I was once a heroin addict. I am now a writer, film producer and entrepreneur, fascinated by the very nature of addiction and by, though outside, the addiction treatment industry. 

These fascinations have led me to start the group that is organising the Unhooked Thinking conference.

Because one addiction I still have - and hope not to be cured of - is a compulsive need to challenge orthodoxies and mythologies, and the field of addiction is, ironically, particularly prey to such 'hooked thinking'.

I thought a gathering to ask fundamental questions about addiction might be useful and inspiring, because addiction is, I believe, beneath the drama, more a philosophical problem than anything else.

Its medical, psychological, neurochemical, sociological and criminal manifestations are waves on the surface of a much deeper ocean. I am well aware this will be outrageous to some but my disreputable outsider status enables me to say such things, things that, I hope, will bring an interesting resonance to the development of a philosophical understanding of addiction.

My purpose is to reframe questions like why do an increasing number of people become addicts to why do they need to adopt the extreme outsider position of addict, or why does it adopt them.

The addiction industry - whether it is treating, criminalising, therapising, studying or prescribing - strikes me as an odd enterprise.

Few of its workers or scholars can agree, let alone adequately explain what addiction actually is. Some think it's an illness, some a genetic weakness, some the expression of brain biochemistry and others that it's down to social and familial environment.

It's an odd industry for this very reason: it's concerned with a condition of being whose very nature is a mystery. Of course the disagreement as to the very nature of the 'thing' also means that there are widely divergent dogmas as to how, if, when and why it should be treated. Or, indeed, if the notion of treatment is appropriate in the first place.

But addiction is not a mystery in the same way that cancer and AIDS are. No one really believes (do they?) that a complete science of addiction will ever be found in the laboratory or even the treatment centre, and if not there, then where?

No, addiction is a philosophical mystery, more like that of, say, happiness. Neurochemists imagine happiness can be reduced to a chemical; most of us know it is far more elusive, the proper subject of mysticism, philosophy, psychology, literature, film, music and art.

We need to apply these arts to develop a philosophy of addiction, not rely on analytical science.

If, as I think many would agree, it is at least insufficient and at most downright wrong to explain addiction solely in terms of illness, neurochemistry, sociology, psychology or any combination of these, then we need to look at the base of the iceberg whose tip these approaches represent.

Is there something endemic in the human condition that leads so many to become addicts, or should I say: leads so many to adopt the role of addict to explain, act out, dramatise and make real their unhappiness, frustration and pain?

My answer is a qualified yes, qualified because the endemic something has always been there, even though addiction in the usual sense has only been around for the last hundred years (the first recorded use of the word in this way, according to the OED, was in 1906).

The endemic something has been called weltschmertz, world-weariness, melancholy and in India, bireh or longing.

The Lebanese author, Mikhail Naimy, called it the 'great nostalgia'. It is the pain of being human, no more, no less, the pain of having the chaotic self-awareness of human consciousness chained by its attachments to the mundane.

Despite the 12-step understanding that there is a spiritual dimension to recovery from addiction, the 'thing itself' is still regarded as an 'illness', not as a collection of symptoms of some deeper malaise, some inability to tolerate the great nostalgia.

Letting Go of Insecurity

The addiction industry is an odd enterprise because it is concerned with a shell, a mythology, a drama of symptoms, not a thing in and of itself.

It is not an illness that can be caught or inherited. Addiction is the map, not the territory.

When I was a junky, I learnt to present addiction, to be labelled an addict, because what lay beneath was too difficult, too unacceptable, to express or deal with.

So medicalised has become our inner life, so distanced and handed over to figures of authority, that we find it hard to go beyond the map to find the territory within ourselves.

So we have this burgeoning industry of carers, doctors, social workers, psychologists, policeman, gaolers and therapists all spending vast amounts of time and money on 'solving' the 'problem' of 'addiction', when this 'solving' is, in fact, no more than a metaphysical bandaid.

Yes, the mythology of addiction is so entrenched, so powerful, that we have no choice but to deal in the apparent and pressing reality of the miseries of addiction, but the more these get treated, the more public health and criminal justice drug policies are developed, the tighter the grip of the mythology.

We talk ourselves into believing a myth to be the truth, which is what myths do; they grip our imagination. As Virginia Woolf wrote, no doubt in reference to her own mental affliction: 'On the outskirts of every agony sits some observant fellow who points'.  The addiction treatment industry is pointing at the drama of addiction, missing the great nostalgia at its core.

To become an addict is to enter an interesting metaphysical realm where there are just two conditions of being, or 'functions' in William Burroughs' 'algebra of need': strung out, in need, on the one hand and drugged, satisfied, replete, on the other.

According to Vedantic philosophy, the rest of humanity knows three conditions, or gunas, variously described as 'becoming, being and decline'; 'birth, life and death'; or, 'creation, sustenance and destruction'.

We flit between these conditions continuously as our attention wanders from project to project, worry to concern, delight to lust.

The addict wants to avoid the middle condition, which is that of dynamic balance or simply being open to what is. The drama and chaos in the addict's lifestyle result from the one-pointed avoidance of the pain of being that can most readily be experienced in this middle mode.

In Burroughs' algebra, strung-out plus drug equals bliss, except that it is a bliss that soon flips back into strung-out, an unsustainable bliss that can only transiently mimic the timeless quality of the middle mode.

The fact that 'addiction' has in the last 30 years come to be used to describe any unhappy and obsessively repetitive behaviour, whether it be sex, eating, gambling, work or shopping, reinforces this metaphysical model. It doesn't matter what experience you are addicted to, it is all about avoidance of the dark night of the soul.

Another way of putting this: an addict regards the apparently random happenings of fate as 'unbearable' and prefers to synthesise them into the knowable states and drama of strung out and stoned, states that are impregnable to the vagaries of happenstance.

To be human, to have a self, so Hindu and Buddhist philosophers tell us, is to be attached - attached to people, ideas, things, places, most fundamentally our own bodies.

Transcend those attachments and you transcend unconsciousness to find unattached contentment - beyond pleasure and pain, not of this world, whilst still in it.

But in the busyness of our being in the world, we are prone to define our selves only in terms of our attachments. We are what we own, what we love, what we possess, what is precious to us.

These are our limitations: they make us who and what we are. The things I am attached to make me different from you. But attachment is the source of all our unhappiness, our suffering, the pain of being human as well as the pleasure and excitement.

The words 'addiction' and 'attachment' are used in similar ways: they both signify emotionally charged relationships over which we imagine we don't have much control.

They have us; we are 'possessed', the slaves of the things, ideas and people to whom we are addicted or attached. We can't help it. Maybe the only difference between the two words is one of degree: to be addicted is to be absolutely attached.

The addiction industry is, as I said, an odd enterprise, treating people in obvious distress for a condition that is all smoke and mirrors, generating medieval prohibitions of 'evil' substances, when those it sanctions do far more damage.  We need to look beneath the surface explanations.

Again and again we fall for those experiences that seem to comfort the pain and insecurity that threaten to engulf us around every corner, both from within and without.

We long for comfort; our security blankets become us, or, to adapt Roosevelt, there is nothing to be addicted to, save addiction itself.

To have sufficient confidence to make our way in the world, we seem to need something to smother the flames of uncertainty and existential angst, before they reach our soft interiors.

Mystics have always said that we are trapped by our compulsive relationships with the mental and physical worlds, always searching for lasting comfort.

But that comfort is only to be found inside us. In this sense we are all addicted, all of the time. Though this begins to make a nonsense of our use of the word to denote a special, painful, chaotic and morally-confused condition, it does explain how what we normally call addiction is no more than an extreme in the continuum of the human condition.

Unhooked Thinking, the conference, will provide a unique space to ask and debate these questions with academics, drugs and social workers, users, doctors, artists, policemen, psychologists and comedians from around the world.

Questions like: can addiction be a catalyst to a more meaningful life? Are security blankets, in general, an illusion? Is there wisdom in insecurity?  What implications do unhooked thinking and a philosophical approach to addiction have for our perceptions of self, space and boundaries?

How might they affect the way we treat addiction? What does this new understanding of addiction have to say about the human condition in general?

Unhooked Thinking, Assembly Rooms, Bath, April 19th, 20th & 21st, 2006


William Pryor is Director of Unhooked Thinking, and author of the book Survival of the Coolest: A Darwin's Death Defying Journey into the Interior of Addiction