Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

Drugs Are an Anchor to Windward

Leaving yourself an out only keeps you stuck

William James, the great American philosopher and psychologist, presented a series of lectures in 1901-02 that was published soon after as The Varieties of Religious Experience. As many people in Alcoholics Anonymous know, this was the book that Bill Wilson turned to when he had his “conversion” experience in 1934 during his final stint at the Charles B. Towns Hospital in New York. Bill W. devoured this lengthy book from cover to cover, and many of the foundational principles and practices of Alcoholics Anonymous reflect Bill W’s reading of James’s great work.

I am working on a much longer project on William James and addiction, wanting to take James on his own terms. William James gives us wonderful concepts such as “higher and friendly power,”  “misery thresholds,” “habitual center of personal energy” and “practical fruits of the spiritual tree,” to name but a few. James has much to offer people struggling with addiction and living in recovery. Those who have difficulty with the “God language” of AA might find James a very helpful companion.

Varieties is a fascinating book for all sorts of reasons, one of which is James’s understanding of and great sympathy for people struggling with addiction. That struggle was very real and familiar to him; one of his younger brothers, Robertson, struggled with alcohol his entire life and was, as many would say now, a chronic relapser.

One of James’s many great insights into addiction is that a person cannot become a new person and still hold onto his old ways of doing things. He captures this point writing, "A drunkard, or a morphine or cocaine maniac, offers himself to be cured. He appeals to a doctor to wean him from his enemy, but he dares not face blank abstinence. The tyrannical drug is still an anchor to windward: he hides supplies of it among his clothing; arranges secretly to have it smuggled in in case of need…."

When a boat is anchored, it faces the wind. The anchor is dropped over the bow (windward), which stops the boat from blowing backwards. Drugs are an anchor keeping a person in the same place.

Blank abstinence  can come about in at least two ways. It may mean going cold turkey, which some people will do and then maintain.

The physical effects of withdrawal can be brutal and this may terrify some people. To mitigate those effects, some will attempt to cut down and wean. This works for some people, and it is one way to sober up.

Regardless of the method, former users who become abstinent have the potential to become new and different people, James would say. They raise the anchor and now can move in differnet directions.

But in the more extreme cases of addiction, cutting down or weaning may not be a viable option. Where does one draw the line between genuinely, effectively weaning and leaving oneself an out by keeping some of the drug or past behaviors in reserve “just in case?” The problem is that what counts as a “just in case” moment continues to expand.

The person who keeps some of the drugs and past behaviors around (even or especially if hidden really well) is hedging his bet. This will not bring about the sort of transformation of character that he professes to want. His actions and wishes will not be congruent because, James would say, the willingness is missing from the equation. 

The person who tries to make such a big change in his life but who has held a safeguard in place may find himself even more miserable than before. Now he can claim that he has tried to quit but failed. Even more fatalistically, he may claim that he is the sort who cannot quit. The tyrannical drug becomes an even heavier anchor to windward.

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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