Boredom & Drugs

Boredom & Drugs

Aburrimiento y drogas

Lars Svendsen

 In a prose-poem Charles Baudelaire writes: “You must always be intoxicated. […] So as not to feel the horrible burden of Time that breaks your shoulders and bends you to the earth you must intoxicate yourselves without respite. […] So as not to be the martyred slaves of Time, intoxicate yourselves; intoxicate yourselves unceasingly.”

There are solid statistical grounds for assuming a connection between boredom and the use of drugs. The rush of intoxication can often banish boredom. Intoxication can be positive. It can be constructive and improve our lives. But it can, of course, also do the opposite. When drugs are to be mentioned in offi cial contexts nowadays, it seems as if it is unacceptable to talk about the positive aspects of them, but there is —despite everything—a reason why they are taken. In Junkie, William S. Burroughs argues that you become a junkie because you don’t have any motivation to do anything else, and that drugs win on a walk-over. But the substances undoubtedly have certain other qualities that motivate people to take them. The obvious answer as to why people take drugs is quite simple: They want to! I am not claiming that this answer is particularly profound or all that enlightening in itself, but it is an answer that is seldom mentioned. If one is to fi nd out why people take drugs, however, I believe that it is vital not to lose sight of this completely obvious point.

Two obvious reasons for taking drugs are quite simple: One can improve something one expects to be good, such as a party, and one can make something less sad, miserable or boring. There is no denying the fact that drugs often function excellently in both cases. Experiences of being intoxicated are often good experiences. It is also clear that taking drugs can be a directly meaningful act and can be an activity that is highly social. There are loads of rituals connected with the use of drugs, not least when it comes to sharing and the like, and these rituals vary from substance to substance. Ritual acts have a symbolic nature, and symbols are social entities. They are external representations of semantic entities and the inherent meanings are something round which we gather. In principle, anything can acquire such a symbolic function. Martin Heidegger writes about how things thing. This means that things have a unifying effect. The word ‘thing’ originally means collection or gathering. Things unite us and give us an identity. The example Heidegger himself provides is a jug of wine that collects people round a table. But it can just as well be a mirror with some lanes of amphetamine or cocaine. The mirror with drugs has a unifying effect on those gathered round it, and makes them a community. As far as the concept of group pressure is concerned, I fi nd it somewhat misplaced in this connection: One is not pressured to take drugs by the group; most often it is more a question of a willed identifi cation with a group. As far as certain groups are concerned, such an identifi cation involves taking drugs. This is experienced as a highly meaningful activity that contributes to giving those taking the drugs a common identity—and that furthermore separates them from decent people who do not take them. An alternative reality can be created to the outside world—the great big, serious world out there.

At this point, it is tempting to introduce Michel Foucault’s concept of ‘heterotopias’. Heterotopias are defi ned as ‘singular spaces in given social spaces whose functions differ from or are even the opposite of others’. The heterotopia is a space of otherness. Heterotopias do not fi t the existing order. In a heterotopia the other places of society are ‘represented, contested and inverted’; it is a place that is ‘outside all places, even though it can be localised’. It represents a free space that to a certain extent is outside the control and order of society. For my part, I can recall the old days of the 1990s when a rave party could be a heterotopia. Raves are apparently back in again now, but I have become too old to take part any more. The heterotopia is a space where one suddenly fi nds oneself on the other side of a border, where society stands on the outside and one fi nds oneself on the inside. To go to a rave party is to enter into an anti-structure that contradicts the structure of everyday life, where one is tied up in a well-organised life of work, school or study. And in this heterotopia intoxication plays a decisive role. One can admittedly go to a rave without taking drugs, but drugs play a vital role for the heterotopia’s identity —as a bearing element in its anti-attitude to society outside. And not least because of their contribution to letting loose the irrational, as in the bacchanalia of Antiquity. And when the morning comes, one leaves the heterotopia, one leaves the anti-structure and sleeps for a while before returning to the normal structure and order of society. This is experienced as a highly meaningful exception from everyday existence.

Most of those who take drugs can handle it very well. But not all. One of my best friends died from an overdose of heroin. He was not a regular user, and he got mixed up with a substance he didn’t know how to use. Other friends have ended up seriously dependent. This dependence has a social and mental component which, in my opinion, is more important than the chemical dependence. In other words, I believe that drug dependence cannot be properly understood as a purely physiochemical phenomenon. I am far more disposed to consider it as a dependence on a lifestyle —one that seems to give life some sort of meaning. The use of intoxicants ought, in short, to be considered as a meaning project. That does not mean of course that dependence is any simpler to break—but it gives it a different perspective.

Presumably, we can become dependent on virtually anything. At an abstract level, there is not all that much difference between various types of dependence, but in practice they express themselves very differently. But one dependence that is rarely mentioned is perhaps the most widespread of them all—that on meaning. Man is a being that is dependent on meaning. All of us have a great problem: Life must be fi lled with some content or other. We cannot cope with a life devoid of content. Lack of content is boring. And boredom can figuratively be described as a abstinence of meaning. Boredom can be said to be a discomfort that announces that the desire for meaning is not being satisfi ed. To remedy this, and in the absence of ‘the real thing’, whatever that might be, we resort to various substitutes for meaning. One such substitute is drugs.

For most people, this substitute for meaning is only a small element of a life with innumerable other meanings and substitutes for meaning. It can be something as simple as trying something once or twice. Most people stop there. Some go further and use drugs on a more regular basis. And then we have those who go even further and end up with a major problem. I would basically reserve the term ‘abuse’ for this last group —without this meaning that I consider all other forms of use to be unproblematic. What is it that typifi es this last group? Drugs become the dominant meaning in their life—that which everything else centres on. One has found a substitute for meaning that outdoes practically every other consideration. It is of course not so easy to give this up. In the fi lm Trainspotting the main character says that there is one great advantage about being hooked on heroin: While life is full of all sorts of problems for normal people, the heroin addict only has one single problem—how to get hold of dope.

As a drug-abuser one has content in one’s life: to get oneself a fi x. Once there is no more left, one has to fi ll the void that follows. This is where we fi nd the greatest challenge with regard to rehabilitation. For when this substitute for meaning disappears, when one is no longer intoxicated, what is one left with then? Where does one fi nd oneself when the drugs and everything connected to them are no longer there? If we compare with our own lives: Assuming you lose the possibility of doing what you are good at, your fi nancial situation plummets and you are cut off from all your old friends and acquaintances—how well would you cope? Such a situation would easily lead to a really profound form of boredom, where one is cut off from all known sources of meaning. It is the great lack of content that suddenly becomes the all-important thing in life. The person who decides to return to an earlier existence as a drug-abuser exercises a choice that in many ways is rational. At least, seen from a short-term perspective. It is a choice that consists in taking back an existing meaning in life rather than having an existence that can appear to be completely meaningless. The reason for cracking up is that the long-term advantages do not appear to be convincing enough in the present.

Some people crack up—others do not. This is not least due to the fact that abusers are precisely as different as all other people are. There are also considerable individual differences in people’s boredom thresholds. Some people have very low thresholds and other people very high ones. Generally speaking, thresholds seem to get higher over time, i.e. one is less plagued by boredom the older one gets. Research into boredom and drug use among teenagers shows that those who take drugs are generally speaking more active in their spare time than those who do not, and they state a need of excitement as the main source of motivation.

What applies to everyone with a drug problem is the necessity of building up new identity and a new meaning in life. Just thinking in terms of a freedom from something—in this case a particular dependence on drugs—is an empty freedom. One has to give freedom a content, and then it has to be a freedom towards something. A freedom to establish new relations to meaning. The need for meaning is a basic need. What is the meaning of life? That question is quite simply wrongly phrased. We ought to ask how we can establish meaning in life. And there is practically nothing that on its own can constitute suffi cient meaning in life. Not drugs either. Meaning in life consists of a network of submeanings. Such submeanings are typically relations to family and friends, perhaps a sweetheart, a home, a job, a hobby—and not least some goal. One must be able to position oneself in the world and have a fairly stable identity. To establish such a self calls for coherence, that one can tell a fairly coherent story about who one has been and who one will be. To have an identity is to have a conception of a narrative thread in one’s life, where past and future give meaning to the present.

It would seem that the future in a sense drops out from an abuser’s point of view. But a future perspective must be established, at least little by little. And in order to get a grip on the future, one must also take up the past. It is a past one has often kept at a distance by being completely absorbed in the present—a present that to a great extent has consisted of fi nancing and taking drugs. The narrative of one’s past, the acknowledgement of one’s past, is an initiation into who one is. The focus on the future is also utterly crucial. As mentioned earlier, it is often rational to take drugs from a shortterm perspective and irrational from a long-term one. Since people on the whole are more or less rational —or at least wish to be so—the rationality of the longterm perspective must be established. It is a matter of opening up the future as a fi eld of genuine possibilities rather than of focusing on killing the present.

And what about the boredom that was an important reason for beginning with drugs in the first place? We must at least try to create an acceptance of boredom. Boredom must be accepted as an inevitable fact, as life’s own gravity. But it does not make life unlivable. We must accept it as a subphenomenon among others in life rather than spending all our lives trying to run away from it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *