an essay by Christopher K Wallace
We don’t often talk of spirit when discussing substance use. Go big or go home seems to be the order of the day: all-in belief or nothing. I suppose this might be due to our physiology. After all, our eyes see out. We should be forgiven for seeking answers to big questions out there somewhere. As if looking to the heavens will reflect some perfect truth we can use to guide our actions. There’s merit to this: it often happens.
But first, let me ask you something: Have you ever been afraid? Where you momentarily had the wits scared out of you? What happens?
Your breathing shallows, your heart rate increases, blood pressure rises and thinking narrows as you focus on escape or resolution. We all know these symptoms as classic fight or flight. Now, think of what happens after you drink a couple of beers or smoke a joint or take any other mood-altering chemical. Sure enough, it’s the same thing: breathing shallows, heart rate goes up, blood pressure rises, and most importantly, thinking narrows. Using these substances puts your physiology into a fight or flight state.
The body doesn’t distinguish between medicines; moreover, it has no idea it’s “just a joint,” or “just a couple of beers,” or “doctor prescribed.” It’s all the same, considered as a threat to your system from foreign poisons, where your body is put off-balance, out of something called homeostasis. And once in this state, the body counters by doing everything it can to restore itself back to normal, including engaging the sympathetic nervous system to help.
Perspiration, breath, heart rate, liver and kidneys are all put on overtime use. Adrenaline and cortisol course through your veins in preparation for fight or flight—or freeze or feint, the other two Fs of the 4Fs, and often overlooked when your being is under attack. Meantime, the feel-good neurotransmitter dopamine provides cover for the habituated user, making them think the buzz means everything’s OK. It’s not.
If you think of your first experiences with any of these substances, you may recall how your body and mind reacted with fear. It could be dizziness or vomiting from alcohol use; or an intense fear from using cannabis. Some people say they don’t get off on pot the first time they try it, that’s how good your body is at countering its effects. People stick with it and adapt; eventually, they feel it. Cocaine is another one which induces intense fear. And for some people, first LSD use is the scariest thing ever, resulting in what’s called a “bad trip.”
Remember in high school being over at that one friend’s house with the cool parents, where a garage or basement became a drug zone after school or on weekends? Maybe you passed the bong around until you were all pretty much unable to speak. Oh sure, maybe someone says, “Hey dude, do you think your cat’s stoned? Do you think it knows we’re high, man?” We all thought we were buzzed; when 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; therefore, undermined sensory inputs means compromised experience. Alcohol and drugs create a fear response in the body while using dopamine to trigger your reward centers, keeping awareness of fear symptoms at bay. Beneath the surface, a tug of war is going on while you sit and get high.
The brain and body are not separate entities. In fact, your whole physical being is the universal address of your existence. As such, feelings live as equally in the body as they do in the brain through the tenth cranial nerve. Known as the Vagus Complex, it connects 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, it’s capable of a variety of emotions in increasing complexity as its experience grows. And, feelings are predictive, not reactive as we often think. Much of the brain works this way. Let me explain.
Your brain predicts your sleep and wake cycle and builds up levels of melatonin to prepare you for slumber. It predicts the eventual need for food by signaling with the hormone ghrelin well in advance of meal-times. Even your visual cortex receives inputs from the eye, but also has neurons running the other way, from the cortex, which carry predictions affecting what you see. At any moment, beneath awareness the brain predicts what state is required and scans your bank of previous experiences for matching emotions in preparation for what’s ahead.
In this way, science tells us we live emotionally and use our thinking brain to explain things after the fact. Emotions rule because they occur milliseconds faster than we can think, acting as our early warning system. The line between reality and imagination blurs during substance use, while the body tallies the 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 ten or more years as a nightcap to my day, the way others use a glass of wine to unwind, I noticed (and for the first time really took stock of) my physical symptoms. Then I asked myself this question: “Can you be afraid and confident at the same time?” Most people’s gut answer to this is to answer, 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.
Moreover, if emotions rule my actions, without me even realizing it through my databank of recalled events, I had to ask myself what compounding effect substance use was having on my confidence? I’m talking about real confidence here, the kind gained from trial and error. Sometimes, it comes from taking a great 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 or writing. Even riding a bicycle results in a lasting physical confidence, whereas doing something like public speaking for the first time can vault a person into a new sense of self. Think of the first time you climbed high into a tree or jumped off the high diving board at the local pool. So much of our progress in life is because of these quests to add to our personal repertoire of skills and emotional durability. Life usually gets better when we get better at life.
The times on weekends where I’d drink a half-dozen beers on a Friday or Saturday night, or both, I’d find not much got done during the day. I would also fail to connect with my wife and children in a meaningful way. The things I’d planned to do on my days off were often put off or started but never finished. Once, I built half of a fair-sized shed, became unsure of my plans, so just dismantled it. I stacked the wood behind my house, and never returned to the task. Confidence.
And small things, ordinary demands a man rises to meet during life, were not being handled with any urgency. It didn’t take much to put me off my game. I came to realize with every beer I drank, what I was really doing was sipping on fear and pissing out confidence. Every haul on a joint meant inhaling more fear and exhaling a critical part of my power.
Who needs this confidence thing anyway? Turns out, we all do. I’ve heard it said confidence is the stuff we use to turn thoughts into actions. This has wider implications. Let me ask you, “How then, do you live confidently when you regularly subject your body to a fear state which cannot be resolved with action?” In my case, when I was honest with myself, I had to admit I could not.
I’d work hard at gaining confidence, and yet, doubt would creep back into my life. It meant I didn’t invest in all the technological wonders that have arisen in my lifetime and which I could have easily participated in. It meant I took jobs which kept me safe. It also resulted in me not standing up for myself when I should have. Overall, it kept me playing small. It was two steps forward, and one step back. Sometimes, admittedly, it was just one step back. Though, I had all the trappings of the middle class, I was living a charade.
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, assuredly, confidence wanes. In time, this steady assault on confidence can become something called “learned helplessness.”
That’s when you tell yourself a story about confidence. You may realize it’s for other people, something off in the distance, far from your existence. Or, more likely, it’s something we don’t talk about at all because it means we have given up aspiring to becoming something more. In a measure, we abandon our dreams.
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 defied the odds by beating all those other sperm to the egg and winning the race of life. Damn it. This was not supposed to be our destiny. The Universe wants more from you, from me, and confidence is key to allowing our spirit to fly, to soar with the eagles in full view of the sun.
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 at all. 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 everyday? When I searched a little deeper, it dawned on me. I’d been creating fear like this since I was a 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 for me 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 was no fear in my life, I’d seek it out, create it out of thin air if needed. 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 have been strangely attracted to it, mostly beneath my awareness. It’s as if my body survived it before and needed to prove it could survive it again. I was stuck in a loop. Perhaps it’s why I stand up to bullies. My first question when encountering people is to think or say, “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’s because I can, capably, fearlessly.
Yet, this was the gift I’d allowed to wane over time. The difference between how I saw myself and how I really acted, caused me untold dissonance. Once I understood why I continued to use drugs and alcohol, and how this diminished my confidence, the allure soon faded. I must live true and free. I have a destiny to fulfill, a pact with the universe: to let loose my spirit as a guardian to others. When honourable men use their power for good, in service of themselves and those around them, life becomes meaningful.
This, then, is the key to our freedom.
More questions I asked myself: How much of your confidence are you willing to sacrifice to keep a fear habit for another year? How much more of your spirit can you compromise? We think we have time: we don’t.
And so, it was for me. I had been using drugs and alcohol to narrow my focus. Instead of finding my personal tract, where my spirit could expand and answer the universe’s calling, I was running from it. Narrowing my focus was a good objective, but not this way. I have experienced the zone before: it’s a place where a mighty congruence of my ability and drive and concentration allow me to feel as if I am forcing time to stand still. It’s a place of command, where my spirit lets loose and flies high. And there, fully aware now, filled with meaning from serving myself and others and connected by purpose, I am set free: powerful once more.
It was Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. who once said, “When a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea, it never shrinks back to its former dimensions.”
Stretch my brothers and sisters, and we will find each other there.
CKWallace, Advisor to Men @ckwallace.com
©2018 all rights reserved
(Nietzsche quote, “All credibility…”: Basic Writings of Nietzsche (2011 edition), Modern Library – ISBN: 9780307786791. Also, Beyond Good and Evil, 1886, p. 134)
(Emotions live equally in the body and brain: See Stephen Porges, Polyvagal Theory, 2011, Norton Books ISBN 978-0-393-70700-7)
(Emotions are predictive: See Lisa Feldman Barrett, How Emotions are Made, 2017, Houghton Mifflin, ISBN 978-0-544-12996-2. And The brain is predictive: Diane Kwan writing in the March Scientific American issue, Self-Taught Robots, has a nice graphic about the predictive brain citing How Evolution May Work through Curiousity-Driven Development Process, Pierre Yves Oudeyer, Linda Smith is Topics in Cognitive Science, 2016)
(Holmes quote, “When a man…”, See Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Autocrat at the Breakfast-Table, essay series appearing in Atlantic Monthly (1857) and book (1858))
Christopher K Wallace, B.S.T., C.H.
Advisor to Men
© 2017 and 2018 ckwallace.com