“Matt, are you there? Matt?” Nearly twelve years later, remnants of a final conversation still run through my mind. His voice, as familiar as though I’d talked to him yesterday. “How are you doing, Matt?” We were planning a visit home for the 4th of July, but he sounded preoccupied, tired, and it was all I could do not to panic. On the verge of another relapse. I knew it.
How long have we been an anxious, addictive culture struggling to overcome the pitfalls of the human condition? When history takes the lead, the answer is obvious—for a very long time—but now the opioid crisis, meth crisis, whatever the “current crisis” is, mostly generates a plethora of tragic-sounding headlines that rarely offer innovative or effective solutions. Unfortunately, the national conversation is stale, riddled with nonsensical ideas that manage to conceal or minimize the deeper cultural issues.
My son, sadly caught up in this curious cultural drama to the point of suicide at 27, made me wonder if useful ideas and impressions might be chiseled from the shroud of grief. The short answer, of course, is yes. Things were learned along the way, and I understood from my graduate work in sociology that we will always be a culture in search of itself via a plethora of avenues, methods, hopes, and dreams. And since individual proclivities fuel the inner and external storm at the center of any society and culture, the fierce complexities of the ongoing search for safe haven and personal actualization are guaranteed. Internet search engines tell the story quite well: “us” … perpetually in search of something.
Clearly, we are a restless, malcontent world—people with issues—and a growing number seem unable (or unwilling) to weather the storm without turning, consciously or otherwise, to some form of addiction. The avenues to addiction are endless; it can be misleading to exclusively focus on drugs, per se. Gambling, sex, food, alcohol, video games, shopping, television, even sugar. Hard drugs are simply a deadlier form of addiction.
Since various forms of addiction and life challenges are often intertwined in a fuzzy sort of way, choosing a precise cause can be futile. The more critical question—one we seem content to gloss over—is why, as a species, are we so susceptible to addiction in all of its many guises? Where, in the end, is our incessant “searching” taking us?
I’m guessing we don’t really know. Many addicts are merely caught up in something larger than life, spinning in vicious circles in a poorly disguised effort to find a worthy stopping point. But, perhaps, we all need to look more intently at ourselves in a sharper mirror. Avoid focusing on individual shortcomings quite so much, and look more deeply at the myriad influences that are spawning an anxious, addictive culture.
The tendency is to “fix the addict,” so we can just solve this insidious problem once and for all. But that’s a knee jerk reaction, if you will. Addicts of all kinds are a reflection of our collective existence as a society—yet another revealing symptom of what ails us.
So what exactly does ail us? Is there a fruitful answer to this question?
Perhaps, we will never know; maybe the struggle “to know” is inherent to the human condition: a permanent malady, a strange fixation on dissatisfaction, an unwillingness to contend with pain or discomfort as necessary or normal or unavoidable. If this is the case, however, we’ll never be free of our collective, addictive tendencies—the many ways we “cope” with pain and the world around us. And since ceaseless dramatic tides invariably wash to our protected, personal shores, a difficult life seems guaranteed.
Don’t we all lead “troubled lives” of one kind or another? This admission alone strikes me as a good place to begin in a quest for better understanding of everything that ails us. Then, maybe, more people, young and old, can find a worthy stopping point in the midst of a frenzied culture that encourages, subtly and otherwise, an ongoing search for something nameless and possibly nonexistent.
Here’s one example of how our culture maintains this treacherous cycle of addiction. My son fought the lure of drugs for many years, managed to “hit bottom” innumerable times, and when he lost his life, I wondered, in a distressed, rueful way, if this was finally it. The coveted bottom. Used as a cultural catchall for anything deemed significantly unfortunate in an ongoing series of missteps, hitting bottom theory (a well-known concept that misleads, deceives) is nothing more than a disastrous guessing game. Why?
Too often when a “new low” occurs—an event or situation that feels significantly worse than all prior events—addicts, and those around them, quietly mutter that now the dark, inky bottom has surfaced. And hopefully, a magical (life-changing) corner also has been turned in the progression of a lifestyle, a disease, a condition, a disorder, defined somewhat differently by nearly everyone.
Yet, until a death, there is always a new low, a new bottom, fluttering in the background, even as many are understandably tempted to conclude that this is the bottom. Isn’t it easy to see how this illogical, counterproductive concept sets up addicts, families, friends, professionals, and society for endless trauma and confusion as everyone scurries to reassemble the pieces yet again, while privately still fearing the real bottom?
I know what the bottom looks like for my son and, unfortunately, there is no “next time” on the horizon. No more chances for redemption or recovery. Hitting bottom is absolutely the wrong yardstick when it comes to the vagaries—enormous, gut-wrenching challenges—of life on planet Earth. So why don’t we adopt a more appropriate way to view setbacks—dangerous conditions that necessitate getting up and starting over time and time again? We know relapses are inherent to stabilization and recovery, so slapping generic labels on them clearly isn’t a helpful direction.
In a memoir I spent seven years writing, The Silence of Morning: A Memoir of Time Undone, I shared my son’s story—intense valleys, guarded optimism, the spiritual inquiry it provoked in me—in far greater depth. One thing, however, is perfectly clear: if you, or anyone you know, is desperately trying to avoid a final silence, let me say this much to you—I hope you find a better way to frame your life situation. Waiting until you “hit bottom” may be much too late. No one knows what that means, for one thing, and you do not want to find out.
How many times was I certain my son had reached the end of his struggles, arrived somewhere safer, more promising and constructive? Another low blow that surely would turn things around once and for all? I don’t know, because honestly, I lost count well before we had to bury him that bright, fateful day in June. The needs of the addicted are real, and definitely, varied, but hitting bottom is not one of them.
There is no path to tomorrow, not really. There is only the path that leads to deeper awareness of this, and each, moment. I’m not sure how or when I became fully aware of this, but it was during the breathless years that followed Matt’s death. No matter how fast I ran—how much urgency I affixed to goals, plans, and schedules—there was only one destination: the one within.
The same idea holds true for those struggling to defeat something as baffling as addiction. Most of us live and function within addictive cultures, visible or completely hidden from view, with growing numbers seeking escape from endless forms of pain and human suffering. Usually most anything will do. Yet, these frightening methods of escape are rocky and uncertain: littered with dead-ends, dark moments of hopelessness, anxiety, depression, even new and bigger problems.
Instead of pushing on in a relentless search for something nameless—a futile effort to avoid, yet, find, the bottom at the same time—I can’t help but wish my son would have quit running from the confusing world that swirled around him, and, instead, stood calm and resolute in front of a full-length mirror. Realistically, he may have sensed there was no bottom besides death, yet, he wasn’t able to consciously acknowledge this harsh, unforgiving truth in time to save his own life.
Matthew is gone, but if his life-and-death struggle—a treacherous path to a so-called bottom—touches the heart of anyone desperately clinging to life, I’m thankful. Maybe, for instance, someone reading this will pause, take a deep breath, and muster the courage to forge on in a slightly improved way, and maybe he or she will prevail.
Photo Credit Shutterstock, ID: 1140145832