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, a friend’s girlfriend and I loved to hang out and discuss our sordid histories with drugs. Our conversations usually took place after a few easy hits of weed, plus drawing pictures, laughing, and eating whatever we found in my friend’s kitchen.
During one such dialogue, I remember reminiscing about first-time experiences in warm environments filled with love and free from all consequences and judgment. I shared how drugs, along with a host of other adopted personas and lifestyle elements, had become for me a mission to recapture something 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 club corners as bouncers and other staff began 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 both about 20). “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 farther and farther in until everything else 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 trying to grab that magical dragon by its disappearing tail.
You start to live feeling always at least a little let down as addiction consumes and ravishes important life arenas in sequence like a hostile takeover of connected allies.
Six years ago, a friend gave me a few nuggets of a weed strain called Devil’s Lettuce. I still have fond memories of smoking it in secret late each night, then chilling and watching TV.
But Devil’s Lettuce was a funny strain; it didn’t seem to have any clearly identifiable “special” effects. No matter how much I smoked, it was like I could never quite get high enough.
That sure never kept me from trying…
Then I got my prescription, and was overjoyed to sample all sorts of strains from local dispensaries.
Yet after fighting so hard to appreciate Devil’s Lettuce, I’d gotten used to using at a certain intensity level. To put that another way: Stopping once I’d started before the night was over or I ran out simply didn’t happen.
And for some reason (perhaps just me being high), I was convinced I’d been cursed somehow by Devil’s Lettuce, and that I’d never be able to feel high enough again no matter how much of any strain I took in.
What I didn’t realize was that using more and more until weed became an all-day, every-day onslaught 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—while my tolerance level just kept winking, nodding, and expanding at every stage like a fish ever prepared to fill its growing tank.
I started to call that whole period in my life my Devil’s Lettuce Curse. It was a time of failing to find satisfaction in weed, yet also failing to quit whenever I tried.
I shared 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 addictive use; 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 could be if I could just get a handle on it, and of all the other good things uncontrolled use was keeping me from.
Where I went wrong each time was trying to force those glimpses of my true intentions and state into concrete plans to change.
Leaping to make plans was an easy, comforting, reflexive response for me; it felt like being on the road to actually living better.
But I never stuck with any of the plans I made or bought for very long. Somehow I was always able to ignore my own best guidelines, even those I’d just gotten through prescribing and had all but signed in my own blood.
And there were so many plans, one after another. Every weekend became my “final blowout” last bender before my next big perfect plan was set to start Monday.
A few steps back from it all now, years later, and it’s much easier to see why a history of epic dragon chasing made my goal of balance and control especially difficult. Every time I did successfully force myself away from weed (with a plan), there was this unconscious sense of the dragon being just that much closer . . . that must easier to grab . . . right there…!
But like any dragons worth chasing, the thing about a perfectly tailored lifestyle is you can only ever get so close to it.
And it took a long time for me to see and accept that my problem had never really been one of effort, or of not having specific enough goals or motivations—of not having the right plans.
My real problem was one of identity and immaturity.
We’ll look at identity this time, and maturity next.
How does identity—who or what you think you are—relate to chased dragons and addictive behaviors that consume and deplete you despite all your best intentions and strategies?
Well, I’ll say it this way: Identity isn’t really a “thing” to know, decide on, or even experience directly or holistically at all.
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 would be different from what you experienced. You’d find different fish in other places from those you might have seen. The water elsewhere could be another color, temperature, or depth.
And beyond that, even the place you fell would change with weather, currents, tides…
So perhaps all you could say is that you knew a specific patch of ocean quite well.
Could you ever know the whole ocean?
Even if you could swim everywhere without getting tired, you’d still only know a single patch at a time (the time you were there).
Water is always moving, and so is everything else.
Similarly, it’s impossible to keep every aspect of who you are in view.
Time passes. Your world and focus shifts.
You can only pay attention to a few things at once; yet whatever you’re focused on gives the impression of being all there is.
Life would be so easy to navigate if it really was 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 something lasting and important enough to you that it provides a decent workaround self-concept through which everything else could 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 where some or all of what you’ve chosen no longer works for you the way you thought it should—when enough aspects of your life have shifted, adjusted, or evolved to make your chosen foundation no longer secure.
Then you’re stuck with a good failed plan—something that might have actually been based on your absolute best guess as to how to be, do, or have what you truly thought was most important.
Some never reach that point of being forced to acknowledge the distance between where their life has ended up 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 with your inner and outer worlds to be viable. 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 the core issues pushing you to want to change.
And so the fate of one with an identity crisis comes to match the fate of the self-liar/denier anyway. While the identity crisis person does acknowledge where their chosen path isn’t working, they then jump to the next, then the next . . . spending their lives cycling through the faux security of various identities (without ever fully admitting this pattern to themselves).
So, you’re either stuck trying to force one wrong identity; or you’re stuck transitioning through a whole ring of identities, none of which ever feel quite right or like home for long.
In any case, prescriptive identities and plans fail when everything around and within you moves on.
And here we reach an even deeper irony (which sits at the base of the first): Launching yourself into an attractive plan to change keeps you from dealing with the core issues pushing you to change because measuring yourself and your life by anything you see, know, or notice at any given moment keeps you from . . . well, from being a real person in the world.
No person is or can be just one thing.
Think of something you like. Now think of something else.
Think of something 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 you for no reason.
And how many other forces might there be at work within you at this moment?
Is there a limit to what you could want to do, have, or be?
Yes, there is, though the specific edges and layout of your many whims change with 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 leave an office job and actually join the fire academy.
But that analogy fails to represent life because it’s so 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 (or want to be) as values wanting to use your life to bring themselves more into existence.
Some of your 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 current values and their hindrances “you” if you want, but it doesn’t matter.
Whatever “you” are can change and improve, but not by force—not by trying to tip the scales of whichever few values vs. hindrances you’re currently focused on.
Instead, let go of trying to change. Just see; and know that attempting to narrow in on anything you see is counterproductive.
Find as objective a way as possible to see over time how all your intuitions, thoughts, feelings, instincts, reasons, ideas, desires . . . including all your values and their hindrances . . . seem to fit together and relate to one another.
See how new aspects birthed in change build from and fuse to the old; and see what gets canceled out.
But resist the urge to cling to, control, or build around any of the forces, relationships, or dynamics you see.
Instead, just keep seeing.
As I’ve shared, 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. Doing so will keep you from being able to lie to yourself about your state, just as it keeps you from ignoring or shifting from the unfolding realities of your life to latch on to any of the shiny, pretty 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 best maximize those few values.
And I’m not telling you to stop planning, but just to see your plans for what they really are: useful hunches. See your plans as scratches in the surface to always dig deeper into as your shifting perspective continues to round your various inner and outer worlds.
Let your plans get better and better, revealing to you as many values wanting to exist through you as possible at any given time.
Again, all you really have to do is see. See yourself enough, and the pull of your values comes to overtake 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. Again, that’s what we’ll look at next time.
It was recording and sharing my experience that awakened me to the power of my values wanting to use me to bring themselves to life. In the end, 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 by using me to exist, and the result was a total reversal of my old Devil’s Lettuce Curse.
There’s a beautiful stillness when you can live in that state, facing every changing aspect of yourself for exactly what it is. That state is 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 wish 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 🙂