A Reason to Exist
All the religion and spirituality in AA couldn't fill the void in my life, but an understanding of existentialism did.
Allow me to qualify myself: I’m a straight up junkie. OK, glad we got that out of the way because this isn’t going to be a junkie's diatribe against humanity, and the last thing the universe needs is another crash and burn story.
This is going to be a quick and irreverent go-to guide to how existential philosophy talked me out of suicide, and how addicts—whether they know it or not—suffer from a devastating void in their lives.
By the time I was twenty-two I found myself in my third round of rehab. I was inpatient, and the first 28 days were nothing but detox. While the rest of the patients were writing their Step 1 novellas about how they successfully ruined their lives, I was either crying in the bathtub or puking at the nurse’s station, begging the doc for more Buprenorphine, Trazadone, or a lobotomy—anything to knock me out because consciousness, the disease that it is, was too painful.
I wanted to die.
I was given the ultimatum of 90 more days of in-patient, on top of the 28 I had just completed, or homelessness. I suck at being homeless and hopelessly said yes to more rehab, though even if I said no I probably would have stayed.
I was then given a new counselor, one who was aware of my radical skepticism. But being the veteran that he is, had counseled hundreds of junkies like me: trapped in nihilism, and squandering what little life they had lived. Needless to say, this counselor had his work cut out for him. But about a month in, we were making close to the mathematical zero in terms of progress. I was still ranting like a madman about how AA is a spiritualist cult, and that God is dead, and blah blah—yeah, I was one of those guys.
One day, he gave me a book to read—one that wasn’t AA approved, thank god— just to shut my trap. That book was Man’s Search for Meaning, authored by Viktor Frankl.
This changed everything.
Ultra Brief Bio of Viktor E. Frankl
He was a psychiatrist who survived the death camps during World War II. After the war was over he published his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, written in two parts. Part One is his despairing autobiographic memoir of surviving the camps. Part Two is the breakdown of his brain baby, existential analysis that he called Logotherapy.
So in Part Two of his book, Frankl describes the void in all of our lives. He calls this void: the existential vacuum. Sounds spooky right? But stay with me.
I find it best to use physical analogies for philosophical concepts that are essentially embedded in the ether (not that kind of ether) of our existence. Imagine a black-hole. Got it? OK.
OK. So we know black-holes exist, but not because somebody has seen one and pointed it out, they’re far too…black, I guess. But we know of their existence to the extent that we can examine the physics of neighboring stars to determine they’re orbiting something with appalling gravity, which we can only then deduce, is a black hole.
The same goes for the void—or the vacuum—nobody has ever seen it, that’s because it’s not a physical void in the universe like a black-hole is. The existential vacuum is the void of meaning and purpose in our lives. And we know of its existence to the extent that we can examine our symptoms upon it being revealed.
The Existential Vacuum Symptomology
(note: existential neurosis is not a psychopathology, good luck getting insurance to cover the bill)
- Excessive feelings of: dread, anguish, despair, hopelessness,meaninglessness, and purposelessness.
- Misanthropy. (esp. toward those Pollyanna fuckers)
- The libido runs rampant with empty sexual promiscuity.
- Devastating anxiety—that’s not anxiety over anything in particular—it’s anxiety over the void, which is essentially: nothingness.
- Hygiene, this will fall by the wayside, as we keep clean as a courtesy for the other; if our relationships are viewed as meaningless and phony, then we’ll likely redefine the word cavity to a positive: another place to store small shit (e.g. nerds and wasabi pea’s).
- This one (and definitely hygiene) likely applies to you—drug use, as drugs prove to be most effective in keeping us from noticing the utter hopelessness and futility—the silence—of our lives, from ever being known.
So, for us drug addicts, we’re seemingly trapped in this void, we live in this void, we wake up and (sometimes) sleep in this void.
Allow me to drive this very simple point home.
Alcohol and Blow– anesthetics, origin: Greek ‘an’ = without; aesthesis = sensation. Thus, without sensation.
Opioids – analgesics, origin: Greek ‘an’ = without; algēsis = sense of pain. Thus, without pain.
There is seemingly no better way to endure a meaningless existence than effectively remaining unaware of its meaninglessness. Hence, drug addiction.
On drug addiction Frankl writes:
“In fact, the drug scene is one aspect of a more general mass phenomenon, namely the feeling of meaninglessness resulting from a frustration of our existential needs…”
So, in English this means that our basic needs like food, sex, water, and sleep are—for most of us—already fulfilled with little to zero effort, giving us modern day humans too much damn time to luxuriously kick back and ponder things like identity. We have thousands of years hard wiring ingrained in us for our survival in a harsh world, but the world we’ve created is a comfy bubble, full of pizza and sushi. In essence—and an oversimplification—we’re far too bored these days.
This makes sense to me. Because no one else in my family is a depressed, drug-addicted misanthropic bastard, only me! I’m a severely frustrated individual who saw life as totally pointless, and believing in a god was, as Camus said, ‘philosophical suicide,’ and I was alone in an indifferent universe. So why not nod out and eat Popeyes? For years I had zero solid arguments against this, and it’s okay if you’re reading this and still don’t.
I’ll quit being so melodramatic, but this notion of the vacuum accounts for much of my twisted, drug-addicted debacles. It’s a hell of a lot more practical for me than a predisposed spiritual malady, or a bad role of the gene-pool dice. I’ll be the first to admit, my drug addiction was as bourgeois as it gets, and it’s not like this for everyone, but for us millennial youngsters, I’m arguing here that much of our twistedness stems from the existential vacuum.
“The existential vacuum is the mass neurosis of the present time.”
We live in a strange world. Everyone on the street is spitting sentence fragments into white wires and crushing candy on the same device they pay for coffee on. But if Frankl can find life meaningful enough to keep living while in World War II death camps, than why can’t we do it in big cities full of pizza and sushi?
Answer: we can.
And I could only understand what living a meaningful, authentic life meant if I was sober. And alas, my search for meaning began. This is where some principals from AA come in to play. The meaning of life is to help others find the meaning of theirs. That is also exactly what Frankl said is the meaning to his life, and I argue that, categorically it can and should be for everyone else in the world.
In AA, the twelfth step is all about the other. Basically, after we’ve figured some shit out, had a psychic change or spiritual experience (whatever you wanna call it), we go out there and help others. And it’s a no-brainer that it works. It’s not like AA created the idea that helping others is beneficial, but it’s just extra beneficial for us selfish drug addicted alcoholics. Let me break this down: through helping others we leave our frustrated self, effectively getting outside of self, which then clogs the sucking power of meaninglessness and purposelessness (the void), because we’re not really there to twiddle our thumbs pondering luxuries (identity), and then, paradoxically, we actually begin to heal while helping the other. AA is full of these little paradoxical nuggets.
I welcome anybody to argue that the notion above is cult-y religious hocus-pocus (knowing the commenters, they will sure try).
And so with almost two years of sobriety my search for meaning has taught me that most things I want and desire are fucking meaningless; thus, I quit desiring and I quit wanting, most things. Albeit, I’m not perfect at this, and I’m skeptical of anybody who claims they are, but life is far easier this way. If there is one capital T truth I’ve felt, it’s that this way, things are just, easier.
I’m an existentially frustrated junkie—don’t get me wrong—things still fuckin’ suck sometimes. But things will always suck because they’re things, and whoever says things get better is either mistaking his or herself for a thing, or is straight up lying to you. Things do not get better; we however, get better at dealing with things.
And so it helps when I think of this as categorical:
"Live as if you were living already for the 2nd time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now." – Viktor E. Frankl
This is a piece of cake for someone who should be totally fucking dead.