Drunkenness or sobriety?Stephen Farah
And much as Wine has play’d the Infidel,
And robb’d me of my Robe of Honour—well,
I often wonder what the Vintners buy
One half so precious as the Goods they sell…
The Grape that can with Logic absolute
The Two-and-Seventy jarring Sects confute:
The subtle Alchemist that in a Trice
Life’s leaden Metal into Gold transmute.
I stopped drinking – alcohol that is, in case my meaning wasn’t immediately explicit, the good stuff, here in the fairest Cape our vintners cultivate the Lord’s own grapes, about seven months ago. Well, if you’re going to insist on specificity, seven months and twenty-six days ago – at the time of publication, but hey, who’s counting!
I’ve never thought of myself as an alcoholic. Put it this way, I’ve never gone to place of an evening with a motley crew of strangers and introduced myself by saying, “Hi, I’m Stephen, and I am an alcoholic.” Nor would I characterize myself as an inebriate or dipsomaniac, I am most definitely not a barfly, tippler, wino or heaven forbid, a lush. I am, however, a Bacchanalian, and amid some the wilder moments of my early adulthood, may even have been called a carouser. Most of all though, and here is the nub and possibly the rub of this confession, I am a drunkard.
I subscribe to the school of thought, am an apologist for, and am philosophically sympathetic, to borrow a turn of phrase from Hattori Hanzo , to the principle of drunkenness. I realise, of course, that there is an ambiguity in the term “drunkenness”. And, seeing as I am, or more modestly claim to be, in the business of truth telling, and not to be disingenuous, let me concede that at this point of the confession, to some degree I am seeking refuge in this ambiguous signification. I will however, or at least such is my intention, come clean on these matters if you’ll indulge me.
It may be helpful to offer you some biography to establish my street cred, and right to weigh in on this oversubscribed field of discourse. Both of my parents were alcoholics. My father, by innate disposition, and my mother as an act of sovereign self-defense in response to my father, putting aside for the moment the wisdom of such response. My younger and now late brother, whilst not strictly speaking an “alcoholic” mediated the weal and woe of life through substance use, and by common definition, abuse. This path proved fatal, and he died, as a relatively young man, in 2019. Alexia, my girlfriend, whose decision to quit alcohol just before the lockdown in 2020, over two and a half years ago now, that drinking was not enabling the best version of herself, and after many years of grappling with the conundrum – to drink or not to drink, and her resolve to stand by this tough choice in no small way inspired my own journey. I could go on, but I trust my pedigree, if initially only by association and familiarity is already clear.
Personally, I only came into my own as a drinker since moving to Cape Town in 2015, already in my forties at the time. In that sense, as an aficionado of the fruit of the vine, I am a late bloomer. As a younger man, whilst no teetotaler, I imbibed only on rare occasions and never developed a real taste for it. Moving to the Cape, which, jests aside, has some of the finest grape cultivars in the world, I developed a penchant for a glass, and on occasion two, of fine red wine, with my evening meal. Once I had developed the habit, I maintained it rather blissfully for about seven years.
On average, once I became conscious of this habit and thought to pay attention, I noted that I was drinking about two bottles of red wine a week. In other words, at least by standard convention according to the Mayo Clinic, I was a moderate drinker. And that classification of moderation, felt accurate. Although this had become habitual it was never compulsive, nor was I inclined to drink more than that. Nevertheless, once I decided to stop, which I did prompted by the advice of an Ayurvedic physician, it proved a lot more challenging than I imagined it would be. It wasn’t and isn’t still so much resisting the urge to drink, which, as I say, I have never experienced as a compulsion, as the state of being permanently sober that has proved challenging. Somewhat strangely, from my perspective at least, even if this is a naivete on my part, before developing the habit of regular alcohol consumption, it (sobriety) never used to be difficult and now it is. Or let’s say more modestly, I wasn’t aware of how difficult it was because I had nothing to compare it to, and now I do. Whatever the case though I have come to find permanent sobriety to be a painful condition.
Now, to be clear, I’m not saying that there is no virtue and even joy in sobriety, albeit it a qualitatively quite different type of joy. I enjoy getting up early in the morning sans hangover, clear headed, and going for a morning walk, enjoying a cup of coffee, and then doing some creative work, such as writing this piece. And I wouldn’t wish to substitute that for a permanent state of even mild drunkenness. I’m not intending to portray a nihilistic or disenchanted orientation to life, the world, and everything that comes along with that. Sure, life includes suffering, there is no denying that, but it also offers joy, meaning and beauty to those with the ability to see these. I am someone who celebrates being alive. Not stupidly and naively, such that I cannot appreciate the irony of Beckett or Kafka, simply that given a choice I choose life and am immensely grateful for this opportunity of being.
This though brings me to the conundrum I am hoping to highlight. One of the great joys of being alive is the experience of drunkenness!
Sobriety, lucidity, cool headedness can only take you so far, if your intended destination is the euphoric dimension of being alive. Drunkenness – and the kind of drunkenness I’m talking about is not the falling-flat-on-your-face, making an ass of yourself, blackout drinking. In fact, even having a drink too many, I find mildly distasteful, given to some degree a certain sensitivity to being exposed to this as child. I don’t celebrate inebriation and dissolution of dignity and consciousness in the opiate-like-haze that alcohol at a certain level of consumption can induce. Nor the alcohol and testosterone infused aggression that is often associated with alcohol abuse, particularly among the mean-spirited, small hearted, little men who drink to find their way back to their absent manhood.
No, on the contrary, the kind of drunkenness I’m referring to and am interested in here is the celebration of life and being that is accompanied and to some extent facilitated by enjoying a drink with a meal or at an occasion, the celebration of friendship and companionship, the slight relaxing of normal inhibitions and tensions to allow a more sensuous, happier, more passionate, better humored, version of oneself to emerge. And, to this effect, in my view, there is no substitute for a snort or two, in the old-fashioned sense of this term.
Don’t give me your dope, your, pot, ganja and for G-d’s sake man, spare me the mushrooms! I have no interest in your new-age-psychedelically-lit-path to the great delusion. To each his or her own, but in the field of Bacchanalian celebration, all poisons were not indeed created equal, or, at least, such is my view.
To no small degree, I would argue that being drunk is the very purpose of being alive. If we were not born for ecstasy, what prey tell is the reason for enduring the inevitable suffering that accompanies being? To propagate the species so that future generations might know the dry, passionless, and bitter fruit of abstinent temperance, perhaps? Sobriety, consciousness, lucidity, cool headedness are virtues, I’m not arguing that they aren’t, but let’s be frank, they sure aren’t the life of the party. They serve utility value, but when it comes to the meaning, the juice, the euphoric, except for certain idiosyncratic philosophers, these ae not the road to the embodied experience of the transcendent.
Notwithstanding and despite this apologia to the fruit of the vine and the vintners craft, I remain sober, at least currently. Why, might you ask? As indeed I regularly enquire of myself, and which question has indeed motivated this short essay.
Look, to some degree, I, like many of you I suspect, simply enjoy suffering. I wear my suffering as a badge of honor. I am a Roman Catholic by birth, and so am mythologically identified with the crucifixion and its accompanying motif of the divine suffering. Besides that, psychologically – as the Architect of the Matrix learned at great cost to his original construct , humanity finds solace, brotherhood and even sanctuary in its suffering. It is not only that suffering connects us to each other, which it undoubtedly does, but it offers a soothing balm for narcissistic wounding. I may not be able to brag to you about my outstanding life, litany of achievements, and proudly wear the laurel of honour, but I can wear my suffering as a cloak with which to adorn the unimpressive visage of my otherwise naked mediocrity.
In this sense, every day of sobriety acts as a homeopathic dose of crucifixion. Every day I willingly choose to suffer, brings me one step closer to salvation, or so I hope and if not, in any case I am familiar with my pain body and we keep close, if not exactly good, company. Beyond this very catholic idealization of suffering, my understanding, based on my admittedly limited research, is that alcohol, even in moderation, is not actually all that good for one’s health. I’m willing to concede here that this may be open to debate and even have my own reservations in this respect. However, it’s a belief I have come to subscribe to and until convincing data to the contrary is provided, I’ll stick with it.
Truthfully though, neither of the above reasons are the spine of my abstinence and my belief that such abstinence, although painful, is not without some virtue.
The core ethical value my sobriety serves is my belief that the virtue in sobriety is learning to deal with an unbroken stream of consciousness. Consciousness unmediated by any psychoactive or psychotropic drug, in other words, natural consciousness. This is the same reason that I am opposed to the use of psychopharmacology i.e., anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medication et al. I’m not claiming here that these medications are not useful and often lifesaving, no doubt they are, and we are the grateful beneficiaries of this medicine. Rather my concern centers on determining when the virtues of such use outweigh the cost. To be clear, once again, I don’t challenge that there is a myriad of situations when the use of psychopharmacology is legitimate. Only that, in my view, people are frequently seduced into the use of mood stabilizers as an illegitimate remedy or anesthetization to the legitimate and real sources of their distress.
I cannot fully elaborate my anti-psychopharmacology reasoning here. It will take us too far afield of the discussion on drunkenness and sobriety of this post. Suffice to say, the point I want to emphasize is my belief that a legitimate path of spiritual and psychological maturation involves an essentially veridical inner state. And the path to maturation, enlightenment, and individuation, is one that grapples with problematic and distressing states of mind and mood, without medicating these away. And, alcohol use, can, and often does, act as a surreptitious form of self-medication and mood elevation. Not always of course, and not for everyone, but certainly facing sobriety and lucidity again squarely and unmediated, has made me recognize that I was indeed using it in that fashion.
Finally, then, the weighing up. The religious ecstasy and liberation of the Dionysian as against the Sisyphean character of natural consciousness.
Is it better and more virtuous my friends, to celebrate this life with wild abandon, to recognize ourselves as instruments of joy, ecstasy and passion, to either honour the G—d of our creation through such celebration or lift the finger in defiance by such celebration to the meaningless void, depending on one’s philosophy in this respect (hope or rebellion), or should we take up the Sisyphean burden and dedicate our lives to ascending the mythical mountain with every fiber of our being, knowing full well that in all likelihood the apex of our ascent will be lost in the mists of time and memory. Should we take this business of life with such deadly earnestness, committing ourselves to perennial personal evolution or, more modestly, the virtue of such orientation, even if we are not always successful in this regard, or should we simply say, fuck it and evermore! I’ve earned the right to this glass of wine, to hell with you and me, and the whole bang shoot if I’m not going to enjoy its heady dizziness for an hour or two, a balm for my tired and bruised soul, before I return to the salt mine, ready to once again set my jaw firmly for the fray?
Whatever your personal ethic, if it you’re reading this on an evening, with a glass of the finest in hand, I toast you in spirit and wish you a long and meaningful life. If not, if like me you’ve embraced a life of sobriety, we suffer together, but not illegitimately, keep the faith and keep your eyes on the North Star.
Until we speak again,
I enjoyed reading your letter. Good luck in sobriety, the first 5 years are the hardest. 😀. I remember those early days all to well, I stopped drinking at 34 and have now been sober 37 years. Putting down the booze was just the beginning. Life now is beyond my wildest dreams.
Good luck on your journey.
Thank you Jimmy. 37 years, wow! Well you’ve given me something to aspire to. Be well and more strength to you.
Thank you sharing your thoughts on sobriety and consciousness; I can really identify with your stream of thoughts as I recently stopped drinking as well. (My particular indulgence was in Japanese sake). My desire to attain better sleep and be more in touch with my dream world was my main inspiration to stop, as well as my belief, as you have eloquently expressed, that alcohol and other drugs are an impediment to being conscious and I feel they block communication with the shadow self. I live in Oregon where marijuana was legalized a couple of years ago. I feel frustrated at times living in what I refer to as the “land of the Lotus Eaters”. (It was this way before legalization, now it is much more intense) I rarely have interactions with my friends or people in general whom are not under the influence of weed or alcohol or both and I have come to view this in sorrow. I feel as if my interactions with people are not genuine, that our conversations are not “real” because they are in a constant state of buffering themselves from the world and their inner struggles. I feel estranged from the majority of society, I literally do not know another soul here that does not smoke weed every day …it is a very strange existence indeed! I ,like yourself ,do wonder why I am not rewarding myself with this little glass of abandonment at times, but I feel my inner journey and my feeling more grounded in the here and now is worth my continuation. So I will keep my eyes on the North star and I wish you luck in your continued sobriety!
Deborah, thank you. Your words and sentiments resonate deeply. I hear you on the plague of the “Lotus eaters”. Kudos on the choice to stay the course, more strength to you.
Wow – this really spoke to me. I am in the same back and forth relationship to alcohol. And in that sense – it bothers me that it still has so much influence on my mind. I guess that’s the question that came to me while reading this. When – in the process of both individuation AND in creating a more healthy relationship to alcohol – do we get to a point where our conscious mind and our unconscious mind are so in sync that we no longer find them battling each other? When can we be peacefully and comfortably just “our whole self” – which presumably would include unanalyzed moments of both sobriety and drunkenness that are in precisely the right balance for each of us at any given time? Could consumption of alcohol ever be spontaneous, unjudged, unregretted, and completely ok for that moment and then completely let go of until the next time? We are so self-conscious of it all the time! I do think AA addresses this issue a bit in that it treats one’s relationship to alcohol and self reflection and personal growth as a spiritual issue. It fascinates me that so many of us on the spiritual (individuation) path begin to really critique our relationship to drugs that alter our mental state. We want to know more about who we really are so we begin to struggle with why we want to escape that occasionally. (True alcoholics tend to do it the other way around I think – they address the substance use that is ruining their lives and then they begin the spiritual inquiry. Either way alcohol and spiritual growth are intimately related it seems) For us semi- alcoholics – Alcohol offers moments free from the yearning to know the self and allows us just “to be” – freely and lightly in the world. So lovely!! It’s when we get addicted to that need and want it all the time that it becomes a problem. My question is – can we have an easy balance with being in complete touch with ourselves and our reality (sobriety) and having a break from that process to really celebrate the now (drunkenness)? I am hoping true and successful individuation will help me answer this.
Thank you Susan. Good question, obviously! Do let me know what answer you arrive at in good time.
I would say there are two slightly oppossed streams of “spirtual enlightment” being played out a tthe moment – one that rejects and another that embraces psychotropics. That said, I hear you on a questioning that is arising in this espect.
“.. naked mediocrity..” – that’s the tough one ahead, becoming deflowered everywhere, saying goodbye to the obfuscation, the impressionistic describing, all for the revelation of simply walking into existence. Good fortunes ahead Stephen 🫒
Tell me about it. 🙂 And to you Sharon.
The choice ultimately for me was I willing to give up everything for one thing–that is where I was going–or give up that one thing for everything.
Although possibly different from my own situation and conudrum, you certainly capture the choice you faced most astutley and compellingly Robert
What a wonderful letter. It so happens that I am drinking a glass of wine as I read it. I have been toying with the idea of not drinking at all , but about 3 days of total sobriety is all that I can endure. I don’t have any problem with alcohol and I love the feeling, but I know that, eventually, it will be bad for my kidneys, or liver, or brain, so I should abstain; at least, most of the time. I think your words will help me. Thank you.
Thank you David. I’m so very pleased that found the post helpful. In addition to trying to work this conundrum out for myself, it occurred to me that I am not alone in this facing this dichotomy and others, like yourself, may find themselves facing a similar dilemma.
The timing of reading this is serendipitous indeed. I battle the Dionysian attraction constantly and you have articulated the attraction of it so, so well. Much gratitude. I know it is the retreat from constant consciousness that I adore, the hedonism of the escape and the finger to self judgement. A life without wine? I ponder it often and as yet, it seems too dour a thing to embrace. But this wee essay has given much to ponder. Thank you Robert 🙏
I mean Stephen!!
Thank you Cathy. Your intuition about it being too dour is not inaccurate. Nevertheless, I’m glad it has given you cause for reflection.
Interesting article, mostly because you are a fine writer with a good wit, and a point to make that is worthy of debate. I am trying a middle course. I don’t buy bottles of my beloved single malt Scotch whisky to bring home anymore, but if I go out to a decent restaurant I might have a finger before the meal. I don’t drink passable wine every night with dinner. I drink the best bottles of wine I can afford, but only on Friday and Saturday night dinners. So far this is working. Moderation is a virtue too.
As I was reading this, in the background was playing “LA vie on Rose” by Edith Piaf, which seemed well suited.
This reminds me of a saying Armenians say to each other quite often: “Tsavut danem”, which means “I take away your pain”. To you, I say the same.
Thank you for sharing.
Thank you Miles, that is very kind of you to say. Next time you’re at it have a finger for me too. The finest wines are indeed essential, anything else is a sacrilege!
Love this reflection, Stephen. I resonated with your words so much and enjoyed the illumination of your internal dialogue. I come from a similar parentage of well-meaning Catholic alcoholics. I stopped drinking my customary evening glass of wine when I realized how much it robbed me of consciousness. But still, the decision is remade nightly when I’m making dinner, chopping onions, and listening to some favorite jazz or fado music. Evening hours seem to bring up melancholy for me. It is so challenging to suffer without imbibing in that habitual drink, a ritual handed down through my lineage. Here’s to new life, new horizons, and one-day-at-a-time. Cheers! — Patricia
Thank you Patricia, I hear you loud and clear, and am of course (more than) sympathetic. One day at a time, as you so rightly put it. More strength to you on your journey.
Stephen, you likely know this poem but, if not, here you go! I do prefer Robert Johnson and your espousal of ecstasy to a bottle of wine and frankly to Baudelaire’s version – however sweet and memorable his piece.. Thanks for your writing and feeling – I plan to share it with some friends and perhaps facebook – ok with you? All the best – David
Get Drunk – Charles Baudelaire
Always be drunk.
The great imperative!
In order not to feel
Time’s horrid burden
bruise your shoulders,
grinding you into the earth,
Get drunk and stay that way.
On wine, poetry, virtue, whatever.
But get drunk.
And if you sometimes happen to wake up
on the porches of a palace,
in the green grass of a ditch,
in the dismal loneliness of your own room,
your drunkenness gone or disappearing,
ask the wind,
ask everything that flees,
everything that groans
everything that speaks,
ask what time it is;
and the wind,
will answer you:
“Time to get drunk!
Don’t be martyred slaves of Time,
On wine, virtue, poetry, whatever!”
Original French version:
Il faut être toujours ivre.
Tout est là:
c’est l’unique question.
Pour ne pas sentir
l’horrible fardeau du Temps
qui brise vos épaules
et vous penche vers la terre,
il faut vous enivrer sans trêve.
Mais de quoi?
De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu, à votre guise.
Et si quelquefois,
sur les marches d’un palais,
sur l’herbe verte d’un fossé,
dans la solitude morne de votre chambre,
vous vous réveillez,
l’ivresse déjà diminuée ou disparue,
demandez au vent,
à la vague,
à tout ce qui fuit,
à tout ce qui gémit,
à tout ce qui roule,
à tout ce qui chante,
à tout ce qui parle,
demandez quelle heure il est;
et le vent,
“Il est l’heure de s’enivrer!
Pour n’être pas les esclaves martyrisés du Temps,
enivrez-vous sans cesse!
De vin, de poésie ou de vertu, à votre guise.”
Thank you David, and for this beautiful verse, yes, I am familiar with it, but appreciate it none the less, especially in the original French! Yes, its definitely okay to share.
Reading your piece made me realize that my having given up alcohol nearly ten years ago has left me a bit like a soldier who can’t stand down. Resolute. I miss the loosening that comes with a good glass of wine. I don’t miss the tight fisted grip alcohol had on me. You raise such a worthy conundrum – drunkenness or sobriety/joy or suffering. In the case of someone like me, I too was raised Catholic with two alcoholic parents. Whenever I find myself longing for a sip, I always fall back on knowing I’m better off without the stuff. The trick is, where else do we find our joy? Thanks for such beautiful, thought provoking, honest writing. Here’s to you! Molly
Thank you so much Molly. We’re in it together. Stay strong!
So pertinent for me, Stephen, thank you. I have stopped drinking (mostly), not because I decided to quit as much as I stopped wanting to drink.
I have a similar pedigree. Drinking = fun in my family system. (Lots of early deaths and lost lives there, but no matter, fun was fun, right?!) Plus my farm is right in the middle of bourbon country in Kentucky. And I resonate with your description of your mother – the only way I could be in relationship with my former husband was to drink with him. When I stopped doing that, at least on the same level (which happened after our children were born and someone had to show up sober to pick them up from daycare, not to mention earn a real paycheck) our relationship, and eventually marriage, ended.
I believe part of my end of desire for the drink is related to my Magnum Opus journey. In it, I’m separating out who I actually am vs all my messages from others about whom I need to be. Turns out, I don’t really like being buzzed all that much. And I sure don’t like the rest of the expenses that go along with drinking. So… no thanks.
I’m curious about this, because alcohol was always leaking into my life until now, and I ponder it on my sober evening walks (which have replaced Girls Night Out and glasses of wine with friends and a certain happy hour at a restaurant up the street). Overall I’m happier and I feel better in body and mind. Now my work is to let others figure that out, or not, for themselves.
Thanks again for sharing your story.
Thank you Paula. Agreed there are immense benefits in sobriety, that I neglected to mention in my post, partly for fear of coming across as sanctimonious. I wanted to try a and present a balanced argument for both perspectives. That said, yes, I feel that overall, I am better off as well.
Sharon Summers and David Lauterstein, said so much better than I can, what I came to say here. That craving for spirits, that need to abandon the sensible, is fundamental, me thinks, and not to be dismissed as an simply an escapist route. Its more than that. In sobriety one might strive for higher consciousness, but I suspect what is really craved is a lowness. A kind of surrender.
All the mind altering substances provide a shortcut to a state or a place of psyche that is very real. Shortcut trips there might be for tourists, or, as my recovered friend says, a peek under the tent, as in an unearned, adolescent type kind of peek.
The craving is in us. But it’s not for the shortcut substance. Its for where it takes us.
Thank you Holly, as Jung famously put it “Alcohol in Latin is spiritus, and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison.” (Letter to Bill Wilson, 1961)
Attempting to reply on a phone texting device. Seven am on the road in Chico California. Coffee and a crossword: waking. “Spiritus”. I lean on William Blake here: he saved me from the fires of hell by: …..transmitting to me a message of acceptance of the duality: which …..jump into the damned flaming lake of fire and burn until you burn no more and be whatever grit you are when the dying is done. When the griddle cake starts to burn you gotta flip it and cook the other side and eat the damn thing or cool it on the sill for a later hunger: vigorous with the vapor of fear rising through and to and above and beyond. Much more to say but phone keyboard says shut the f…up and send. When I am at my beloved homely desk in a number of time I was respond more fully. FYI. tsogf
You could do worse than be guided by Blake. Thanks for your comment,always good to hear from you Gail.
Thank you. I’ve been back and forth with this dilemma. This is the most honest, helpful article I have read. Wine or no wine? Suffering. Lots to contemplate.
Thank you Elaine. Agreed, much to reflect on. The answer is far from straightforward.
for me, the euphoric moments of alcohol and other drugs was interesting but not the purpose of living. neither the suffering of sobriety. the purpose is the flowing between whatever moment(s) that eternity thrusts on me, and communication with that Self, and those selves. …and all that paradox.
thanks for sharing, tho, it was good fodder for self-reflection.
Thank you Jack, and agreed, life and certainly maturity seems to be a process of learning how to negotiate paradox.
Wow. Your writings never cease to speak to my soul. This is no exception. So much resonates with me in this. The early introduction to alcoholism of my father was accentuated by my mother’s perception that alcohol was a sin. Your choice to struggle reaches deep into my bones. I have never experienced addiction with alcohol, but a haunting is there. I don’t drink alone because of a silent, underlying fear, that it may signify alcoholism.
However, I choose to have a margarita with my husband. He has a history of family alcoholism, and does not drink outside our “margarita time.” Ironically, this seems to be the closest my husband comes to the baring of his soul. Otherwise, he is not that interested in individuation, or going into deep discussion. The paradoxical condition in this, seems absurdly funny to me. I find a place of release from struggling while my husband finds courage to be naked. Thank you so much for sharing your raw, beautiful words.
Thank you Janie, as does your wrting for me. In my own view, for what its worth, that type of moderate consumption is really not a problem. Of course, not everyone shares this perspective, but that’s my view.
Hello! I would like to recommend that you acquire a copy of the book Alcoholics Anonymous. It’s avail widely in print or ecopy. Please, in particular, read the Dr’s opinion which describes the illness as a mental obsession coupled with a physical “allergy” (abnormal reaction of the body to alcohol)
I suspect your opinion of what an alcoholic is, may change as a result.
Also, I wonder if you’d aware that Carl Jung played a role in the writing of the book in 1934-35 and in forming some of the ideas and concepts presented.
I wish you well on your journey.
Thank you for your comment and wishes.
Without intending any disrespect to the Big Book and Bill W, both of which I admire, frankly, given my life history, I don’t need to read about alcoholism, with which, somewhat sadly, I am directly and intimately acquainted.
This is I believe the letter from Jung to Bill W, you’re referring to,
January 30, 1961
Mr. William G. Wilson
Box 459 Grand Central Station
New York 17, N.Y.
Dear Mr. Wilson,
Your letter has been very welcome indeed.
I had no news from Roland H. anymore and often wondered what has been his fate. Our conversation which he had adequately reported to you had an aspect of which he did not know. The reason, that I could not tell him everything, was that those days I had to be exceedingly careful of what I said. I had found out that I was misunderstood in every possible way. Thus I was very careful when I talked to Roland H. But what I really thought about, was the result of many experiences with men of his kind.
His craving for alcohol was the equivalent on a low level of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.
How could one formulate such an insight in a language that is not misunderstood in our days?
The only right and legitimate way to such an experience is, that it happens to you in reality and it can only happen to you when you walk on a path, which leads you to a higher understanding. You might be led to that goal by an act of grace or through a personal and honest contact with friends, or through a higher education of the mind beyond the confines of mere rationalism. I see from your letter that Roland H. has chosen the second way, which was, under the circumstances, obviously the best one.
I am strongly convinced that the evil principle prevailing in this world, leads the unrecognized spiritual need into perdition, if it is not counteracted either by a real religious insight or by the protective wall of human community. An ordinary man, not protected by an action from above and isolated in society cannot resist the power of evil, which is called very aptly the Devil. But the use of such words arouse so many mistakes that one can only keep aloof from them as much as possible.
These are the reasons why I could not give a full and sufficient explanation to Roland H. but I am risking it with you because I conclude from your very decent and honest letter, that you have acquired a point of view above the misleading platitudes, one usually hears about alcoholism.
You see, Alcohol in Latin is “spiritus” and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is: spiritus contra spiritum.
Thanking you again for your kind letter.
I remain yours sincerely,
Stephen–you have certainly hit a nerve here and I love all the responses. As a bliss junkie (my constitutional homeopathic remedy being opium) I began in the early 70s with incredible trips on LSD, but always experienced “the day after” as a big letdown on all levels. Soon learned that I had to seek enlightenment through hard, steady work. Then in my late 40s, my husband and I started drinking wine–the great seductress. I am still in her grip at 73 (although my preference is for fine cognac) and have been wrestling with her lately. As in my 20s, I feel the downside physically from drinking and this post and comments helps me center on what I already know. Thank you to everyone for your honest, intelligent input. It inspires me to keep singing–a practice I am passionate about because it’s a natural high and the more I do it–whether it’s Mary Youngblood, Dixie Chicks, opera or kirtan–it carries me through the day like nothing else.
Thank you Anne. A fine Cognac you say? Well you certainly could do worse. Have a glass for me one evening after a delicious supper, such that we may commune in spiritus and spiritum. Sending love.
Thank you Stephen for sharing your soul searching thoughts. Your offering Resonated and supported my souls journey. At first I though letting go of wine with dinner was about my physical health, and it was difficult but soon realized I was choosing consciousness and growth for myself and everyone else. There are so many distractions on our journey and some serve us until we wake up and realize they no longer do. Appreciate all the thoughtful responses.
Thank you Susan. I’m pleased it resonated for you.
Yes, as do I, not least your own.
You raise an interesting issue! It’s a little bit funny, you say you were drinking about two bottles of wine a week, it’s not much. I live with a man who drinks two bottles of wine a day, and sometimes a bottle of rhum a day. I think a lot about that, and I agree that alcohol acts like a self-medication, a way of calming the “stream of consciousness”, a patch on the pain and emotions. And I also think it is important to feel and endure “one stone after the other” in the process of mountain climbing and maturation, I share your view on psychopharmacology. I think that drunkenness is totally fine when it is experienced with moderation, as simple as it is. No need of radical solution, only moderation. Why depriving yourself of a simple joy which is part of existence, like good food and a healthy sexuality? Those are part of the joy of living, and we should not complicate them with our intellect. Let’s drink to that!
Anne-Marie, we share much, based on your comment, and thank you for this. That said, if you’ll forgive me, two bottles a day is hardly moderate and maybe needs some type of intervention/reconsideration. That said, I can certainly understand your humour in my rather embarrassingly moderate confession.
Thank tou Stephen for your answer. Of course, alcoholism is a totally different thing, as it brings its own sort of problems. You have all the credit for opening yourself and confess; more confessing, less alcoholism! 😉
Thank you for your article on “Drunkenness or Sobriety?” I appreciate many of the points you are making in the piece about the pros and cons of such, and the idea that we might be drunk on the elixir of life which may be very desirable. I feel the need to comment on your statement about psychedelics however, and I expect I may not be the only one.
You say: “I have no interest in your new-age-psychedelically-lit-path to the great delusion. To each his or her own, but in the field of Bacchanalian celebration, all poisons were not indeed created equal, or, at least, such is my view.”
I am a trauma-informed Jungian therapist who is accompanying people during ketamine therapy treatments for depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and I am currently training with the Multi-Disciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) on MDMA-assisted psychotherapy for people diagnosed with PTSD. MAPS has done groundbreaking studies on MDMA and PTSD and we are poised to have the FDA approve MDMA for clinical purposes. And I should point out that there have been many studies done with LSD and psilocybin as well. The University of Washington is currently conducting a study on the effects of psilocybin on PTSD in healthcare providers due to Covid. Not to mention the studies on the effects of psychedelics and existential anxiety at end of life.
When I read your sentence referring to psychedelics as new-age and delusional, I was quite taken aback and almost offended! You, of course, can have your “Bacchanalian” preferences, but I would hope you might have a more open mind, perhaps something that red wine does not facilitate.
And you might say that you are talking about recreational use, not clinical, but I would argue that there are scores of people who used recreational psychedelics who are not a part of the new-age movement, are not delusional, and who have received great benefit. All poisons were indeed not created equal.
With due respect and appreciation of your good work, I hope will accept my critique and concern about your assumptions.
Best to you Stephen…
Dawn, firstly thank you for your comment and taking the time to weigh in here. I not only support your right to critique my post but appreciate it. I will keep my response brief. I am not intending to take issue with the type of work you’re doing, which, I don’t doubt is valid and valuable. My concern with psychedelics rather is their mass consumption as a substitute for the work needed to for psychological maturation. Their contemporary rise to ascendence was prefigured of course in the sixties, I don’t believe the long term benefits this time around will prove any more successful. This movement has, in my view, become a plague. I’m with Jung on this, his letter follows.
PS. For my own part, G-d willing, I plan on departing the mortal coil sober.
Carl Jung’s Letter (1957) to Betty Grover Eisner on the topic of using psychedelics, specifically Mescaline, as a path to awakening.
Dear Mrs. Eisner:
Thank you for your kind letter. Experiments along the line of mescaline and related drugs are certainly most interesting, since such drugs lay bare a level of the unconscious that is otherwise accessible only under peculiar psychic conditions.
It is a fact that you get certain perceptions and experiences of things appearing either in mystical states or in the analysis of unconscious phenomena, just like the primitives in their orgiastic or intoxicated conditions.
I don’t feel happy about these things, since you merely fall into such experiences without being able to integrate them.
The result is a sort of theosophy, but it is not a moral and mental acquisition. It is the eternally primitive man having experience of his ghost-land, but it is not and achievement of your cultural development.
To have so-called religious visions of this kind has more to do with physiology but nothing with religion. It is only that mental phenomena are observed which one can compare to similar images in ecstatic conditions.
Religion is a way of life and a devotion and submission to certain superior facts—a state of mind which cannot be injected by a syringe or swallowed in the form of a pill […]
It is to my mind a dangerously simple “Ersatz” and substitute for a true religion.
A vexing question for sure. Here’s a quote from Cicero (“de Finibus Bonorum et Malorum” 45BC) that may be useful …
“But I must explain to you how all this mistaken idea of denouncing pleasure and praising pain was born and I will give you a complete account of the system, and expound the actual teachings of the great explorer of the truth, the master-builder of human happiness. No one rejects, dislikes, or avoids pleasure itself, because it is pleasure, but because those who do not know how to pursue pleasure rationally encounter consequences that are extremely painful. Nor again is there anyone who loves or pursues or desires to obtain pain of itself, because it is pain, but because occasionally circumstances occur in which toil and pain can procure him some great pleasure. To take a trivial example, which of us ever undertakes laborious physical exercise, except to obtain some advantage from it? But who has any right to find fault with a man who chooses to enjoy a pleasure that has no annoying consequences, or one who avoids a pain that produces no resultant pleasure?
On the other hand, we denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue; and equal blame belongs to those who fail in their duty through weakness of will, which is the same as saying through shrinking from toil and pain. These cases are perfectly simple and easy to distinguish. In a free hour, when our power of choice is untrammelled and when nothing prevents our being able to do what we like best, every pleasure is to be welcomed and every pain avoided. But in certain circumstances and owing to the claims of duty or the obligations of business it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be repudiated and annoyances accepted. The wise man therefore always holds in these matters to this principle of selection: he rejects pleasures to secure other greater pleasures, or else he endures pains to avoid worse pains.”
Thank you Andrew, what a wonderful passage, I am in your debt for sharing it!
Thank you for the letter to Betty Grove Eisner…I’d never read that though I’m very familiar with Jung’s letter to Bill W
I believe that the state of sobriety as an adult, puts us in the best position to regain contact and familiarity with our right hemisphere, which was fully operational from our birth to 18 months. This is the hemisphere of the brain that allows for the experience of “being”, “being connected”, “feeling oceanic” and other states that can be described in words but only experienced directly with reduced left hemisphere (verbal) functioning and the recognition of making space for right hemisphere functioning ……
Just to add more words and another perspective to what you are describing as “spiritual” etc
Thank you for these adumbrations Carol. The point you raise feels important and builds on the post- much appreciated!
It will be one year this Saturday that I have abstained from imbibing alcohol. I reluctantly gave it up. But happily, it has not been a difficult journey and only rarely do I miss it. ( I do not miss making a fool of myself or not feeling on top the next day). But I do feel resentful that I cannot enjoy with others the toasting to all good things. Yet I am ok with that.
More strength to you on your ongoing jounrey of sobriety Laura. Yip, its not always easy, not at all. And, congratualtions on reaching one year! No small feat.
While reading your experience Wayne Dyer came to mind. His experience was very similar to yours. He had to have a couple of beers with dinner every night. When out for dinner with his family one night they went to a restaurant that never sold alcohol. Wayne took his family to another restaurant that sold beer because he had to have a beer with dinner. The next day he realised alcohol had become a habit which could lead to addiction as his father was an alcoholic.
Hi John, to be honest (in case I wasn’t sufficiently so in the post 🙂 ) it was less about being concerned about being addicted, than simply the belief that abstaining would be the healthier choice. It didn’t have that kind of compulsive character and if it was an addiction, it was very mild, it wasn’t overtly destructive. After I stopped and realised how tough sobriety was it became something else, more of a challenge and a hero’s journey.
Thanks Stephen. We respectfully agree to disagree. Jung’s opinion on this was based on limited information. I don’t agree with everything Jung has to say on many topics. Here’s to hoping access to helpful medicines for many who are suffering.
Your writing is savoring and brilliant. As a former wine enthusiast- I corked my last bottle 3 yrs ago.
Thats all I have for now. Please keep writing, its mouth watering good!
Three years, wow! That is bloody impressive and more strength to you. I’m inspired. Thank you so much for your feedback, which is much appreciated and very meaningful. It certainly motivates me to keep writing.
Thank you for sharing and in depth analysis. True Jungian in touch with soul.
My friend, if you allow me, may I share a third alternative. Not drunk not sober but tipsy. That was Omar Khayyam answer to sobriety and drunkenness.
Drunk we lose the pulse of life, it beats with our hearts and we want to feel it. Sober life is sometimes too harsh to take. But sober gives us enough to accept the tragic sense of life, death ,that stress us. Since we know too well it is around the corner, so what to do? Tipsy is the answer and that is state of mind, an attitude to life. A little wine may help, but we don’t even need that. Once the habit is formed we are already drunk with excitement of living, and sober to its tragic end. We are tipsy.
Thank you Nader, I really appreciate your sentiment and very Jungian aspiration for the transcendent third. I have always considerred Omar Khayyam an oracle, as did my late father who would frequenlty recite verses from The Rubaiyat to me as a boy growing up. These words still resound deeply in my heart.
But come with old Khayyam, and leave the Lot…
With me along some Strip of Herbage strown
That just divides the desert from the sown,
Where name of Slave and Sultan scarce is known,
And pity Sultan Mahmud on his Throne.
Here with a Loaf of Bread beneath the Bough,
A Flask of Wine, a Book of Verse—and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness—
And Wilderness is Paradise enow.
Why, all the Saints and Sages who discuss’d
Of the Two Worlds so learnedly, are thrust
Like foolish Prophets forth; their Words to Scorn
Are scatter’d, and their Mouths are stopt with Dust.
Oh, come with old Khayyam, and leave the Wise
To talk; one thing is certain, that Life flies;
One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies;
The Flower that once has blown for ever dies.
What a profound reflection, brilliant Stephen. And did it hit home🙈! And affirm what I’ve known for a while about myself. Not sure I have your courage yet to choose sobriety. To confront the pain and be fully conscious without that anesthetic. That’s what individuation is all about. It made me realize I still have a way to go ….
But your post certainly showed me I have a choice … Thank you.
Thank you so much Jacqueline, I really appreciate the feedback. I’m so pleased it spoke to you.
Thank you, Stephen!
Down through the ages, we contemplate such questions. We do what we want to do, it seems,
until we do what we HAVE to do. It didn’t seem to come to quite the crisis level in your case, that some go through.
I’ve not been drawn to drink in that way, but I’ve gone through the throes of sex addiction and 12-step recovery.
I’m thinking Shakespeare must have had something great to say about all this, I just don’t know what…about the incredible pleasures of life getting out of control and, well, leading to their opposite, an experience of ENANTIODROMIA, that famous Jungian word!
Then we see, I guess, how much we really want to survive. I had an acquaintance who drank himself literally to death. A wise friend who was versed in mystical gnosis, including reincarnation, said afterward, ” His ‘bottom’ (ie, in the sense of “hitting bottom”) was not in this lifetime.”
Not for no reason did the Persian Sufi poets sing of “Wine” as their premier metaphor for spiritual ecstasy.
When one is young and discovers alternate states of consciousness, how exhilarating it is!
I think the joy of it comes through in this poem (link just below my words here) about my own first drunkenness at our family Passover Seder in 1959. And I will always remember that state, and the recurrence of something like it on the rare occasions when I DO have even a single glass of wine. It lives immortally in the land of metaphor, because, well, it IS simply amazing, more than words can even describe, but it seems it is “not a Path to the ultimate, only a metaphor for it.” (he said as he plodded like a sober donkey along what he HOPED was “the Path”…seeking to penetrate to states of such intense joy through the arts.
Here is that poem: https://www.seattlestar.net/2015/04/passover-drunk-eleven-years-old/
Max, thanks so much for your thoughts and sharing this poem.
Thank you much Stephen. My father loved Khayyam too. At the dinner table, he would recite Khayyam. My mother insisted on the happy ones to no avail. I mean here today and gone tomorrow, give me that ruby red wine. If the verse highlighted death, mother would push the plate of grapes forward which would just lead to yet another verse: this one is my translation- Once my green vine is uprooted –The elements of my being scattered –As soon as the universal potter makes me a pot–Fill the cup with ruby red wine and watch me spring back to life. Took me many years to appreciate life and death are both happy and sad. In fact, as you well know, Jung said the second half of life is preparation for death. I understand that to mean so when it does come, a certainty, death does not catch us with the pain of parting from all we love. That sweetheart, the lovi doggie, the paintings that I have not done yet, got to kiss them all goodbye. Talking about paintings, I am a painter and Archetypal Pattern Analyst, here is my favorite Khayyam. ah,love could you and I with faith conspire–To grasp this sorry scheme of things entire–Would we not shatter it to pieces, and then–Re-mold it nearer to the heart’s desire. The poet-philosopher succinctly summarizes the whole philosophy of artmaking.
You know Stephen, I was thinking. My wife’s reaction when I say it is, “oh oh, trouble!) But in all seriousness, we talked about the third, as you appropriately termed it transcendence, may I add that transcendence is the ladder that rolls up and drills down. But I am digressing from my question: If we have 3 states of mind, as Socrates asked in Plato’s mouthpiece: Where is the fourth, Stephen? Do you see a fourth? What could it be? My own thinking is when we have 2 in a state of tension just maybe we don’t need a fourth. We have already achieved individuation. I am looking forward to your Friday presentation. Or, the third if does not dissolve the syzygy and
maintain the tension of the opposites to hold we have arrived at the whole, the 4th, the whole? I am curious as to your well-informed Jungian thoughts on this question. Thanks in advance.
Hi Stephen, I have just started the new course, and names and procedures are all brand new to me, but your piece on alcohol and many of the thoughts you so elegantly express, are extremely interesting to me. I have been a sober member of AA for 45 yrs. The dominant reason as to why I stopped drinking, was, Whenever I drank I had a change of personality, the change became stronger over time.. I didn’t start drinking until I was twenty four and it helped me to temporarily cope with a lot of inadequate things within me, but eventually it all backfired. Thank you for your insightful thoughts, I have not. read anything written about alcohol and stopping drinking like you have written. All the best Stephen. Patricia.
Patricia, thank you for your comment and very kind assement of the piece. All the best with the course, and I trust we’ll have a chance to connect there.
Hi Stephen, interesting to read this, and in truth i read it a few weeks ago – it keeps popping back into my thoughts and so I’m returning to pay attention!
What i think struck me was the Either Or Sober Drunk concept for you and many others who comment- In the context of NOT being addicted to alcohol. I suppose also the either or – virtuous or hedonistic. Either or – commitment to psychological individuation or abandonment.
I can see stream of consciousness argument around alcohol but wonder if alcoholic intoxication or mild influence like you were partaking can enhance streams of thoughts? I think it may for me.
My relationship with alcohol has grown ambivalent in more recent years, in the past i have loved the social experience of disinhibition and your “euphoric dimension of being alive” but always with others.
Why not opt for infrequent moderation? – that’s the question i wonder !
With regards the psychotropic medication, I agree that melancholy and anxiety and obsessionality and emotional instability and even psychosis are distress shaped flags to lead us to our psychological problems at their core. But the consequence of, and destruction to lives can be immense in moderate to severe situations.
I don’t think human physical life span is a good match for the process of psychological individuation. To me life seems too short to completely abandon the occasional fuck it attitude
Mary, thank you, as always and yes, I couldn’t agrree more on both couts! My late teacher felt one needed at least three lifetimes for a decent individuation process.
Ah Stephen! We are ships passing in the night. After 17 years of sobriety, 12-step, spiritual “clear-headed” work and inquiry I made the decision to go BACK into the fray, the dionysian lure and ecstasy. The work asked of me, and done, during my sobriety only took me so far. When I picked up cannabis again I found it allowed me behind the pain of the structures my psyche had created, it allowed the softening of my heartspace, the release of the pain of holding on so tight that my love for wild abandon had been long lost and forgotten. Next came the first glass of wine in almost two decades—decided on during an evening of open, curious celebration. I have since had several glasses of wine, and even some rum while on a recent vacation! I stop at one always, enjoying just the beginning titillation of flush, communion with others, and most importantly with myself. I had made sobriety an award too tightly held, too depended upon, and in the end it was not the road I wished to stay on because I lost crucial parts of myself in the decision to hold it all at bay. I was craving a relief from the suffering of life, the suffering of my complexes and experiences. I had gone too far into the other directino. It’s been 10 months since I first stepped back into the allowance of altered states of consciousness and it is not hyperbole to say it has been the most healing months of my lifetime. I know truly that my time away from substances was necessary—I did the steps, I worked with others, I made myself available to the newly sober—for my own spiritual growth. And now I am open-hearted and curious about what else these other states hold for me. Relief was the first. Curiosity also arises. Self-love is the biggest gift. Before getting sober my drinking and smoking was a coping mechanism—a way of being able to tolerate the world. Now it is an open-feeling of allowance of all of my parts and complexes. An arising of “okayness”. A welcoming back to the celebration part of life complete with all of its dark corners and magnetic attractions. What they warned me of for years—it only takes one drink/puff and you’re “off to the races”. This was not true for me. It turns out that I am fully capable of moderation and furthermore I am grateful for the full experience of life. More “research” was needed! Sobriety gave me the opportunity to learn how to need others, how to let myself be seen and also needed. I feel more truthful in my current being than I ever have in this life. I wish you all the best on your journey of sober exploration! It is worth the trip. I deeply appreciate your share.