It won’t go away. Addiction keeps mocking me to come up with some way of thinking about it that will accommodate the varied views that vie for supremacy in my head. Addiction just won’t sit still and be conceptualised. No sooner have I convinced myself it is a myth, a story that purports to explain the inexplicable, than the gory, sordid and tragic realities of real people’s addictions hit me in the face again.

We might say that we need a concept of addiction so that we can treat it. This has the ring of practicality about it. Here’s someone doing dreadful damage to himself and his family by continued intake of poisonous stuff. We must “treat” him, turn him from this path of self-destruction. But first we must know what it is we are treating: we must have a concept of it, and because we are setting out to “treat” it, an illness model of some sort is going to be very convenient.

What is it, Doctor? Am I going to die? What have I got? Addiction, you say? Can it be cured? No? But that’s absurd. It doesn’t behave like most other illnesses: it’s not a malfunction of any part of our physiology, it’s not viral nor is it transmitted in any way that medicine can detect. Addiction is quite like the conditions listed by psychiatry as being treatable with neurochemicals – schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, depression – in that its relationship with physical function is hard to pin down and that its definition changes constantly.

Over the last hundred years, the need to treat this ever-widening condition has led to the gradual development of a story of addiction that fits the needs of those that would treat it. A rather wobbly set of symptoms, both physical and psychological, has been described, but they vary widely according to the circumstances, substance or behaviour. The “disease” follows a fairly predictable path through time and it is possible to make a prognosis as to the likely outcome of particular addicts.

My argument is that all of this is a story; a useful one no doubt, but a narrative none the less. I don’t mean an untruth, but a convincing crystallisation, by both those that would treat and those that would be treated, of a particular neighbourhood of human suffering.

It is interesting that the disease of addiction’s one big difference from all other illnesses lies in the sufferer’s acceptance of the story. At least in the 12 step view of things, one of the key symptoms is that the sufferer will tend to deny they have “got” addiction. They cannot recover from it if they don’t accept they have it. This is very weird: you have to make the narrative real to recover from the narrative.

Addiction would seem to be a malady of metaphor. The Goons used to pay each other with photos of five pound notes. Addiction is a photo of an illness.

To be addicted is to have something wrong with you, for sure, but that’s a long way from an illness. To grieve at the death of a loved one is to have something wrong with you, but we wouldn’t call that an illness, except as a metaphor, a figure of speech, a phrase applied to a phenomenon to which it is not literally applicable. Addiction is a figure of speech.
Addicts tell a story of illness to themselves and others. You can turn that round: those that tell stories of addiction-illness to themselves and others are addicts. You become one by telling the stories. It’s not my fault; it’s the illness what makes me do these things. I don’t have to feel guilty; it’s the illness what done it. But this is absurd. A metaphor is ruining my life? Ah but it’s no ordinary metaphor. This metaphor has symptoms, a figure of speech that hurts!

The Theatre of the Absurd, as exemplified by the writings of Alfred Jarry, Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco, starts from the premise that life is inherently without meaning, or that it’s meaning is absurd, so one must make or discover one’s own. Perhaps the best known absurdist play is Beckett’s Waiting for Godot whose non-plot concerns two tramp-like figures, Vladimir and Estragon, awaiting the arrival of a mysterious figure called Godot. That’s about it. They wait, and while they wait they engage in absurd conversation, which is, in its pointlessness, very funny. Nothing happens, except perhaps for a philosophical rant from a dog-like human, Lucky. Godot never shows up. The absurdity and the waiting are themselves the meaning. It’s about how humans react to the passing of time, about what we do to pass the time. The tramps mostly wait. And talk.

Becket wrote a novel called How it Is, where poetry fuses with prose, where we are reduced to the rhythms of man gasping for breath while clinging to the very minimum conditions of existence. It tells us how it is by not doing so. Waiting for Godot tells us that all we are doing is whiling away the time while waiting for the man. Addicts, in the broadest sense of the word, are telling themselves and those around them that their lives are how it is. They have reduced life to the one-pointed absurdity of being trapped in a never-ending spiral of diminished highs and amplified lows. Everything else is metaphor.

Put too simply, addicts of all kinds spend their lives either being high or waiting to be high again.

The waiting is driven and excused by a pre-occupation with life as addiction, the pain of absence, described in addict-speak as “withdrawal symptoms” or the “shakes”. The metaphor is made physical by actual physiological omens like sweating, aching and shaking. The myth has become real.

But there is no meaning in it. By living such a life, an addict chooses to make meaning out of the absurd rituals and time-whiling that an addict must engage in. As Beckett said of Waiting for Godot: “It means what it says”. The tramps do their silly, Marx Brothers inspired stuff, just waiting, keeping themselves amused. Addiction is an enactment of meaninglessness.

Is there a meaning of which this meaninglessness is a lack? Does being busy, doing sensible things like earning money, contributing to society, give us meaning? I don’t think it’s that easy. The millions that died in the 20th Century’s wars were being busy, doing sensible things. Being a soldier was a sensible thing to do. For those that did it, even being a guard at Dachau, to give an extreme example, was a sensible thing to do.

Jarry’s pataphysical plays of the absurd were in part a reaction to the pointless carnage of the First World War, while Becket wrote Waiting for Godot soon after many more millions were slaughtered for no good reason in WWII. The meaninglessness enacted in the Theatre of the Absurd is more than a simple lack of meaning; it says the meaning we need cannot be had in the realm of time and space. There is meaning that we can live by, but it transcends polarisation. It is beyond space and time. Maybe we can call it “love”.

Calling addiction a ‘metaphor with symptoms’ and an ‘enactment of meaninglessness’ could sound like I think addicts themselves are meaningless, which is precisely what I do not intend. The nub of the matter is this: Waiting for Godot is a compelling, enduring and life-enhancing piece of theatre simply because the absurdity he depicts is in the tramps’ occupation of space and time, not in them as human beings. The humour is in their attempts to endow their waiting and complaining with human qualities, to lift them above the ridiculous.

Whether hooked on illegal drugs, alcohol, prescription drugs or compulsive behaviours, addicts develop complex rituals for their Theatre of the Addiction. The meaning of their lives is in the scoring, fixing, enjoying, withdrawing, scoring, fixing, enjoying less, withdrawing more and round and round. “Keep going, going on, call that going, call that on,” wrote Beckett in the second line of The Unnameable. Whether they subscribe to the illness model of addiction, addicts’ behaviour is saying this is how life really is. Nothing else matters. This is all there is.

The Theatre of the Absurd agrees with them. We may think our lives are full of meaning, that our projects, our families, our careers are deeply significant, but actually we are just like the protagonist in Beckett’s novel The Unnameable, where he is doomed, as in one of those repetitive anxiety nightmares, to hobble on his crutches (he only has one leg) in the mud in a spiral around a circular house. When he finally gets to the middle of the house, he discovers that his family lived there and have been killed by sausage poisoning. Absurd, despairing and unbearable, or funny and oddly life-enhancing?
Meaning has a great deal to do with happiness. We can and do get satisfaction from our worldly activities, but if we think they can bring us the real and lasting happiness we crave before we die, then we are doomed to be frustrated and disappointed. As one small example look at recent surveys of Lottery winners: winning millions does not make you happy. All our busy-ness can do, in the end, is distract us from our dissatisfaction. Both the Theatre of the Absurd and the drama of addiction know this, but they respond to this knowledge differently: Beckett makes transcendent art, while addicts enter an unhealthy contract with death, saying I don’t care if this way of life, this absurdity, kills me. As the opium addict and film maker, Jean Cocteau, put it: “Here I am trying to live, or rather, I am trying to teach the death within me how to live.”

To be killed by a metaphorical way of life! Addicts are in agreement – consciously or not – with absurdists, surrealists and mystics: a life with no fear of death can be lived on a different plane. They all pay a high price for this state of being: mystics give up the world, surrealists and absurdists give up meaning, but addicts are forced into dancing a destructive duet with negativity that robs them of human nobility.

Vaclev Havel, the Czech playwright whose work had a strong absurdist tone and who became president of his country wrote: “Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity…” Unhooked Thinking is about laughing in the face of the absurdity of addiction and finding a great deal of sense.

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