Recently I have seen many articles in the newspapers about the growing use of more serious drugs (like heroin and methamphetamine) in the United States. And not just among poor people who one could simply write off as people who live in so much despair that drugs become a way of redirecting their consciousness. Heroin and methamphetamine are being used by all sectors of the population. And what makes these two drugs such a cause for concern is that they are so physically addictive. They both can get a person addicted the first time he uses them. And in both cases, the addiction can be lethal.
So why are people risking their lives to achieve the altered mental states created by these drugs. Ordinary middle class people are doing them. It seems to me that these drugs are part of a larger problem that has been previously discussed in this column. People today are suffering the effects of the technological transformation of their environment. Technology has created living environments that have patches or aspects that are overstimulating and vast areas that are understimulating. In the past, I have used the name “vacuum and tension-pocket environments”. Human beings have searched to find ways to use technology to create safe frictionless living environments that exist above and apart from the organic perishability of nature. In the process, they create waste products like crowded noisy polluted urban spaces. As a result of these sensorily distorted living spaces, people feel alternately numb from understimulation and jaded from overstimulation. They experience themselves as floating in an experiential vacuum filled with pockets of abrasive static stimuli. People have lost their grounding in nature and in more traditional organic living environments like villages, and, as a result, they have lost their grounding in themselves. They have little or nothing to hold onto in themselves to help them form and maintain coherent organic senses of self. Loss of grounding leads to a loss of feeling, leading to the search for experiences that heighten and focus their sensations with what is commonly called kicks. Heroin and methamphetamine may ultimately kill people, but while they are being used, they pull people out of what they experience as the living death of sensory distortion.
Concerned people today focus major attention on heroin and methamphetamine, because they are so obviously physically and psychologically destructive. But there are many different kinds of addiction that have evolved to help people survive their loss of grounding in their vacuum and tension-pocket living environments. Often the word habituation is used today in discussing many psychological dependencies. Yet in other situations, people do talk about addiction to gambling and to sex. So for the purposes of this article, which is to show some common causes for many disparate forms of behavior, I am going to use the word addiction even for psychological dependencies.
To deal with many of these addictions, one approach has been to develop programs which are modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous. Apart from alcoholics and drug addicts, there are programs for gamblers, sexaholics and overeaters among others. Gambling like alcohol can be done in moderation without causing any harm to the people who engage in it. But for people who are addicted, both gambling and alcohol can be eliminated from their lives without any harmful side effects. Gambling is such a destructive addiction, because people can end up financially depleted and families can be destroyed. Alcohol, in sustained excess, causes serious health problems.
Sexaholism is at least partly caused by the general approval of sexual freedom in modern technological society. Having many partners is encouraged among young people by modern culture. It is supposedly part of exploring one’s sexuality and learning about oneself. It is also, as has been discussed previously in this column, a way of getting organic sensory variety to compensate for the lack of organic sensory variety in modern technological living environments. In effect, free love becomes a substitute for nature and traditional architecture. Sex becomes an addiction when one needs a constant kick from it to pull oneself out of the loss of feeling that is generated by the sensory distortion that is a part of modern technological living environments. This need, of course, impedes the development of a sustained intimate relationship with a partner that can give meaningful emotional grounding and that can provide the foundation for creating a family. Or if a sexaholic does get married, the condition can eventually lead to the damaging or destruction of the marriage. A sexaholic can also have problems focusing when he is at work. Finally, sexaholics are predisposed to getting venereal diseases and sexaholic women are predisposed to having unwanted pregnancies. However, apart from venereal disease and pregnancy, which don’t affect everybody with this addiction, most of the problems that sexaholics experience are more subtle than those of a drug addict, an alcoholic or a gambler. Nevertheless, they are problems that can leave him feeling frighteningly alone, living in an emotional experiential vacuum.
Overeating is an excess of something that is needed in order to physically survive. It is based on internalizing the experiential vacuum and tension-pocket living environment in order to gain control over it and get rid of it. One gets rid of the internal vacuum and tension-pocket environment by filling up the stomach with food and drink and thus trying to give oneself internal grounding. The problem is that the emptiness of the stomach is not the real problem. It is rather the sensory distortion of the external living environment which has been internalized. The person is empty of the experiential grounding that is needed, in the same way food and drink are needed by the human body. And because the external living environment is so vast, one can never eat enough food to effectively fill up the internalized version of it. Which is why the person suffering from overeating keeps eating and eating and gets fat. The mass of fat is a defense against the sensory distortion the person is experiencing.
But then a person who develops a defense against the sensory distortion can develop defenses against the defense. One defense against overeating is to develop bulimia and to start forcing oneself to throw up his food. Another defense is to start eating very, very little and become anorexic.
And then there are other emotional states that are not normally considered addictions to the extent of the conditions that we have just been talking about. Does the accumulation of things constitute an addiction? It doesn’t affect a person’s health the way drugs, excess alcohol and overeating do. It doesn’t usually lead to total impoverishment or the destruction of families the way that gambling does. It doesn’t directly lead to deficient relationships the way that being a sexaholic does. And yet we can say that certain kinds of relentless accumulation of things can indicate emotional problems. A symptom of such a problem is if a person can only obtain a brief sense of pleasure from an acquisition and then returns to feeling empty from being in an experiential vacuum. The person jumps from acquisition to acquisition looking for a new island of grounding in his vacuum and tension-pocket field of experience and always being disappointed. And each failed attempt at grounding with a new possession leaves a person feeling emptier than before the acquisition, because he lets down his defense of numbness to embrace the new acquisition.
Sometimes the accumulation is a generalized accumulation of lots of different things. Sometimes it focuses on one kind of item. Clothes, jewelry, art objects, books, or cars. The accumulation of one kind of thing leads to the formation of a collection. Not all collections can be called the foundation for an addiction. If a person can obtain a sustained pleasure from his whole collection, and if individual items within the collection can continue to provide pleasure over time, then we can say that the collection does provide a kind of surrogate grounding, a miniaturized grounding that acts as an attempt to substitute for a real grounding in a more natural living environment, and is not a true addiction. It is only when a person jumps from one acquisition to another, building up his collection, and yet not sustaining his interest and pleasure in individual items enough to have a sustained interest in his group of objects as a collection, that we can say that the person has a kind of addiction. And, in truth, because there is not enough sustained interest in his collection as a whole, we can say that the person does not fully experience his collection as a collection. Because the person cannot sustain interest in individual objects or his collection over time, the person has a desperate need to fill his internal vacuum and tension-pocket living environment by buying more and more new objects. Sometimes, the person runs out of room for his objects in his residence.
Another perspective on this relates to the kind of value a person places on what he acquires. If a person acquires something and truly values that object for its intrinsic merits, then that object can be a part of a surrogate grounding for the person. If the person acquires an object primarily because of an immediate rush of stimulation that it gives, a rush that can quickly dissipate, then that object can be part of an acquisition addiction. The latter kind of object is acquired for its instrumental value, for its immediate effect on the acquirer, rather than for its intrinsic value, for a sustained appreciation of the object.
Instrumental value acquisitions are, among other things, the basis of conspicuous consumption in modern technological society. One buys clothes, for example, not merely because of a true sustained appreciation of them, but because of the status that is acquired as a result of wearing the clothing of certain styles and certain labels. But because what constitutes fashion is so ephemeral, and clothing acquisitions can go out of style quickly, a person can become addicted to constantly buying new clothing to stay in fashion. There is little sustained intrinsic value in most fashion items.
The conspicuous consumer has the delusion that by buying the right objects, he will gain status and acceptance and grounding with the group of people of which he wants to be a part. But it can never be a stable grounding, because one always has to buy new fashionable objects, in particular, clothes, in order to demonstrate that he still deserves to be considered a part of the group. The so-called grounding is so shallow that missteps, particularly with the clothing, can lead to being frozen out of the group.
And then there is the addiction that all capitalist societies seem to encourage to some extent and that is an addiction to money. Without a certain amount of money, one can’t be a conspicuous consumer. However, money is by no means necessarily intrinsically a basis for addiction. It is the medium by which people in modern societies conduct their economic transactions. But it becomes an addiction for many people in modern society who see it as a means for defending themselves against the sensory distortion of the vacuum and tension-pocket living environment in which they reside. For such people, they can never have enough money, even when they are already wealthy. For them, it is not only using that money to buy more and more new products and services. It is having that money as something to which they can cling, something tangible that they can try to use as grounding to defend themselves against the sensory distortion they experience.
In truth, we can say that the loss of organic grounding created by modern technological society predisposes the development of all kinds of addictions and not just the obvious ones of drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, and overeating. Granted that the well-known addictions are the most obviously destructive, but conspicuous consumption and an addiction to money are harmful to the extent that they leave a person stressed, anxious and depressed, because he isn’t addressing the real need of which he needs to take care – the need for organic grounding.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow