Words are the drug of the researcher/writer in the making – or at least they are for me. To write a thesis (or to be engaged in years of writing a long-form piece of any topic) might actually require one to have a substance use disorder.
The DSM-5 discusses drugs as follows, in relation to “Substance Use Disorders”:
“All drugs that are taken in excess have in common direct activation of the brain reward system, which is involved in the reinforcement of behaviors and the production of memories. They produce such an intense activation of the reward system that normal activities may be neglected. Instead of achieving reward system activation through adaptive behaviors, drugs of abuse directly activate the reward pathways … the drugs typically … produce feelings of pleasure, often referred to as a “high” …”
From day 1 of the thesis, you sign up to take on words in excess. Your daily life consists of reading words, outlining and note-taking with words, attempts at writing words, editing those written words, and rewriting those written words. Wake up tomorrow. Repeat as before.
You start to have a high from these words. Reading a certain passage will spark an idea, or provide you with evidence for an argument you want to make, and you physiologically respond to it with an upswell of joy that is palpable. You might even make a joyful utterance aloud, disturbing a room of quiet researchers around you, or frightening someone sitting near you on a bus (because obviously you are so addicted to words, you can’t even turn that off when you are in transit from the office to home). When you get words to sync up just right on your written page, that creates a similar, if not more intense, sort of high. You are the master of the words, and that increases the addiction all the more.
I suppose I should have seen my addiction coming. As the DSM-5 points out:
“individuals with lower levels of self-control … may be particularly predisposed to develop substance use disorders, suggesting that the roots of substance use disorders for some persons can be seen in behaviors long before the onset of actual substance use itself.”
As a child, I was addicted to reading. In many cases, I exercised not even a whisper of self-restraint when it came to reading. Reading certain books had a potato-chip effect for me: I could not read just one chapter – once the book was open, I devoured it in its entirety. I recall once, when I was 8 or 10, staying up all night to finish Little Women. I was so upset that the words of the plot did not lead to the conclusion I had hoped for, that I stormed into my parents’ bedroom at about 0200 and threw the book on the floor, proclaimed “that was a terrible book!”, slammed the door, and went to bed in a huff – clearly exercising self-control. (Note: I now highly approve of the ending of that book – with age comes wisdom). Into my adult life, I was always writing down words in a journal: musings, poems, funny or inspiring quotes that friends uttered aloud. I horded words. I typed out entire passages from books I had read, as if to re-read the book I’d just finished, and to then save a portion of that book as my own property when I returned the book to the library. No self-control then, no self-control now.
I can say with a pretty strong degree of certainty that I am addicted to words. Returning to the DSM-5 once more, I shall qualify my self-diagnosis by working through the various symptoms of substance use disorder:
1) Taking the substance in larger amounts or over a longer period than was originally intended
Since day one, I have had over ambitious expectations for my progress in writing. My expectations would have been to finish this 3-4 year project in 1 year. As such, I have already spent (and continue to spend) much more time than I had anticipated dwelling on certain words, finessing them to death, reworking them again after that, and revisiting them just one more time. As a result, I have taken my substance of choice – words – in larger amounts and over a longer period of time than I originally intended. And I am doubtful that is to change much before the thesis is done. I
feel am incapable of changing my behavior.
2) An expressed desire to cut down or regulate the substance use
I am undeniably the kind of writer that struggles to say more with less words. I’m so addicted to words, that more always seems better. More of them becomes more comfort. More words becomes a crowd of silent friends, singing a siren song I feel more than hear, and their chant pushes me ever towards excess rather than restraint. The sea of them is a warm nest I nestle into, numb myself by. I do want to cut down my use of them of course (I think?) … but how to kill one’s darlings?
3) Spending a great deal of time obtaining the substance, using the substance, or recovering from its effects
I cannot even begin to estimate the number of hours I have spent looking for words to read (via articles and books) through online databases, libraries, library books, footnotes of said library books, etc. The quest often becomes a black hole, a labyrinth, the bibliographic Bermuda Triangle. I often find myself, hours later, awaking from a feverish quest. My tea is cold. I’ve missed my bus. Is it getting dark outside? I feel in the haze of a textual hangover. How did I get to this cognitive place? I don’t remember the pathway of choices that got me here. Then I look at the clock, and anxious remorse sets in: the hour is late and what did I accomplish today?! I searched for more words when I haven’t gotten through the words I have sitting on my bookshelf, saved as electronic files in folders on my zip drive. My word desire is insatiable. And now the rest of the evening I’ll be recovering from the effects of this … or maybe doing a bit more reading.
4) In more serious cases, all daily activities revolve around the substance
My day undeniably revolves around words. Sometimes taken in through audiobooks and podcasts, sometimes read on a screen, sometimes read off a page, sometimes scratched down from my hand onto paper, more often typed out from my finger onto a digital document. I plan my social schedule around my word schedule, my eating schedule is encased within with my word schedule, my creative schedule is synonymous with my word schedule (since my creative medium is word-based), even my recreational schedule is part of (or fodder for) my word schedule. Words dictate the rest, and their aura is omnipresent in all arenas of my life.
5) A craving or intense desire for the drug that may occur at any moment, but is more commonly surfaces within an environment where the drug was previously obtained and used.
Even when I do manage to forget words for the briefest of moments – get away from where I can look at or write down words, a desire for them often comes in a wave of intensity, and with no forewarning. Suddenly I’m desperate to scratch down the idea – I have to capture those words before they escape! You may have seen me suffer from this, suddenly stopping on a sidewalk, digging frantically in my bag for my journal, a scrap of paper, a gum wrapper, or just the back of my hand. This is made worse if I’m in a bookstore, or library, or your house that has books on display – such environments have the scent of my drug and the desire becomes desperate to the point of distraction. Best to leave me to my own self-destruction, unless you’d like to catch my illness…
6) Failure to fulfill obligations at home, work, or school
I used to be much better at responding to messages. Now, if you are a friend or family member, you may likely not get a response from me for a few days … sometimes not for a few weeks … and in a few very regretful occasions months. I don’t mean this to happen of course – the words made me do it. My brain is so full all day with taking in words, trying to produce words towards this thesis, and generally obsessing about words, that my brain refuses to fulfill my hearts desire for communication with actual humans who I value having relationships with, which leads to the next symptom…
7) Persistent and recurrent social or interpersonal problems, exacerbated by the effects of the substance
After spending an entire day internally conversing with the written words of others (by reading) or talking to the page with words (by writing), I often find it incredibly difficult to speak aloud. I find I can hardly form a coherent sentence even to a bus driver or grocery store clerk, let a lone someone who actually knows me and is expecting me to be a functional social being (was I ever one?). My vocal chords have forgotten what they are. They went into hibernation and are averse to waking up. And there really isn’t any way to explain what is happening (even if the vocal chords do rally to attention with alacrity). It doesn’t sound at all rational to say, “Sorry I don’t know how to talk anymore because I have all my conversations in my head now”. Yep. That sounds like the sentiments of a completely sane individual. No therapy needed here thanks.
8) Social, occupational, or recreational activities reduced because of substance abuse
“Sorry, I have to write ” becomes my rationale for skipping an activity. It sounds about as legitimate as “I have to wash my hair”. But, this is the explanation that comes out of my mouth (or through typing fingers) when I decline certain non-word-involved activities. Not all the time mind you (I’m not quite that bad), but words are my “job” at the moment (okay “addiction”) and I must attend to them regularly, for most days, for most portions of most days. Thanks for the invitation though.
Words are clearly my drug, and I’m fated to be a lifelong addict.
I have no interest in a cure.