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The Abducted Mind


The perennial debate about whether addiction is a disease or a choice continues, fuelled by understandably outraged family members on the one hand, and by the medical fraternity on the other.

The best response I have ever heard to this question is that it is neither a disease nor a choice, but a disease of choice. The addicted mind is one which, at some stage, is no longer able to make choices based on moral awareness, duty, loyalty or even love, because these things are overtaken by the compulsion to use and ensure that the next fix is available, regardless of who or what may be obstructing it. It comes with diminished impulse control, with the brain rewired into the addict personality, which is one in constant pursuit of what it needs to negotiate the next hour, day or week. It is a need that overtakes everything: it is stronger than parental love, more urgent than physical safety and more consuming than fear. It has been held to ransom by an intransigent hijacker. Thus the husband, son or daughter of a woman battling for money will not hesitate to empty her purse behind her back and spend her hard-earned money on their dealer, or steal the few valuables in the house; a man or woman can lie, betray and disappoint those who are dearest to them to quiet the demand they must feed; or a father can watch his newborn child struggling to draw breath in a neonatal ward, and – despite his genuine anguish – still be devising ways of using the situation to elicit sympathy and perhaps a free fix or two from his dealer. This not about the absence of love. It is not about cruelty or indifference. It is about a mind in complete, subservient thrall to the need controlling it.

The abducted mind is – of necessity – a formidably calculating and resourceful one, plotting, scheming and devising means of obtaining what it craves in any situation. It instantly identifies the potential to use good fortune or tragedy for its own ends.

The neural pathways rewire themselves in time, once a person enters recovery, but never completely. The brain retains the abilities it mastered when it did not belong to itself. Recovering addicts are the most gifted entrepreneurs in the world, able to instantly plot a strategy which will cut through all obstacles and yield the most gain. They are at their strongest in crisis and chaos, for these are the states in which their adaptive genius comes to the fore. They are also able to risk, because they have learnt how to fall and survive. This is the lasting gift of a survived abduction.

However, the same attributes can also be lasting scars. A mind attuned to opportunism, manipulation and spotting options or courses of action which are unthinkable to many others (unless they are in desperation) never completely loses that relationship with shadows. It remains, hidden in the wings, but present. The neural pathways, albeit rewired, are never totally severed from the darker circuit which they once tracked. The task of reclaiming and retaining heightened moral awareness is the true work of recovery.

What triggers addiction? Again, I say, the best response I have ever heard to this question is: “The pain of an absent life.” The void of unfulfilment, despair, loneliness, futility, fear, fragility. The inability to come to terms with the past, engage with the present or believe in the future. All of these things and none of these things. As many things as human beings grasp at, but fail to grip, in their search for a sense of belonging.

I have heard addiction described as “a failed attempt at transcendence” – and no wonder, for who can fly wings made of weeds, chemicals and powder? How can one rise above pain and futility when one is rooted in the daily emergency of placating a relentless abductor? Transcendence is about elevation, elation and freedom. Addiction is about lead, descent and stasis. We need to remember that the feathers and wax which – for a few exhilarating minutes – bore Icarus aloft soon melted in the heat of the sun, plunging him to earth and shattering his frame.

The road to addiction is a rocky one and the way back sometimes only leads halfway, because there can seldom be a return from a state as treacherous, as enchanted and as arresting as abduction. It has been said that Lazarus, after he was resurrected by Jesus, arose from his bier and walked the earth again, but never entirely lost the insentience (or, perhaps, the sentience) of death. Survivors of abduction may in time learn to trust themselves and others enough to walk without looking over their shoulders, but the memory of captivity lingers in a recess of the soul. Let us take it for neither a blessing, nor a curse, but only as a glimpse into a dangerous, sometimes beautiful, but always inscrutable country.

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