Boredom, Creativity and Addiction
We often hear people, particularly children, exclaim, “I’m bored! I’m fed up! I’ve got nothing to do!” We’ve done it ourselves, no doubt. There are times when we feel stuck in a rut, can't get motivated and would rather forget about the world outside. Unfortunately, some people, including me at one time, reach for alcohol instead.
We need the sense of something different to get us going, as it were. We need inspiration. Some claim to find it in the sense of freedom and excitement provided by alcohol and drugs. But this is an illusion. In reality, “substance use disorder” leads to a withdrawal from the world and a false or only fleeting sense of inspiration.
One aspect of boredom is frustration and failure to get inspired by relentless repetition. Getting up, going to work, coming home, surfing through dozens of channels on TV without being able to find anything “new”. Indeed, we go through much of life on “auto-pilot”. We do things without even properly registering that we’re doing it because “it’s all the same”.
The ancients talked about acedia. A better translation of the term is not just boredom but listlessness. The latter implies a lack of energy. There is nothing wrong with taking time out, of course, in a period of quiet meditation. But listlessness also comes with restlessness or “sitting on edge” waiting for something to happen. This is being unable to sit still but not really knowing what to do or how to change.
Acedia means to be “without care” in the widest sense. It conveys indifference or something more than simply boredom or a lack of energy. It’s a failure to find meaning or to be unfeeling. It’s really a spiritual malaise, implying apathy In Greek philosophy, apatheia means emotional detachment. This can be a healthy attitude. We don’t want our emotions to be swinging all over the place. But the modern sense of apathy is lack of interest – “I couldn’t care less”.
Some look to break the boredom or listlessness through using alcohol or drugs. I suppose it could be a way of letting go but not without the potential for negative consequences. There is a threshold of usage beyond which it’s hard to do anything very much and there are significant downsides over the longer term.
In Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), Thomas de Quincey says he first used opium for relief from neuralgia but found it also increased his ability to think creatively. He describes enjoying opera under the influence of opium and walking the streets of London in a daze, taking in the sights and sounds.
Interestingly, however, he titles the first half of his confessions “the pleasure of opium” and the second “the pain of opium”. The latter is marked by increased dependency and symptoms of withdrawal – two classic markers of addiction. He describes in great detail the nightmares he endured. These perhaps make sense against the background of his suffering in childhood, including the loss of two sisters at a young age.
Did I feel creative when drunk? It sometimes brought an end to procrastination or in my case what we would call “writer’s cramp”. Fuelled by lunchtime drinking, I could write very quickly as the ideas in my head came tumbling out onto paper. But I’d end up often in blackout. I’d come back to the office the next day and not know why there were new entries in the diary, scribbling of forgotten phone conversations or signs of hasty attempts to wipe-up spilled coffee. The written masterpiece was not so great either!
I was talking to a fellow alcoholic in recovery about this. We were talking about the very large numbers of creative people who reportedly have used drugs supposedly to stimulate their creativity. These include musicians, artists, actors, and so on. Perhaps the use of alcohol or drugs is also partly to help come back down from the stress of performing live in front of an audience. Some have survived but others have not.
My understanding of the research literature is that there is no clearly established link between substance use disorder and creativity. It may be that some use alcohol and drugs to lose inhibition. But many have remained creative while in recovery from addiction, famously including Elton John, and Anthony Hopkins, for example. The latter recently recorded a seasonal greetings message in which he spoke of his 47 years of sobriety and encouraged those who are suffering to ask for help and believe in themselves.
What is human creativity? It’s doing or making something new. But it’s not making something out of nothing, as it were. Instead, it’s about establishing a new relation between the subject – me and you – and objective reality – other persons and the world around us. We might think of creativity as providing a new overlay of meaning. Some might use creativity as an attempt to “unlock” a higher level of insight.
Artistic expression is perhaps the purest form of creativity. This has long been recognised by psychologists and philosophers. The nineteenth century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche sees art as how we give expression to the meaning we find in the mix of order and chaos we experience in the world around us. Art therapy is included among the suite of options in addiction treatment.
I’ve encountered several people in my role as a peer mentor who are using creative skills to help their recovery - an actor, a film producer, a photographer. and somebody who creates “paintings” using modern digital technology. In a long conversation recently, a recovering alcoholic made reference to how he had recently discovered enjoyment of baking bread. I picked up on this immediately and gave him encouragement.
How do we overcome boredom or listlessness? How do we stimulate creativity? We could make a start through greater attentiveness. This is an aspect of mindfulness – paying more attention to the present moment. Switch off the auto-pilot, stop going through the motions, and pay more attention to the world around us.
We know there are things that will facilitate positive change. When the sun comes out, for example, my mood changes dramatically. If I then go outside for exercise, even if only for a walk, then I feel refreshed and better able to “snap out of it”, as it were. This stimulates a feeling of well-being and helps me to think more positively and creatively about my role in the world.
What does the world look like to you? How can you think and behave creatively about your place in the world without alcohol and drugs? Give it some thought. Listen to the experience of others in recovery.