NOTIONS: Lessons of withdrawal from a recovering addict

October 31, 2005

A friend of mine recently visited his doctor. He was worried about chest pains. The doctor wired him to an EKG, studied the readings, and pronounced him fit.

During the exam, my friend asked how the doctor was doing.

The physician said he was dreading winter. He said ailing patients would flock to his office seeking cures. He'd tell them they had viruses and they'd recover on their own. They'd demand medicine. He'd tell them none would help. They'd demand some anyway.

Another friend of mine just weaned herself off the antidepressant Paxil. She'd taken it for a long time, but felt good enough to go drug-free. So she gradually reduced the daily dosage from several pills to none.

For a few days, she felt fine. Then the side effects kicked in: Hot flashes. Chills. Nausea. Diarrhea. Dizziness. Bad dreams. Insomnia. And something she called "brain zaps."

"It's like someone presses a pause button and your mind stops, mid-thought," she said. "It's random. I worry about driving."

Troubled, she searched through Web sites about Paxil withdrawal. She found many, and they frightened her.

"When you go on a new drug, the doctors don't tell you enough about the side effects, or how hard it will be to quit," she said.

But she said she's glad she experienced difficult withdrawal.

"Now I know what drug addicts go through," she said. "I understand how hard it is for them."

If you believe the scientists and scholars in the film "What the Bleep Do We Know?," I'm a recovering addict, too.

In this 2004 quasi-documentary, several scientists espouse the theory that our feelings are merely chemicals imprinted on the body's cells.

They suggest, for example, that if your true love triggers certain emotions within you, you become addicted to the chemicals associated with those emotions.

"So how can anyone say they're in love with a specific person?" asks one interviewee. "They're only in love with the anticipation of the emotions they're addicted to ... My goodness, doesn't that change the landscape of our personal needs and identities?"

It follows that if your true love departs-via death, divorce or "breaking up"-you may experience symptoms akin to a heroin addict (or Paxil patient) undergoing withdrawal.

Having known, off and on, since my wife's death, the gut ache, the struggle to concentrate, sleeplessness, headaches, heartache and other physical manifestations of grief, I'll buy that.

But here's the rub: Have we so convinced ourselves that happiness is the only healthy emotion that sadness is now seen as sickness? And are we, like virus sufferers flocking to their physicians, too often too quick to demand restored happiness by any medical means, rather than learning and growing from sadness and suffering?

Fifty years ago, University of Georgia professor Edith Weisskopf-Joelson wrote, "Our current mental-hygiene philosophy stresses the idea that people ought to be happy, that unhappiness is a symptom of maladjustment. Such a value system might be responsible for the fact that the burden of unavoidable unhappiness is increased by unhappiness about being unhappy."

In another article, she cited "unhealthy trends in the present-day culture of the United States, where the incurable sufferer is given very little opportunity to be proud of his suffering and to consider it ennobling rather than degrading." The result, she says: "He is not only unhappy, but also ashamed of being unhappy."

Hoping to ease my unhappiness, a friend suggested I read Viktor E. Frankel's "Man's Search for Meaning." I did, and found 50-year-old insights that are even more relevant today.

"More and more," Frankel writes, "a psychiatrist is approached ... by patients who confront him with human problems rather than neurotic symptoms. Some of the people who nowadays call on a psychiatrist would have seen a pastor, priest or rabbi in former days. Now they often refuse to be handed over to a clergyman and instead confront the doctor with questions such as, 'What is the meaning of my life?'"

I confess, I did that, too-not with a psychiatrist, but with a psychologist specializing in grief.

I also consulted a clergyman (the Dalai Lama), who concludes in "The Universe in a Single Atom," that while science and medicine are invaluable, our lives and emotions amount to more than chemical reactions and quantum physics.

"Even in the most highly developed scientific countries," the Dalai Lama writes, "it is clear that human beings continue to experience suffering, especially at the emotional and psychological level. The great benefit of science is that it can contribute tremendously to the alleviation of suffering at the physical level, but it is only through the cultivation of the qualities of the human heart and the transformation of our attitudes that we can begin to address and overcome our mental suffering."

Gosh, that sounds like lots of work, Doc. Can't you just prescribe something?

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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