The Personalist Project

Following the death-by-overdoes of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman last week, a Ricochet contributor raised the question of the use of psychedelic drugs in treating heroin addiction. She thought it scandalous that more isn't being done to research and employ the method, when studies show it to have been effective in some cases.

I commented that I have doubts about the approach. Among other misgivings, I worry that it can become a way of avoiding the prime thing at issue in addiction, which is moral and spiritual, not biochemical. (Our society and culture are so vested in denying or downplaying the spiritual and moral dimensions of human life.) I have similar worries about using ritalin to treat ADHD, or anti-depressants to treat sadness, or gastric bypass surgery to treat obesity.  

Isn't it intuitively plain that at least very often these are fixes that address symptoms, not causes? And unless and until the real causes in the person are addressed, the problem won't really be resolved. 

I'm not absolutely opposed to such treatments. In some cases, clearly, the main thing at hand is biochemical. And even when it isn't, sometimes—no doubt—the causes can't be addressed until the symptoms are alleviated. They are too overwhelming and debilitating. Until a person gets some relief, he will lack the physical and moral wherewithal to address the bigger, more challenging thing going on deeper down in his soul.

I came upon the same basic truth in my hospice training last year. Sometimes pain relief is just what a dying person needs in order to be able to attend to more important final tasks and unresolved issues in his life. On the other hand, sometimes it's a way of avoiding those tasks and issues.

The difference, I think, lies mainly in the interior dispositioin and commitment of the person in question. Does he want to be healed? Does he want to resolve his real problem? He is willing to do what it takes? Or is he looking for a way to avoid dealing with it? 

Kierkegaard has a fasinating passage (Jules will know where) showing that there is a way of repenting that is actually a manifestation of contrition-avoidance. The sinner wants relief from the agitation of guilt, not salvation. So even while he's "repenting" on one level, on another, he's busy denying his guilt and refusing to accept responsibility for the wrong he has done. (Accepting that responsibility would involve coming to terms with extremely painful truths about himself and others. He doesn't want that pain.)

I'm sure I've mentioned before (because I find it so true and frequently apropos) the chapter in C.S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where the bullying, greedy Eustace finds himself, because of his own bad acts, turned into a dragon.

He is sorry and desperate to recover his true self. But he doesn't know what to do. Eventually, he comes upon a lion at a pool. (The reader knows it's Aslan.) The lion tells him to scratch off his skin. Eustace thinks, "Of course! Reptiles shed their skin!" So he scratches and scratches, until his skin peels off and he can step right out of it. He feels great, until he notices that he's still a dragon. He scratches again, and peels off another layer. He's still a dragon. Panicking, he scratches and scratches, leaving dragon hides strewn about, but without succeeding in making any difference in his fundamental condition.

The lion watches calmly until Eustace is exhausted. Then he asks, "Shall I do it?" and holds out a long, terrible claw. Eustace is terrified of the pain. But he understands that the lion is offering the only hope he has of becoming a boy again. He says yes.

If we really want to be restored to our true selves, we have to be willing to be cut to the heart. We have to face the truth of our condition and our powerlessness against it. 

No other method will avail.

Comments (1)

Sam Roeble

#1, Feb 13, 2014 8:12am

Aldous Huxley (author of Brave New World, 1932) wrote of his experience with psychedilc drugs in Doors of Perception (1954).

In it he compares drugs to idolatry that allows for self-transendance--sounding very much like the occult to me!?

The universal and ever-present urge to selftranscendence
is not to be abolished by slamming the currently popular Doors in the Wall. The only
reasonable policy is to open other, better doors in the hope of inducing men and women to exchange
their old bad habits for new and less harmful ones. Some of these other, better doors will be social and
technological in nature, others religious or psychological, others dietetic, educational, athletic. But the
need for frequent chemical vacations from intolerable selfhood and repulsive surroundings will
undoubtedly remain. What is needed is a new drug which will relieve and console our suffering

Sign in to add a comment, or register first.

Forgot your password?