confidence and yet, doubt crept into my life like an insidious invader. It was two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes, admittedly, it was just one step back.

I’m not talking about occasional substance use. I’m referring to habitual use, from more than once per week to daily consumption. Under the fear load this engenders in the body, confidence wanes. It has to.

Over time, this assault on confidence can turn to learned helplessness.

That’s when you tell yourself a story about confidence. Perhaps that it is for other people, something far off in the distance of your existence. Or, more likely, it’s something we just don’t talk about at all.

Can you live this way and survive? Sure. You can get by.

But even now you’ll realize it’s not what Mother Nature or God had in mind when you beat all those other sperm to the egg and won the race for life.

Damn it. This was not supposed to be our destiny.



But here’s what happens. Twenty years may go by.

If you’re lucky, one day you’ll have an epiphany like I did.

You may realize you have not lived those twenty years.

Instead, what you have really done is lived one year… twenty times.                   

Let that sink in a bit. I had to soak in it for a while.

Why did I need this jolt of fear every day? When I searched deeper, it dawned on me I’d been creating fear like this since I was kid. I figured out my family of origin likely set me on this path through its uneven attachments and unpredictable violence.

Paradoxically, I was a fear seeker. Early on, fight or flight had carried the day and I survived, thereby searing its red-hot brand upon my soul.

I lived by it. It meant life or death to me. If there were no fear in my life, I’d seek it out, creating it out of thin-air if needed. That excitement I felt on a Friday night when considering social opportunities for the weekend, was my body reacting with a need for fear masked as exhiliration.

As I recalled the decades gone by, I could see a significant part of my time was spent re-enacting a deep need for fear. Imprisoned this way as a little boy, I carried these emotional shackles into adulthood.

Fact is I meet fear at an entirely different level than most people. I’m strangely attracted to it, mostly beneath my awareness. It’s as if my body survived it before and needed to prove I can survive it again. I was stuck in a loop.

 It’s why I protect the weak against bullies. It’s why my first question when encountering people in new situations is: “How can I help you?” It’s why I act best when I’m protecting my tribe, a brother’s keeper.

My self-concept silently commands: “Stand aside, this is for men.” 

It is because I can, capably, fearlessly.


Once I understood why I continued to use alcohol and drugs, and their longer-term effects on my confidence, the allure soon faded. 

I have a destiny to fulfill, a pact with the universe: living up to my spirit as a guardian to others. I must live true and free.


So let me ask you another question:

How much of your confidence are you willing to sacrifice to keep a fear habit for yet another year?

Because that’s the exact question I asked myself.  

Nietzsche also said, “A snake which cannot cast its skin has to die.”

Whereas Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. said this: “When a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea, it never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”

So how will you stretch and grow into your spirit?


Christopher K Wallace, B.S.T., C.H.

Advisor to Men

© 2017