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Altered States: Making Sense of Drug-Induced Highs

altered states of consciousness

A key characteristic of alcohol and drugs is that they alter our states of consciousness. As obvious as this is, it is amazing that few people bother even talking about it.

What we read and hear about is that people use because of depression, anger, problems in the family, problems at work, and trauma. In reality, there are many ways of dealing with these problems. The vast majority people don’t turn to drugs for relief.

When we do addiction research, we discover that people use drugs when then are sad, but they also use drugs when they are happy. They use drugs when they are angry, but they also use when they are not angry. They use drugs when they are depressed, but they also use drugs when they are not depressed. Many people with addictions grew up in a chaotic family, but many also grew up in a stable family. We also know from research that those with addiction problems struggle with boredom and loneliness. Life just isn’t all that interesting or exciting without the substance and the lifestyle that goes with it.

We seem to talk about everything except the obvious: some people take substances because they like the feeling they get from being intoxicated. Whatever this feeling is, it is more appealing than not being intoxicated.

Most addiction treatment programs do not talk about the drug experience. They believe talking about “highs” promotes drug use. Others don’t talk about it because, frankly, they are not familiar with what the experts have reported. Others think that it is just plain deviant. We at Sunshine Coast Health Centre believe that it provides a clue into why intoxication is so appealing. It offers a clue to the drug’s power, beyond just calling it a disease.

So what is this altered state of consciousness? What makes it appealing? This blog looks at what experts and users tell us about the experience of intoxication. This is very important information for recovery. Understanding the appeal of intoxication helps us understand what recovery is all about.

William James and Making Sense of Mysteries

William James was one of the most influential thinkers in the last one hundred years. He was fascinated by how the human mind works, including different states of consciousness. He even studied various drug-induced altered states, convinced that such knowledge would help us understand what it meant to be human.

Intoxication by sniffing nitrous oxide (laughing gas) provided James with one example of why drugs are so powerful. He found that people high on laughing gas receive a “tremendously exciting sense of an intense metaphysical experience.” In other words, they seemed to find answers to the mysteries of life, the big complicated questions. How do we explain good and evil? What is the meaning of my life? Intoxicated, the person sees “depth beneath depth” of insight.

About alcohol, James talks about reconciliation of seeming opposites, a key part of its temptation. While intoxicated, James says that he wrote down opposites—God and devil, good and evil, life and death, ecstasy and horror. He said that they came together with “infinite rationality,” that he could see the logic that unified them.

Twenty years later, James wrote that alcohol’s power is in its ability to make the imbiber feel as if he has touched a higher reality. Grass is greener, jokes are funnier, and even total strangers can be instant friends.

James had no doubt why nitrous oxide and alcohol had such great appeal. Imagine the feeling of firmly understanding some of the mysteries of the universe and of the hidden ways in which you, me, and the world are connected.

Freedom to be Yourself

Here are some things that users said to researchers about what it’s like to be high on crack cocaine:

  • “I felt like Superman. I got to move mountains.”
  • “It was the feeling that I had been searching for.”
  • “It’s not like the personal joy of climbing a mountain…and you finally make it to the top. It’s not like finishing a…marathon…you got that super high, that rush or whatever. The high from crack is higher, more intense than those feelings.”
  • “It’s like the world world, life is beautiful. I feel great. I have a lot of ideas. My mind just opens tremendously. My mind is like really fast and I think better. I feel good. I feel life is wonderful. I can do anything.”

These are quite amazing statements. The researcher, Joaquin Trujillo from the US Department of State, was interested in understanding the appeal of a crack cocaine high. He concluded that crack gave the user the feeling that he or she could be human.

What he meant by this is that the user had the freedom to be him/herself. They described this feeling of being free from shame, free from the pressures of responsibility. Some described this freedom of being “numb” to negative and uncomfortable feelings.

We often talk about being true to the self. This freedom to be oneself, to feel comfortable in your own skin and in the world, is what many people tell us is the appeal of drugs.

Connecting with the Universe

Feeling at one with the universe—this sounds like some bad Hollywood movie where everyone talks about cosmic consciousness.

Psychologist Jonathan Diamond noted our desire for drugs is “not only to escape pain that humanity turns to drugs, it is for communion with God.” This idea was, of course, Bill Wilson’s insight into why alcoholics drank and became the baseline for Alcoholics Anonymous.

The Government of Canada arrived at a similar idea in its famous 1971 Royal Commission on the Use of Non-Medical Drugs in Canada:

“Modern drug use would definitely seem to be related…to the collapse of religious values…. [T]here is definitely the sense of identification with something larger, something to which one belongs as part of the human race.”

Even if this statement did not come from the federal government, it’s a remarkable conclusion on why people use drugs.

Being at one with the universe means that you feel connected. You don’t feel as if you are an outcast. You have that wonderful feeling of belonging. If you have the feeling that you belong, then you must also have the feeling that you are important because this is where you are meant to be.

Our Clients

Each example provided in this article showed that addiction is powerful because of the positive feelings that drugs provide.

At some point during treatment, we ask clients to recall a time when they were high or drunk. Then clients are asked what they got from the drug experience. A typical answer is, “nothing!”, but one of the truths about human beings is that everyone does everything for a reason.

When we talk deeply to clients about their drug experiences, we always find that drug use was not merely escaping pain. There was some big payoff. Some typical things we hear from clients are:

  • “This is the way I was meant to feel.”
  • “It gave me a break from always having to do things for other people. Got rid of all the stress and worry, so I could do what I wanted.”
  • “I could think about things that fascinated me.”
  • “I loved how fast I could think…I could make sense of things.”
  • “I loved listening to music stoned. It filled me up.”

One of the keys to recovery is having experiences that make life worth living, but without the drugs. That takes time and practice. There can be no sitting back, expecting that life will somehow magically come alive. We all have to work at it.

The thing for people in recovery to remember is that this is and was inside you from the start. You just needed the drugs to bring it out. Now, in recovery, you have to find a more natural way. As people with fulfilling recoveries will tell you, “it gets better”.

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