You are not the same person all the time. When you're hungry, you behave differently than when you've eaten. You're a different person after you've had your coffee. You make different decisions based on your current state and feelings.
We all know this and are fine with it. We rely on food and other substances to make us feel a certain way, to control our experience and try to be the people we want to be.
If you think you're feeling bad because of a lack of sleep, exercise, or correct diet, and you're taking steps to improve those things, you are essentially trying to treat yourself with anti-depressants, although ones that are laboriously administered.
What is so noble about getting the correct balance of chemicals in your brain the old-fashioned way instead of taking a pill? And don't the hours spent going to the gym, cursing yourself for not wanting to go to the gym, not going for a while, paying for the membership for six months while you promise yourself you're going to get it together any day ... aren't those wasted hours part of what's making you feel bad? In my experience, getting the chemicals right in my brain is the precursor to healthy sleep and exercise, not the result of it.
We are all already born with a certain chemical cocktail in our heads that we didn't choose. It's natural that we would want to take control of possibly the most important thing in our lives.
What most of us want is a predictable experience, a baseline of ourselves that we can rely on day to day. If something anomalously good happens, we expect there to be a spike up in mood from our baseline, and the opposite for something anomalously bad.
But so much effort is spent just achieving and maintaining this baseline, that it becomes counter productive. We just want to "feel like ourselves," but the pursuit of that goal means that on average, "ourself" becomes a state of dissatisfaction because most of the time we're not who we want to be.
Wouldn't we be less stressed if we had all the time and energy back that we spent meditating, exercising, and trying to fall asleep at the right time? If we used that time fixing the things that are stressing us out? How much of our stress is tied up in doing or not doing things to de-stress?
Chicken or the Egg
The amount of upkeep we expect from ourselves and from other people to just get to baseline is insane and counterproductive. When I was depressed (most of my life) and talked to people about how I was feeling, friends or professionals, the inevitable questions were:
- How are you sleeping?
- How often are you exercising?
- How's your diet?
In study after study, we see that having these three things in balance is the single best thing you can do for your physical and mental health. So of course that's what anyone who wants to help me would ask.
But I believe we are confusing correlation for causation. I think the people who have these things in balance already have the neurochemistry in place to get them in balance. It's not that they have more will power, or are better adjusted, or have their shit together – they are neurochemically blessed.
Then we look at them and their activities and think if everyone does those things, then everyone will feel better. But some of us can't do those things because our own neurochemistry is not like theirs. Neurochemistry is upstream of all else. It is the source code of your experience.
So if you want to exercise because you enjoy it, but can't get the motivation to do so, that is a neurochemical problem. Yes, mental framing and positive self-talk can juice the motivation chemicals, but I think for most people this is unreliable. It depends on the chemicals for mental framing and positive self-talk to be in place, which can be lacking because of a lack of exercise. It's a catch-22.
What if you could wake up in the morning and have a choice in how you felt that day? What would you choose? What if you didn't need to go to the gym for an hour just to be in a pleasant mood and not snap at people who you talk to?
What if you had a control panel for your mood and experience and you could tune it to help you achieve your goals.
"Well, I have to do a lot of boring work today in order to pay the bills. I guess I'll turn up the 'interest' knob so that I really get absorbed in it and have fun doing it."
We are already attempting to do this with coffee, alcohol, exercise, cigarettes, sugar, protein bars, herbal supplements, diet regimen, daily-affirmations, meditation, etc. We are trying to cultivate our mood, perspective, and experience to achieve a goal. We are trying to get to a place where we even want to pursue goals in the first place, and for those goals to be healthy and positive.
So let's do away with all the counter-productive ceremony and just take the drugs, if necessary, that help us be the people we want to be.
Who We Are
It was a Friday afternoon and I was finishing up work for the day. My wife was out of town so I was on dad duty.
I had ordered a supplement called Phenibut1 to help control my mood, and so I took some before picking up my kids from school.
On the way to pick them up, I impulsively decided to listen to a band I used to love but hadn't listened to in years, The Mars Volta. I had mostly been listening to my kids' favorite five songs over and over again in the car, and I thought I'd cleanse my pallet before I had to hear them yet again.
I had the thought that there's no way my daughters, who are six and three years old, would like this music. It's very proggy and loud and fast and crazy.
When I pick them up, we're all in a silly mood. I notice that this is usually a difficult time because I'm worn out from work and they are very high-energy. They don't want to pack up their things and go home, they want to drag it out and play. This time I'm into it. I'm not concerned with getting them in the car and buckled and getting them home and fed. I'm just hanging out. We're taking our time. It's fun. They are feeding off my emotional accessibility and presence.
When we eventually get in the car, I have a wild idea. "Hey, do you girls want to hear what music dad was listening to on the way here? It's a liiittttllleee crazy. Not sure if you can HANDLE it," I say with a big mischievous smile.
"Yeah!" they scream.
I put it on and start driving. I talk them through what's fun about each part. I let them know what's coming and how we're going to go crazy when the chorus hits. When the chorus comes, I flail around in my seat and bang my head. They squeal in delight and I can hear them thrashing around in their seats.
We get home and they want to keep listening to the music. I put it on really loud. I turn on some colored lights we have and turn out all the other ones. We have a dance party and it is pure fun.
Mom walks in from her trip to find a very strange scene.
Looking back on it, I feel like this was a great experience to give my kids. Not to mention I loved it as well. But anyone who knows me knows that this is usually far outside my usual personality. I usually want to do those things, but I feel too self-conscious, insecure or tired to actually go through with it. The Phenibut allowed me to be a person and dad that I wanted to be, instead of just taking whatever I was naturally capable of in that moment.
I didn't become someone else. I switched to a version of myself that's usually locked away. A version that is more aligned with my goals for how I want to feel and the type of dad that I want my children to have.
There really is no static "self" that we have. We are constantly being pushed and pulled along a spectrum of possible selves by forces that we don't control. What I'm suggesting is that we take control of the push/pull to put ourselves firmly in the versions that we enjoy and help us achieve our goals.
This is not chasing euphoria or getting high. This is acknowledging that we already do this whenever we drink coffee or exercise, so we should just get smarter about it.
To do this, we have to understand why we're not already doing it.
Pathology Driven Medicine
When you are being evaluated for treatment for depression, a doctor's first concern is preventing you from harming yourself, and their second concern is getting you to be "functional" in daily life. In order to treat you with medication, a doctor needs to diagnose you with a pathology (let's ignore the insurance conversation for the sake of brevity). This means that there is something that is not normal about you that needs intervention.
I refused medication for depression for fifteen years because I couldn't identify with the idea that I was depressed. I still don't. But when I finally went along with it and saw that medication fixed nearly all the things that I had been trying to fix through other means, I was frustrated with the framing of medicine that had kept me from a better experience for all those years.
You shouldn't have to feel and say that there is something wrong with you in order to have access to chemical support for your mood and daily experience. You should be able to tell a doctor your goals for your life and your mood, and you should be able to safely explore the chemical space together in order to help you live the life you want.
If you are already meeting the definition of "functional" in today's society, you should still be able to pursue improving your mood and experience with the help of a trained professional. Right now we have people guinea pigging themselves on unregulated supplements and illegal substances, all without supervision or guidance.
The conversation with the clerk at the pot store about what kind of experience you want to have should be had with your doctor, and pot should not be the only lever accessible to you.
The Fear of Addiction
And that leads us to why it's not like that right now. The common belief is that if you open up chemical experimentation as an option to the public, so many people will become addicts and overdose that society will crumble. Or something along those lines. People can't be trusted to have access to drugs that make them feel good because they will give up on life and just take drugs all the time.
I think the opposite is true. I think people ineptly and dangerously try to escape their lives with drugs when they are feeling bad, or are in pain, and are feeling abandoned by legal systems of support that do not work. If you allow them to safely experiment with a wide variety of drugs, I believe they will find one or several that will profoundly improve their life – without any abuse or adverse consequences beside any physical side-effects from the substances themselves.
We have already legalized many addictive substances that are arguably more harmful to society than the ones we ban. Sugar, for example, has been found to be highly addictive and mess with our dopamine reward centers. Some studies put it in the same addictive category as cocaine. And it has had profoundly negative health effects such as contributing to the obesity epidemic, and market effects like creating a demand for corn-based products that shapes our entire economy and agrarian infrastructure.
Then of course there's alcohol. It's hard to think of a worse drug of choice for cultures the world over if you're concerned about people's health. The cycle of drinking, hangover, depression, and then self-medicating with more alcohol is a brutal cycle to escape. And one we expect people to be able to do by default. Having difficulty with this cycle is considered a pathology.
So taking substances in pursuit of achieving our goals is something we all do already, just poorly and implicitly. We should make it explicitly OK to do so with potentially any substance, and partner with doctors to both monitor your dosage and give you access to any substance that might help. Everyone is different, and we shouldn't be holding some substances away from people just because an individual has not been diagnosed with the correct pathology for that substance. And likewise we should not be expecting everyone to find their favorite version of themselves among the substances we've arbitrarily made legal.
Addiction is when the substances become the goal, instead of them helping to achieve your pre-existing goals. Ideally, drugs should just get out of the way and allow you to live the life you want, not become the reason that you wake up in the morning. But we're so convinced that the average person will just choose to lay in bed all day with a morphine drip that we make people wait until there is something severely wrong with them before we say it's OK to try a relatively arbitrary selection of drugs.
Let's have some faith in people. The opioid crisis happened because doctors were prescribing the wrong substance to the wrong people for the wrong reasons. And for many of the casualties, their lives were filled with so much suffering without any channel of support, that pursuing any kind of relief was rational. The problem is not that people are inherently addicts and they were given too much access to pain meds.
If you have doctors finding the right substance for the right person in order for that person to live the life they want, I don't think you end up with overdoses and addiction, I think you end up with a well-functioning, happy, and productive society. And I think on some level, we all kind of know it.
1: Please don't try Phenibut without doing your research. It affects everyone very differently and can be highly addictive for some people. For some people, it does nothing at all.
Cover image by Patryk Grądys on Unsplash