Addiction by Subtraction

The author at 23, as an alternate delegate to the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston

My name is Gabe, and I’m an addict.

Pop culture says that has to be the first sentence of this piece or any one like it. I guess I’m not totally sure if that sentence is even true, but then pop culture also tells me that the person who says that is fooling themselves, and what it says goes, right? The concept of substance addiction is old, universally accepted as legitimate, and thank heavens increasingly regarded more as an illness than as a moral failing.

But notice I didn’t open with “I’m an alcoholic,” “I’m a drug addict,” or “I’m am compelled against my conscious will to order commemorative plates featuring the likenesses of Civil War generals.” I’m none of those things. Sometimes I sort of wish I were, because at least then I’d have some idea of how to address what I’m up against.

What all forms of addiction have in common, of course, is that no one is addicted to drugs, or alcohol, or sex, or video games, or anything else, per se — an addict is addicted to the chemical reaction in the brain produced by their drug of choice. I’m not going to rehash an entire field in which I’m no expert, but I will point out that addiction is always a function of chemicals in the brain that give the person hosting it some kind of pleasure that they soon find they cannot do without. No matter the specific flavor, it is an artificially-induced pleasure they have been unable to find in regular life, and thus they replace the effort to derive pleasure from life with a repeated biochemical jolt from their substance of choice.

I’m addicted, as ridiculous as it sounds, to daydreaming.

I fantasize, I daydream. I drift away, in my apartment, walking down the street, on an airplane, in a meeting, sometimes even in the middle of a conversation. I’ve achieved greatness in my mind no matter where I am or what I’m doing, though my life may be collapsing around me. Greatness in rock ‘n roll, in athletics, in speaking, in writing, in war, or just in the warm everyday greatness of being loved. A noticeable underlying theme that runs through many of my fantasies is that someone cares about something I say, or think, or do, or am. (That’s unfair to the many people in my life who actually do, but apparently it’s not enough, because the fantasies remain.)

It took me a long time to realize that my propensity for daydreaming was beyond normal, because everyone daydreams from time to time. Sometimes, in fact most of the time, they grow largely out of it as childhood ends, and I suppose I expected to as well. I didn’t. At 36, I would say that on a typical day I spend three minutes in fantasyland for every minute I spend dealing with a circumstance in my life that actually exists. This, after years of a course of therapy that I consider life-saving, is down from about ten.

I’ve always had the ability to lose myself in my thoughts, and in fantasy, so utterly that I sometimes believe there is no outward situation in my life, however dire or depressing, that I couldn’t weather just by retreating into my mind and living in a world where it simply didn’t exist. I always had a vague sense that I could get through maximum security prison or solitary confinement, if not without batting an eye, then much more easily than most — because I had the ability to stop caring about, indeed to barely notice, my actual circumstances, as much as was necessary and for as long as was necessary to make them bearable in perpetuity.

There is no mystery as to the source of my addiction. My superhuman ability to replace real life (and attempt to improve upon it) with imagination was born of necessity. Without dwelling too much on the past, let’s just say that as a youngster, any genuine attempt I made to have my existence in any way acknowledged by the world outside my immediate family was very aggressively discouraged by those within it. I have no memory of any previous time when this was not the case. It dates back to the earliest memories to which I have access, formed at the age when a human typically begins to explore such interactions, and continues to the present, even if these days I maintain a distance from that environment and the aggressive discouragement comes mostly from inside my own head.

After enough conditioning from without and eventually within, I got locked into the pattern and could not escape. I gradually ceased to do anything that might make anyone else aware of the fact that I existed, or at least that I existed in some context besides that of being the child of someone more important, and I continued that cessation until it was all I knew, and until I could no longer choose any other path. It was no longer a question of free will. I had become addicted, I believe, to subtracting myself from the normal flow of humanity.

I’m legitimately curious to know what an electronic reading of my brain would show while I engage in a comforting daydream, in comparison to what a scan of a drunk alcoholic would show, or a gambler with electrodes on their head while sitting at a slot machine. I’m sure plenty of people have thought of this and put electrodes on slots players, or cocaine users, or people trying to level up in World of Warcraft. And if they haven’t, let’s get that shit funded right now. I’ll happily become a test subject free of charge myself, just for the chance to see what my demons look like in the light of day.

I’m not the only person I’m curious about, either. Like many addicts, my predisposition to addiction is at least partly hereditary. I get it from both sides, the child of one parent addicted to complete and utter control and another addicted to fawning attention (my achieving anything in real life on my own merits, I understand now, constitutes a threat to both). I wonder what the former’s brain would show if they were given total responsibility for some wretch’s life while inside an MRI machine, and what the latter’s electrodes would read as doctors inundate them with a medically-designed stream of servile, obsequious praise. Are their drugs chemically distinguishable on a scan from crack cocaine? I wonder what the scans would show when those things are suddenly yanked away, and they go into a state I remember only too well, which I now believe should properly be called withdrawal — with its attendant panic, rage, and batshit insanity that only the junk-sick (and their loved ones) must endure.

Because I’ve never been addicted to a foreign substance, and because I therefore don’t know what withdrawing from one feels like, I may be completely full of shit. People who have actually undergone such things may tell me that I’m so backed up with crap my eyes have turned brown, and if so I have no reason to doubt them. But I know what I feel like when some circumstance forces to leave the realm of fantasy and evaluate my life as it really is. I feel like I’m dying in slow-motion. I get body-wide shocks, I go cold, I sweat through multiple sets of clothes, and though I continue fantasizing, my ideation becomes exclusively about suicide. It’s far beyond unpleasant, it’s a feeling I would do anything to avoid, no matter the detriment to my life. And there is something I can do to make it stop, something addicts will recognize as the easiest way out of withdrawal — go back on the drug. Go back onto the drug and escape reality as I’ve always done, and the bad feelings go away, even if your real life gets worse. Keep going back until you have nothing left in the world, until it kills everything around you and then finally kills you, too.

“I hid. I ran from my problems, hiding away in a virtual fantasy world,” wrote Kotaku’s Mike Fahey of the video game addiction that cost him near everything. “Fantasy world”! You can’t make this shit up. My life-avoidance strategy of “hiding away in a virtual fantasy world” is identical to that of every other addict; my fantasy world just happened to be one I didn’t need a MMORPG, or alcohol, or gambling, or any other external stimulus, to create. I’d built it naturally from nothing. I’ve decided that’s at once extremely impressive and impossibly pathetic. I was three years old, what do you want from me?

This, unfortunately, presents me with a problem that as of this writing I see no way around — I can’t stop using this particular drug through normal means. No matter what else happens, it is physically possible for a an alcoholic to stop using alcohol, physically possible for a video game addict to delete all their accounts and log off, physically possible for a sex addict to stop having sex. Any of the three can hypothetically be kidnapped in their sleep and dropped into a windowless concrete room where whatever triggers the addictive chemical reaction in their brains simply isn’t to be found. There can just physically be no outlet for the continuance of their brain’s unhealthy patterns. Their subsequent withdrawal and the rewiring of their chemical receptors, however disruptive, miserable, perhaps even fatal, will be inevitable.

But drop me in a windowless concrete room, with food periodically dispensed from some impersonal but reliable device, and not only can I not be separated from the fantasy life that provides the chemicals that keep my brain a prisoner, but that’s the circumstance my addiction was specifically designed to make perpetually bearable. From a strictly emotional standpoint, that hypothetical is not wholly unlike the circumstances that gave rise to my addiction in the first place. I dealt with it once, no reason to think I couldn’t deal with it again without changing a thing.

My addiction has cost me some of the very things more recognized addictions have cost so many others, and while my life isn’t nowhere, it’s within driving distance. I could have been anything, and I suppose could still be a lot of things with the raw tools I have: from the earliest age I’ve been feverishly intelligent and intellectually curious, a voracious reader, good-to-very good athlete, frequently hilarious (usually on purpose!), a skilled landscape photographer, extremely musically talented, and I’ve always considered myself an excellent writer (that one, at least, you can judge for yourself). I’m not just spinning this out of whole cloth, either; there’s truth to all of these things about me and any number of people who have always said so. But I’ve almost never tried to actually do anything with any of those skills. Why bother? I’ve succeeded beyond my wildest dreams — excuse me, in my wildest dreams — in any field attached to all those skills, and in more.

“You constantly have to work for whatever you want,” says Prince Amponsah, a 13-year-old South Bronx resident and soccer prodigy who spends five hours, several times a week, getting to and from practice in the hopes of one day becoming a professional. I wouldn’t bet against him with an ethic like that. But hell, I’ve been living that dream already, and 20 other equally satisfying ones along with it, and I didn’t do any work for them at all. What a sucker this kid is, right? On a related note, I used to wonder if I was the laziest person in the world. I’m coming around to the idea that I might not be, but I do wonder what the hell that makes me instead.

After all, at some point along the way I lost almost all my professional ambition, and while I was at it pretty much any expectation of healthy relationships (especially romantic ones, but most other types too). Who could blame me? After all, why bother pursuing what you (feel you) can never achieve when you can imagine it in perfect detail? Why build something, social or professional, that intellectually you know will take years of hard work and struggle to amount to anything, and emotionally believe is utterly impossible — when you can just have it right now? And so the fuck what if it’s not “real”? People still watch pro wrestling and Storage Wars, don’t they? There can’t be that many people left who don’t understand that the action is fake, but whether it’s real or fake is not the point for the average viewer. It’s difficult to tell myself that it should be for me.

As an added incentive to prefer fantasy to reality, I can feel a sense of accomplishment over fictitious achievements that I’ve never been able to muster for real ones. I’ve achieved plenty in real life, but can almost never internalize the fact and successfully feel like I’ve done a damn thing. I distinctly remember my law school graduation weekend, staring out over the lush green fields of Round Hill, Virginia from my sister-in-law’s place and realizing I felt no sense of accomplishment whatsoever — an understandable end point for a path along which every accomplishment was dismissed, ignored, or at best co-opted by those who would prefer that the world regard them as their accomplishments. Climbing this particular hill is not a matter of my accomplishing more myself than I already have and thereby feeling proud. When I’ve shown the pathological inability to feel pride at real achievements no matter how justified I’d be in doing so, why bother trying anymore?

And yet I press on, or at least some days it feels like I do. Writing this was emotionally exhausting; I needed two weeks without looking at it before I could start editing and preparing it for public consumption, during which I didn’t accomplish much. Its content is a hopeful sign, as clearly I’ve spent years slowly accumulating the ability to articulate it in the terms that I have. But these feel like the lurches of an inchworm running a marathon. A marathon in which lots of other people are also running, by actually running. Around me, friends and complete strangers alike continue to do, to be, every day, with no indication that they’re slowing down or that they realize they’re doing anything someone like me might find significant or amazing. It’s in their midst, the midst of a humanity that continually passes me by, that pretending is slowly getting less rewarding. As they eventually do, my addiction is finally beginning to cause more pain than it dampens. Perhaps somewhere out there in the ether is what addicts call “rock bottom,” and beyond it, the long, slow climb to normalcy.