Junkie

I’ve seen the needle and the damage done; a little bit of it in everyone; and every junkie’s like a setting sun” – Needle and the Damage Done – Neil Young

As Spring’s light struggled for breath a few nights ago word shot across the wire with the speed of a late night subway train; dope had taken another great man. Watching fine art go down the drain I was reminded that for the most sensitive among us sometimes the noise can just be too much and maybe that’s how Prince was feeling, when ensconced alone in his penthouse grave, life lost its fun and there was nothing to be done but pop his last death lozenge and play a last request. Maybe he didn’t notice the Grim Reaper’s death-stank cloud or the overdose hovering in the air.

Maybe it was the ceaseless soundtrack of the city, the song that resounds with disillusionment and world-weariness, crackling at the darkness thrumming through modern American life with a quirky syncopation that turns all of us in her wake into ignoble heroes. Maybe it was the phenomenon particular to Americans that ate Elvis, Morrison, Hendrix, Belushi, Ledger, Hoffman, Jackson, Joplin and now Prince; too many choices; especially for those plagued by wealth and fame.

This all-consuming dragon of choice is a paradox. Psychologist Barry Schwartz speculates that Americans, having too many choices while others have none; make us both unhappy. If, he posits, incomes were evened out; we’d all be happier. His research into the question results from his curiosity over one of the great mysteries of modern American life: Why is it that societies of great abundance, where people are offered more freedom and choice than ever before, are witnessing a near-epidemic of depression? 

Conventional wisdom tells us that greater choice is for the greater good, but Schwartz argues the opposite: He makes a compelling case that the abundance of choice in today’s western world is actually making us miserable. Infinite choice is paralyzing and exhausting to the human psyche. It leads us to set unreasonably high expectations, question our choices before we even make them and blame our failures entirely on ourselves. Ergo: too much choice undermines happiness.

Social scientists named this phenomenon the Pareto Improving Mood after a little Italian guy Vilfredo Federico Damaso Pareto who figured it out at the turn of the last century when for the first time technology allowed us to eat sliced store-bought bread under electric lights. Now, a quantum leap and one-hundred years later, the ubiquitous cell phone, My-Pad and Blackberry cyborg starter kits have transformer-ed us into cybernetic organisms. Arriving soon are smart watches and Google eyeglasses that will constantly beam notifications onto the periphery of our vision; creating ever more discursive, dyspeptic Terminators.

Maybe it’s not fair to blame anything at all in particular; maybe in an altered state Prince just wanted to see what was on the other side. Either way; in the words of Blaise Pascal, who was pretty blase about saying it; “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

This brings us to the antidote. My favorite cure has been re-branded and is undergoing a renaissance. It’s called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), available through over 1,000 instructors in every state and 30 countries; with the purpose to practice Pascal’s advice; to quiet a busy mind. Many cognitive therapists recommend it to patients as a way to help cope with anxiety and stress. A common dose of meditation and all the off-shoots that implies are popular in this discipline but my favorite is the course in Aimless Wandering. Folks stressed out with their present state of hyper tense mania can revert to the toddler state of mind by, well, aimlessly wandering. It’s always worked for me.

Also being a bit obsessive compulsive and having sampled in excess all the pills, powders and potions of the underworld I can say without a dollop of ego that it all works just dandy. It’s usually not the drugs that kill us but the attending life-style; Prince was as tiny as a Shetland pony; too light in the loafers for his reported six-month supply of Fentanyl and Dilaudid.

That said; addiction is bullshit. If one wishes to stop using anything from hair gel to heroin all they need to do is stop. It is a self-administered condition. it’s also also true that I don’t know a soul who’s not be battered or have a friend who feels at ease. Life, taken too seriously drives us to our knees; so I’m sympathetic. I see life like a boxing ring and have respect for anyone with the courage to step into that squared circle. And, if and when we’ve had enough, all we need to do is take a knee and the referee will call a halt to our destruction. In the ring of life, if we claim addiction; they’ll check us into rehab.

Living on that razors edge is not for the uninitiated or the weak or the silly. Unless one can say, and mean it, that there is no drug, no anything, stronger than my will to resist it, and realize at the same time that a man who can not control himself will never control anything else; he/she best leave the mind altering substances to those who can.

It doesn’t make us less to know what we are not good at; it makes us nearly unconquerable. That kind of character, the kind it takes to know ourselves, takes practice. We are cavalier with it at our own risk. Main-lining any maximum pleasure that can lay us to waste, from drugs to the opposite sex to power and/or money, is to risk overdose. It’s like looking into the abyss and seeing nothing staring back. It’s at that moment that we find our character; and that is what keeps us out of the abyss.

When living in the city, work, relationships or just having to tie my shoes made me supersonic stressed or depressed I’d take Tim Leary’s advice and tune-in, turn-on and drop-out; do some aimless wandering. Like the genius Forest Gump famously said; “you never know what you’re gonna get.”