The term “Chasing the Dragon” is used in different ways. It might have originally referred to smoking opium from tinfoil where the smoke and substance move (resembling a dragon) as the user “chases” to inhale.
Years ago, my friend’s girlfriend and I would talk all the time about our sordid histories with addiction. She’d actually moved to the town where we were living to escape a life of selling her body for pills. I enjoyed our deep conversations, which tended to take place after a few easy hits of weed (plus drawing pictures, and eating whatever we found in my friend’s kitchen).
One night, I opened up and started reminiscing about first-time experiences in warm environments filled with love, free all from consequences and judgment. I shared with her how drugs, along with a host of other adopted personas and lifestyle elements, had become a mission to recapture something long-dead. It had gotten to where, instead of being trounced by overwhelming fulfillment and idealism at every roll, puff, or drop, I’d sort of yawn and look at my watch in seedy dark corners as bouncers and other staff began obvious preparations for dawn and closing.
As my woeful words pattered out and trailed off that night, she smiled the knowing smile of someone far beyond her years (we were about twenty). “You’re chasing the dragon,” she said. “It will never be like it was at first; but that’s how it kills you. You follow further and further in until your whole life is gone.”
Chasing the Dragon: the “dragon” being some otherworldly, blissful experience you swear you’ve had (or were at least close to); but because addiction fosters tolerance (so that more and more [substance] equals less and less [effects]), you’re pulled to freakish excess just trying to grab that magical dragon by its tail.
You start to live feeling always at least a little let down.
Tolerance works to keep the dragon just slightly beyond your grasp as addiction consumes and ravishes arenas of your life in sequence like a hostile takeover of connected allies.
Six years ago, a friend gave me a few nuggets of a marijuana strain called Devil’s Lettuce. I still have fond memories of smoking in secret late at night, and then chilling and watching TV. But Devil’s Lettuce was a funny strain; it didn’t seem to have any clearly identifiable, special effects. For some reason, no matter how much I smoked, it was like I could never quite get high enough.
But I sure got used to trying…
Then I got my medical marijuana prescription, and was overjoyed to sample all sorts of strains from local dispensaries.
But after fighting so hard to appreciate Devil’s Lettuce, I’d gotten used to smoking at a certain intensity level. To put that another way: Stopping once I’d started before the night was over (or I ran out) just didn’t ever happen.
And for some reason, maybe due to being high, I’d convinced myself I’d been somehow cursed by Devil’s Lettuce, and that I’d never be able to feel high enough again no matter how much weed I took in.
What I didn’t realize was that getting high more and more (until it became all day every day) meant I was building up quite a hefty tolerance.
Desperate, I continued to pull in hard after that slippery dragon every chance I got, burning through countless grams, ounces, and pounds over the next four years as my tolerance kept winking, nodding, and expanding at every stage like a fish ever prepared to fill its growing bowl.
I started to call that whole period in my life—what turned into four solid years’ worth of addictive weed use—the Devil’s Lettuce Curse. It was a time of failing to find satisfaction in weed (no matter how much I used), and yet also failing to quit every time I tried.
I shared last time why my goal with weed has always been balance and control rather than abstinence—because weed benefits me in certain ways, even despite the negative consequences of using addictively, and because it’s fast becoming something society believes it can trust itself with.
Even when using addictively, I’d still catch high glimpses of all my deepest reasons for wanting to get high less—of how good and helpful the experience would if I could just get a handle on it, and of all the other good things using addictively was keeping me from.
Where I went wrong each time was trying to force those glimpses of my true intentions and state into plans for how to change.
Leaping to make plans was always incredibly comforting; it felt like being on the road to actually living better.
Planning was an easy, reflexive response for me. Jumping mentally to picture just how I wanted to live gave me a taste of what outrunning the shame and dissatisfaction I felt would be like.
But I never actually stuck with any of the plans I made (or bought) for very long. Somehow, I always managed to ignore my own guidelines, even the ones I’d just gotten through prescribing and had all but signed in blood.
And every time I got high, the same glimpses of intuitions and convictions would pop up again in new ways. So I’d be planning how to quit weed again even before the flames I’d just used to burn down my last plan to quit had fully died out.
And there were so many plans, one after another. Every weekend became my “final blowout” last bender before my next perfect plan was set to start [each] Monday.
A few steps back from it all now, years later, it’s much easier to see why a history of epic dragon chasing made my goal of using in a balanced way especially difficult. Every time I did successfully force myself away from weed a little (with a plan), there was this unconscious notion of the dragon being just that much closer . . . just that must easier to grab . . . RIGHT THERE…!
Like I said last time, I’m so glad I kept on writing down my high thoughts and real experience, even though the plans I’d construct from what I’d written never seemed to work out.
Just like any dragons that might seem worth chasing, the thing about a perfectly tailored lifestyle is you can only ever get so close to it.
It took continually seeing as much of my own real experience as possible before I could finally eventually accept that my problem had never really been one of effort, or of not having specific enough goals or motivations (not having the right plans).
My real problem was one of identity and immaturity.
In this article, I’ll focus on identity; the next will be about maturity.
How does identity—who or what you think you are—relate to chased dragons and addictive behaviors that consume and deplete your life despite your best intentions and strategies?
Well, I’ll say it this way: Identity is not a “thing” to know or be aware of. It’s never something you can decide on or even experience directly or holistically.
Could you say you know the ocean after falling off a boat?
Yes, you’d know some of the ocean. You’d have perceived specific qualities. But other parts of the ocean would be different. There are different fish than the ones you might have seen. The water could be a different color, temperature, and depth in other places.
And beyond that, even the place you fell changes with the weather, currents, tides, etc.
So perhaps all you could say is that you knew quite well a specific patch of ocean.
Could you ever knew the whole ocean? Even if you could swim everywhere without ever getting tired, you’d still only know a single patch at a time (the time you were there).
Water is always moving, as is everything else.
Similarly, it’s impossible to keep every aspect of who you are in view at once. Time passes. Your world and focus shifts. You can only pay attention to maybe a few things at once; and whatever you’re focused on gives the impression of being everything, since it’s all you can see and think about at the time, and each thing is “driven” only to exist more.
Life would be so easy to navigate if it were just one thing (or even one thing at a time). But the best you could hope for in terms of deciding on an identity would be to notice or choose something important and lasting enough to provide a decent workaround self-concept through which everything else can be interpreted.
That’s how the best plans work . . . until they don’t. And the more you try to force a plan, the more you’re keeping yourself from seeing when some or all of what you’ve chosen no longer works for you same as you thought it should—when enough other aspects of your life have shifted, adjusted, or evolved to make it so what you’ve said you want no longer fits.
Then you’re stuck with a really good failed plan: something that might have actually been based on what you truly thought was most important at the time, and that reflected your absolute best guess as to how.
Some never reach that point of being unable to ignore the distance between where their life is and where they predicted it should be. They go on lying to themselves and everyone else, whipping out defensive excuses like ninja stars for why “it might not seem like I’m…. but really…”
Yes, it’s better to realize. Then instead of living a lie only you’re fooled by, you’re just left with an identity crisis.
Here’s how identity crises work: You reach that point of sensing when the direction you’ve wanted to go is no longer congruent enough anymore with your inner and outer worlds to be livable. Then you jump to the next appealing, attractive identity, along with its prepackaged methodologies (plans).
It’s ironic how launching yourself into some shiny new plan to change becomes an effective way of avoiding having to face and really deal with the core issues pushing you to want to change.
And so the fate of someone with an identity crisis comes to match the fate of the self-liar/denier, anyway. While the one with the identity crisis does acknowledge where their chosen path isn’t working, they then spend their lives jumping from the security of one identity to the next, never fully admitting the pattern to themselves.
So, you’re either stuck in one wrong identity; or you’re stuck in a whole ring of identities, none of which ever feel quite right or like home to you.
In any case, all prescriptive[*] identities and plans fail the same way when everything around and inside you eventually moves on.
So here we have an even deeper irony (which sits at the base of the first): Launching yourself into a shiny new plan to change keeps you from dealing with the core issues that make you want to change because measuring yourself and your life by anything you see or know at any given moment keeps you from being a real person in the world.
No one is just one thing.
Think of something you like. Now think of something else. Think of something you know you want to do. Think of a few traits you’d love to have or show.
How do you feel physically right now? Are you hungry? Tired? Energetic? What else is your body telling you?
Nothing you just imagined compels or is important to you for no reason.
And how many other forces might there be at work within you now? Is there a limit to what you could want to do, have, or be?
Yes, but the specific details of all your many whims and virtues change with your circumstances and perspective; so really there’s no limit.
Wanting to be a heroic firefighter when you’re ten looks different than when you’re twenty or thirty. Imagine how that desire would evolve if you were to move from an office job to joining the fire academy.
But that analogy fails to represent life because it’s too specific and narrow. Even while learning to be a firefighter, how many other forces would still be at work within you, generally occupying your perspective only one at a time?
To simplify: Let’s refer to everything good or beneficial that you enjoy or want, and every positive aspect of the person you want to be, as values that want to use your life to bring themselves more into existence. Some of those values are hindered by circumstances. Some are hindered by your maturity level, personal limitations, addictions…
You could call the sum total of all relationships between your values and their hindrances “you” if you want, but it doesn’t matter.
Whatever “you” is (are) can change and improve, but not by trying to force the scales of whichever few values and hindrances you’re currently focused on.
Instead, let go of trying to change. Just see; and know that trying to narrow in on anything you see is counterproductive.
Simply find as objective a way as possible to see over time how all your intuitions, thoughts, feelings, instincts, reasons, ideas, desires . . . all your values and their hindrances . . . seem to fit with each other. See how new aspects birthed from change build from and fuse to the old, and see what gets canceled out. But don’t cling to any of these forces, relationships, or dynamics.
One of the best ways to get such an objective view of “yourself” is to find a way that works for you to naturally share your real experience over time. Eventually, this keeps you from being able to lie to yourself about your state, just as it keeps you from being able to ignore or shift from the unfolding realities of your life to any newer, better, more perfect plans that present themselves at every stage.
You’re still human; you can still really only focus on so many values wanting to exist through you at once. So you’re still always driven to plan how you can maximize those few currently highlighted values.
I’m not telling you to stop planning, but to see your plans for what they really are: just useful hunches. See them as scratches in the surface to dig deeper into.
But always let your plans stay open to being adjusted and added to based on everything your shifting perspective shows you as it continues to round your various inner and outer worlds. Let your plans get better and better, revealing to you as many values wanting to use you to exist as possible at any given time.
Again, all you really have to do is see. You don’t have to try, decide, intend…
See yourself enough, and the pull of your values overtakes the pull of your compulsions and limitations.
Another imperfect analogy: Sunlight “shows” a plant the “value” of photosynthesis until that value exceeds the “weight” (hindrance) of the soil—or even rocks—the plant must grow through.
You change as your perspective changes (which is maturity), which is what we’ll look at next time. But it starts with seeing.
Everything about the life you want can become so enjoyable and important to you that it serves as an inescapable (yet entirely mutable) blueprint of identity, even while you’re still watching yourself chase dragons and give into compulsions and addictions which are plainly hindering your values.
It was recording and sharing my experience through my Facing Addiction story that awakened me to the power of my values wanting to use me to bring themselves more to life. I didn’t have to force myself to stick to any plan. I just had to watch all my plans, thoughts, intuitions, and experience come together enough. Then I changed.
My values changed me as they continued to use me to exist.
The result was a total reversal of my old Devil’s Lettuce, chasing-the-dragon curse.
Weed is valuable to me, yet using addictively hindered my values. Part of seeing myself and my values enough was no longer being able to ignore exactly what maximizing the value of weed would mean for me: of waiting to make the experience as positive, fun, and beneficial as it could be.
There’s a beautiful stillness when you can live in that state, facing every aspect of yourself for exactly what it is. It’s fundamentally the opposite of addiction.
To put that another way: The opposite of frantically chasing the dragon is learning to peacefully let the dragon turn and return to you.
This applies to every experience you want to make the best it can possibly be—every activity or substance you want to have as good a relationship with as possible.
The continuous balance and peaceful bliss of being chased by dragons feels like a crafty, backwards, sideways dance, which eventually brings you to everything you want and makes you who you want to be.
So, who do you want to be?
Yes, that’s a trick question : )
[*]How things should be.