26 February 2009

Users are children

In order to better understand what was going on with my alcoholic, pathological liar ex-boyfriend, I read Jerry Stahl's Permanent Midnight this week.

The memoir goes into more detail about the day-to-day life activities of a user than I'd been familiar with. But Stahl's explanations of his background and reasons for using were similar to what I've heard and seen many times: lousy childhood and poor parenting leading to extreme feelings of worthlessness; use starts in the teens, as a way to dull or obliterate the thoughts that cause the pain; use continues and intensifies during the 20s, when the body is vigorous and resilient and can process dumptrucks of drugs; and some other people's lives get wrecked along the way.

Eventually you end up in your 30s or 40s without having the skills to actually ever deal with a problem, because you've spent the years of your life, when most people learn how to deal with problems, blasted away from your problems. If you quit without therapy -- or without access to good self-help books and a determination to do the work on your own -- then you end up a dry-drunk with anger management problems, a person mentally half or a third your actual age. If you don't quit, then you end up leaving Las Vegas, wrecking some other people's lives along the way.

In the meantime, you lie. Using is a secret, and it's a huge one. To keep it up, you have to lie, and eventually you get really good at it, and you get into the habit of lying about everything, all the time. You get good at it, because it's like evolution: if you don't get good at lying, then you can't get money and time for your habit. And the lying is not like that of an ordinary person who's maybe a little more reserved and shy than most, and doesn't open up easily. Rather, it's a knee-jerk, unconscious reaction to every situation and every question you encounter: you lie. If your childhood was bad in a particular way, then the lying is intertwined with oppositional-defiant behavior, too, that you never outgrew because you medicated yourself out of outgrowing your adolescence. Eventually you end up in your 30s or 40s and you know of no other way to interact with the world than to constantly want the opposite of whatever the other party wants. You don't know why or even realize that you're doing it, which causes trouble and pain to go along with the social discord that the oppositional behavior causes anyway, so you dose yourself so you don't feel it.

At bottom, users are children. They made themselves halt growing up. They started using in order to stop the thoughts and emotions they had in reaction to the painful environment they were in. But you can't move out of childhood without processing those thoughts and emotions and learning how to deal with them when they come up again throughout your life.

So it's a thing to keep in mind when you meet a user (or come to realize that someone you've known for a while is a user). They're still a child. If they quit and stay quit, then you're likely to be dealing with someone at the same emotional maturity level you were at when you finished high school.

Speaking of which, I think a friend of mine is back on the Bolivian marching powder. My first thought was, "Damn." I confess my second thought was, "Must be nice to have that much cash on hand."

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