Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Three-Headed Dragon

A symbol of need.

 Getting off drugs, or learning to stop drinking, is very often easier than staying off them. As Mark Twain remarked about tobacco, quitting was easy—he’d done it dozens of times. Relapse, the biological imperative, will have its way with most of those abstaining for the first time. Addiction is a psychological disorder with strongly cued behavioral components, whatever its dimensions as a biochemically-based disease.

The three-headed dragon is a metaphor first popularized by alternative therapists at the Haight Ashbury Free Medical Clinic in San Francisco. The first head of the dragon is physical. Addiction is a chronic illness requiring a lifetime of attention. The second head is psychological. Addiction is a disorder with mental, emotional, and behavioral components. And the third head of the dragon is spiritual. Addiction is an existential state, experienced in isolation from others.

Addicts speak of “chasing the dragon” in an effort to catch the high that they used to achieve so easily. It is also drug slang for the use of small metal pipes to catch and inhale the wisps of smoke from a pile of burning opium, crack, or speed. We can picture the dragon chasing his own tail, snapping at it with all three hungry mouths, in an endless escalation of tolerance and need.

“Because of the unique reaction that the genetically addiction-prone individual experiences to his drug of choice, he or she programs his or her belief system with the deep conviction that the substance is ‘good,’” writes Richard Seymour. “This is where self-help becomes intrinsic to recovery. Unless one deals with the third head, unless one changes the belief system and effects a turning-about in the deepest seat of consciousness, there is no recovery.” The “X” factor in recovery, for many people, turns out to be a form of inner self-awareness; something that includes the attributes of will power and determination yet transcends them through a form of surrender.

And speaking of changing one’s belief system, experience has shown that it is a spectacularly bad idea to sit around and do nothing but stare at the wall during the early phase of recovery. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi argues, in The Evolving Self, that when attention wanders, and goal-directed action wanes, the majority of thoughts that come to mind tend to be depressive or sad. (This does not necessarily apply to formal methods of meditation, which cannot be described as states marked by wandering attention.) The reason that the mind turns to negative thoughts under such conditions, he writes, is that such pessimism may be evolutionarily adaptive. “The mind turns to negative possibilities as a compass needle turns to the magnetic pole, because this is the best way, on the average, to anticipate dangerous situations.” In the case of recovering addicts, this anticipation of dangerous situations is known as craving. The next step is often drug-seeking behavior, followed by relapse.

For a highly motivated addict with a stable social life, a safe and effective medication to combat craving might be all that is needed. For many others, however, attention to the other two heads of the dragon is going to be necessary. An addict’s ability to experience pleasure in the normal way has been biochemically impaired. It takes time for the addict’s disordered pleasure system to begin returning to normal, just as it takes time for the physical damage of cigarette smoking to partially repair itself.

Alternative therapists are fond of referring to recovery as a process, with an emphasis on the importance of time. Medication of any disease, even if successful, does not treat the continuing need for healing. It is now well understood that mood and outlook can have an effect on healing. Positive emotional states can be beneficial to the maintenance of good health. Thoughtful physicians make the distinction between a disease and an illness. A disease is a chemically identifiable pathological process. An illness, by contrast, is the disease and all that surrounds it—the sociological environment, and the individual psychology of the patient who experiences the disease.

From The Chemical Carousel By Dirk Hanson, pp. 311-313.  © Dirk Hanson, 2008.

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Anonymous said...

Another well written article with valuable insight.

And, I too find it important to note the difference between sickness, illness and disease. Though its major topic being quite something else and not-so-related to the interests of this blog either, a research report by Wikman et al. (2005) explains well the difference between sickness, illness and disease.

--T. said...

I am in recovery. Someone had told me about the 3-headed dragon. Awesome article!!!!! I have named my addiction "LUCIFER"...The DEMON DRAGON. Staying clean and sober can be pure hell somedays. It's cool to actually see a picture of what my body, mind and soul go thru on a daily basis. Thank you.

Whatonearth said...

I actually had a tattoo put on my back of a 3 headed dragon, right after waking up from an overdose over 10 years ago. Thank God I have been clean ever since.

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