Addiction is a journey into negative freedom. A journey into negative freedom journey is not the sort of thing we can understand for what it really is at the time (this lack of understanding being inherent in the nature of negative freedom) but all the same it eventually becomes clear, once we travel right to the very end of the journey. We don’t see what is happening at the time as we travel deeper and deeper into the territory of addiction – we don’t see it happening because negative freedom is a ‘substitute for the real thing which does not at any stage announce itself as such’. It’s a surreptitious substitute, a dishonest analogue. The analogue takes the place of the original and as it does so it causes us to forget all about what we have been cheated out of, so that we never miss it at all.
This is not how we usually understand addiction but we can explain what we are saying here easily enough. All we need to do is understand the difference between freedom and its inverted counterpart, which is what we usually understand as freedom. If we start off with freedom we can say that the key thing about freedom is that there is no pressure in it – there is no more pressure to do one thing than there is to do the other. There is no bias in freedom – there is no rule saying that things should be one particular way rather than another way. It’s equally OK either way. I can go one way if I want to but I don’t have to – it’s the same both ways in this respect. Freedom is the same all ways – it is quintessentially unprejudiced, it is the perfectly symmetrical situation.
In addiction on the other hand there very much is a bias, there very much is a rule saying that we ‘have to do one thing rather than the other’. The addictive state of mind is a state of mind that is entirely prejudiced, entirely asymmetrical. In an addiction it very much isn’t ‘the same all ways’ – as we all know perfectly well. Only one specific outcome is OK, all others are not. In any addiction there is a rule and only if I am able to follow the rule do I get to feel good about things. Any other way doesn’t count, any other way and I have to feel bad. This is of course what the addiction is – a compulsion to obey the rule. There is both a juicy carrot right dangled in front of our nose and a very big stick to beat us with if we don’t go for the carrot, or if for some reason we’re not able to go for the carrot…
To fall deeply into the territory of addiction is to lose all freedom – it is to journey into a realm or region in which there is no freedom. Everything is already decided for me, everything is already laid out for me. All I can do is struggle (as best I can) to obey the script that I have been given – the script of my addiction. People say that you can’t trust an addict but you can – you can trust them to do what they have to do. As Williams Burroughs says, “Beyond a certain frequency need knows absolutely no limit or control”, and this dictum means that you always can trust an addict to follow the script of his or her addiction. In the world of addiction it is the addiction that is the boss not me. All I can do is obey the rule; all I can do is become an ‘obeying machine’. The rule can’t be questioned – the only question that’s relevant here is “How can I best manage to obey it?”
We all know that the world of addiction is an unfree world – a world driven by non-negotiable need. Naked non-negotiable need is King in the Addiction Realm. Everyone knows this and so it comes as no great revelation for someone to state something to the effect that ‘the world of addiction is an unfree world’. Why make a big meal of this? But this is not what we’re saying – we’re not saying that ‘addiction is a journey into an unfree world’, we’re saying that addiction is a journey into negative freedom and this is another kettle of fish entirely! Negative freedom is freedom seen backwards – it is the absence of freedom seen as the actual positive presence of freedom. It’s like a photographic inverse where ‘black is white and white is black’. In the world of negative freedom slavery has replaced freedom but instead of seeing slavery as what it is (which is to say, slavery) we see it as freedom. We turn everything around so that what is black is white and what is white is black. In the inversion of freedom we value our chains as if they were the most important thing about us – we look upon our prison cell as the ideal place in which to be!
The way in which ‘the lack of freedom’ gets inverted into ‘the positive presence of freedom’ is nothing if not straightforward. It is a very neat trick and it is a very simple trick, once understood. The way we turn the state of freedom around so that it looks like freedom is by identifying with the rule. What this means is simply that we ‘choose to see things the way that the rule sees them’. We opt to align ourselves with the rue so that ‘what the rule wants is also what we want’. As soon as we do this then there is of course no more perception of there being some sort of ‘external compulsion’ at work – the external compulsion is still there (it is in fact bigger than ever due to the fact that it isn’t being seen, due to the fact that it can freely operate from behind the scenes) but we have zero perception of it being there. The mechanical rule is still there but by aligning myself with it I have made it invisible to me and because it is invisible to me there is no more conflict of interests…
Because I have identified with the rule I do not see it as a rule any more. It’s not ‘what the rule wants’ that is driving me, it’s what I want. It’s my own will that is making me do stuff, not some external force. It’s not a compulsion anymore, it’s a desire. It’s not a loss of my freedom, it is the actual positive enactment of my freedom – it is an enactment of my freedom to ‘do what the rule wants’ and see this as me doing what I want!
So this very simple trick or strategy of ‘identifying with the rule’ is all we need to do in order to switch things around so that slavery looks like freedom. From this point on, therefore, we vigorously insist on our continued slavery because this is what we see as our freedom. No one else needs to come along and enslave us (or force us to accept our chains), we will do the job ourselves. We will take care of this job with the greatest dedication and enthusiasm. If anyone comes along and tries to help us become free we will react with instant violence – we will defend our slavery to the hilt. We will defend our right to be slaves with every last bit of energy in our bodies.
As far as neat tricks go, this has got to be the neatest of them all. They don’t get any neater than this. It seems too good to be true – in fact it is too good to be true because any evasion of the truth this easy has got to come with a very high price tag. It just so happens that we are oblivious to the price tag in question and for this reason we don’t know that we have paid anything. We don’t know that we have lost anything and so it doesn’t hurt. What we have lost in entering into the upside-down world of negative freedom is quite simply ourselves –
When I align myself with the rule so that ‘what it wants’ is ‘what I want’ (so that there is zero conflict of interests between ‘what it compels me to do’ and ‘what I actually wish to do’) then the price of this state of affairs is of course that I simply don’t exist anymore.
I’m not there – I have ‘opted out’ and handed over all my power to the rule and so all that is left is the rule. The facade of me is there but behind this facade there is nothing. I am merely an empty shell – I am merely ‘an empty shell-identity’ which masquerades as the real person. The real person (the true individual) has long since been done away with…
This whole process of ‘invisible inversion’ can be very clearly seen in the case of addiction. It’s something that we’re all familiar with. If I am compelled by my addiction to alcohol to go and buy a bottle of wine I don’t say “The external addiction is compelling me to go to the supermarket and buy this bottle of wine…” I internalize the addiction – I say “I want a bottle of wine”. It’s me that wants it. I don’t have a problem at all – I am just doing whatever it is that I want to do. This is like the joke about the man who says, “Drink problem? The only time I have a problem with drink is when I can’t get the stuff!” In the case of addiction – as is well known – I don’t see that there is a problem at all. The rule is never questioned – I see the world entirely from the limited perspective of the addiction that is driving me. It could be said therefore that the addiction is living life through me. It ‘occupies’ me, it sits in the driving seat instead of me. I have been unceremoniously pushed out of the way; I’m no longer in the picture. My body and my mind (along with my friends and connections) are used by the addiction but who I actually am (i.e. my true individuality) has been jettisoned as ‘surplus to requirements’ a long time ago.
Something malign happens to life when it is hijacked by an addiction. The world – when seen from the POV of the addiction – is reduced to nothing more than a set of problems that stand in the way of the successful fulfilment of the needs in question. Life becomes nothing more than ‘a problem to be solved’. This is a curious situation in that when I see life purely as a problem to be solved then I am not actually living at all. When I see the world as no more than a puzzle to be successfully resolved then I am no longer relating to the world, but simply to my own needs projected upon the world. All that I am relating to in an addiction is the mechanical need that is driving me reflected right back at me, albeit in unrecognizable form. The addiction is everything – it is the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega. It is what drives me from the inside and it is also what I am contending with on the outside.
When the addiction-driven mind looks out at the world it sees only itself reflected back at itself – it has no interest in anything else and so it doesn’t see anything else. All it sees is that to solve the problem and obtain the right outcome is good and that not to do so is bad. That’s the only logic that counts. This is therefore a closed loop that does not connect with reality at all, which means that addiction is a way of being totally isolated from life, totally isolated from reality. This isolation brings suffering. In fact this isolation is suffering. Being disconnected from life and caught up instead inside a sterile loop made up entirely of ‘myself plus my desires’ is pure, unadulterated suffering, even if we cannot see it as such in the early stages of addiction. In the latter stages of the journey of addiction however the pain of the situation becomes more and more obvious. It becomes harder and harder to ignore the fact that ‘pain is the underlying reality’ of my situation. We go through the steps of the addiction – because we have to – but there is no more excitement in it, no more pleasure in it, no more euphoric relief when obtain the outcome we are looking for. When I press the button all that happens is that I get to feel more or less normal, more or less OK, and then very quickly I have to do the same thing all over again to stop myself descending into a world of pain. And the whole time the awareness grows clearer and clearer that I am doing what I am doing because I have to, not because I really and truly want to. The velvet glove has been removed a long time ago, and I am left with no doubt whatsoever as to the uncompromising reality of the iron fist that was behind it all along.
What essentially happens in addiction therefore is that we lose who we truly are and are provided instead with a crude analogue of ourselves, a crude ‘mechanical self’. This mechanical self works fine (after a fashion) just as long as we don’t ever question it, just as long as we don’t ever examine what we are doing or why. Obeying it provides us with a mechanical semblance of life. What we’re talking about here is therefore negative freedom – negative freedom (as we have said) seems like the genuine article just so long as we never question it, just so long as we keep it totally and utterly superficial. The only type of freedom that the crude analogue self has is negative freedom and this is the only type of freedom that we have too when we identified with the self-of-addiction, which isn’t who we are at all. The thing about the more ‘obvious’ (or ‘classic’) addictions such as an addiction to heroin or alcohol or gambling is if we survive to the other end of it we understand very clearly that the type of ‘freedom’ we have bought into is actually ‘slavery in disguise’. This is something we get to learn on a gut level, on the level of our bones so to speak, and once we have learned it the understanding stays with us. It has been learned properly – the lesson has been paid for in pure suffering. The sham of negative freedom has been laid bare for us and we know only too well what it feels like to be operated by external mechanical forces as a helpless puppet.
What we almost always fail to see however is that we are all addicts – conditioned existence is ‘addiction by any other name’. As Williams Burroughs says,
Every man has inside himself a parasitic being who is acting not at all to his advantage.
This ‘parasitic being’ is the psychological ego, the conditioned self – it is the mind-created image of ourselves which we are all so helplessly identified with. We’re faithfully following the script of our false lives, the lives that are written for us by the conditioned mind. We’re addicted to the game of pretending that we are who we aren’t and turning our back on who we really are! We’re addicted to the game of running away from freedom, whilst saying to ourselves the whole time that we’re not…
We are all on a journey deep into the world of negative freedom but we are also all very far from seeing it. Who amongst us understands negative freedom and how it applies to us in our daily lives? Do we perceive ourselves to be puppets dancing on the end of a handful of strings, or do we think that we are autonomous beings in control of our own lives? Do we have any sense or intimation at all that the so-called freedom of the conditioned self is not really freedom at all?
We are addicted to the false black-and-white world that the thinking mind creates for us. We are addicted to the story that it spins. We are addicted to our own banal mental categories! We are all addicted to the type of false security (the type of spurious certainty) that is created for us by rational thought but because we are ‘all in it together’ (because we are all playing the game together, en masse, in unison with each other) we don’t see this as an addiction. Because we validate the game – because we don’t see it as an addiction – we have made ourselves immune to learning the priceless lesson that is to be found when we make the dangerous journey into negative freedom…
Author: Nick Williams
Nick Williams works and writes in the field of mental health and is particularly interested in non-equilibrium states of consciousness, which are states of mind that cannot be validated by standardized experiments or by reference to any formal theoretical perspective.