Andrew Bevan - Voluntary Mentor
Euphoria, Ecstasy and Oblivion
Those suffering from substance use disorder are often described as “chasing a high”. On the other hand, they are sometimes described as “seeking oblivion”. Arguably, these are two sides of the same coin – “self-annihilation”. This provides an important clue to an appropriate recovery treatment programme for those suffering from addiction.
The word we often use for the experience of achieving a high, if we can accept the terminology, is euphoria. The literal sense of the word from its Greek origin is “bearing well”. We are said to feel euphoric (or exultant) when everything goes well. We sense a rush of well-being or intense pleasure.
When we seek to experience euphoria through the use of alcohol and drugs, however, there is often a price to pay. We experience withdrawal when the effect wears off. We then find that it takes more to achieve the same feeling the next time around. We need something more than artificial to achieve a proper sense of well-being or happiness over the longer term.
Ecstasy is closely related but different to the sense of euphoria. Some use the word ecstasy to describe the feeling of intense pleasure. The origin of the word in Greek, however, is ekstasia – “to stand outside of oneself”. Some alcohol and drug users talk about wanting to be taken out of themselves, as it were, or lifted out of their mundane existence.
On the other hand, those suffering from substance use disorder are often said to be “seeking oblivion”. On the face of it, this sounds very different from chasing a feeling of intense excitement or pleasure. Indeed, we often use the word in a different context to imply destruction or reduction to nothingness.
Instead, the dictionary defines oblivion as the state of losing memory or consciousness. It’s a bit like seeking to take oneself out of existence altogether, albeit momentarily. This is a state of non-feeling or perhaps a shutting out, as it were.
In my own case, looking back, I’m fairly sure that I was drinking to reach oblivion. It was a way to shut out things that had happened to me in life and to cope. Actually, I didn’t always drink with that intended purpose in mind but it was often the way that things turned out through loss of control and blackout. The latter put me in dangerous situations a few times.
That’s not to say that there wasn’t a sense of well-being in the initial stages of getting drunk but I wouldn’t describe it as euphoria or ecstasy. In any case, it’s hard to describe a drinking event as an experience of euphoria if it culminates in vomiting and unconsciousness. It hardly constitutes well-being when you get up the following day and go to work in a cold sweat with the shakes. I used to ask myself - "why do you keep poisoning your body?". But I continued to do it.
If we think about what is going on here, it might be argued that there is a common thread in this understanding of euphoria, ecstasy and oblivion. The common factor, perhaps, is self-annihilation. The search for a sense of intense pleasure or well-being through artificial means is a denial or negating of one’s own ability to achieve this state under one’s own steam. It’s seeking a release from the constrained self. Alternatively, the desire for oblivion is motivated by just wanting to shut oneself down, albeit temporarily.
There are clues here to recovery treatment. We all would like to experience a sense of well-being or happiness in life. But we need to focus on how to achieve that on a basis that will be sustained for the longer term. We need a proper foundation. Rather than seeking out an artificial release from our mundane lives, we need to find new meaning and purpose. We need to accept the conditions of existence and find what makes us truly happy.
We can’t live in a dream or stumble around in a drunken haze. There is nothing wrong with dreaming, of course, but we have to live our lives in the real world. Shakespeare said through Prospero in The Tempest, "We are such stuff as dreams are made on". But this was in the context of actors playing out a role in life and we are surely more than simply actors going through the motions.
In Greek mythology, Morpheus is the God of Dreams. This provides the link from the name to the dream-like effect of using the drug morphine. But we can achieve the sense of well-being through natural production of endorphins ("endogenous-morphine") in the brain.
How do we do this? The proper use of the word ecstasy provides a clue. In philosophical terms, as already said, ekstasia is to stand outside of oneself. What this is telling us is that to be an authentic self, we need to come out, as it were, and stand properly in relation to others and the world around us. Lift your head and look around. We are not determined in isolated existence.
Finally, the answer in recovery treatment is to turn away from oblivion. We don’t want to shut out reality. That is the way of those suffering addiction. They become isolated. Instead we need to encourage sufferers to turn outward. Rather than wipe the memory clean, we need to address the sources of despair. We need positive steps to negate the desire for oblivion.
There is nothing wrong with feeling euphoric. We can achieve an intense sense of well-being and produce "feel good" chemicals in the brain through achieving something – winning a prize, running a race, being recognised by others, volunteering to help others less fortunate than ourselves and so on. Similarly, we can be lifted up from our day-to-day lives, by developing new interests and finding pleasure in small things.
The end-result of recovery treatment is not oblivion but a free and happy individual, leading and enjoying life in communion with others!