No Substitute for “Real” Relationships
What Does It Mean to be In Touch with Your True Self?
Posted March 29, 2015
“Do you understand that I actually thought drugs were going to help me?” the young man pleaded, trying to explain his mistake. This fellow had convinced himself that drugs made him more creative, acknowledging to me: "It took me fifteen years to discover that what I thought I had control over, naturally, had control over me. I was destroying myself…I got tired of being me…I knew for a fact that I was ruining my life, calling it “identity,” calling it me which wasn’t me at all…I couldn’t pretend anymore."
Addictions have little to do with socio-economic roots and speak more to the quality of our attachments in life. Addictions are often efforts to gloss over pains and fill emotional and spiritual emptiness. The story of this man illustrates our need for real relationships with self, others, and God that are strong enough to support us throughout life. Do you know your true self? Are your relationships authentic? Are your connections enabling you access the fruits of true love?
I had interviewed this man’s mother years before I met him. Though larger than life and known worldwide by only her first name, she struck me as very warm and maternal, and we instantly felt at ease with each other. “You remind me of my son,” she told me. “He’s about your same age. Maybe I should introduce you to him...” Her son and I grew up in a generation that espoused peace and love, yet he got entangled in the culture of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. It would be several more years before I met her son.
His mother’s most passionate interests centered around her career and family, but nothing matched her intensity when she spoke about her children. She confided to me her profound though basic hopes for her son: a loving wife, children, a good career. As our conversations continued, tears flowed as she spoke of his substance abuse: “I can’t tell you how much his addiction hurt me, hurt us. I tried to listen. I tried to be understanding. I tried to be tough and strong. It tore me apart.” Her pain was still so close to the surface that it lined her face and darkened her mood.
When I first met her son, in the early 1980s, he had already seen the bottom of the downward spiral his substance abuse had triggered. After his mother passed away, I shared my notes with him from my interviews with his mother. Reading her words, he fell silent, feeling the impact of her struggles for him: “I knew she was hurt by it, but I never knew how much.” We discussed his mother and his own search for real meaning and value in life. He encouraged me to share his revelations with others, to let people know that if he had been more aware of his impact on his mother, he would have done things differently--for her sake, and also for his own.
This man’s name is Desi Arnaz, Jr. His mother was Lucille Ball.
In 1953, Desi Arnaz Jr. became Hollywood’s royal infant. The son of the most famous television couple ever, Desi had been in the spotlight even before he was born; he was successful before he learned how to speak. As a baby, he graced the cover of the first issue of TV Guide, captioned, “Lucy’s $50,000,000 baby;” at the age of four, he made his acting debut; and at the age of twelve, he was a rock star. Desi appeared to have all that he could ever want—surely what most would assess as a successful start.
Desi had surrounded himself throughout his youth with people, making himself the center of their attention, but the depth of connectedness that he sought had eluded him. In order to find contentment, one must look within oneself, neither to others, nor substances or things, because peace and fulfillment emerges from within.
Desi, however, emersed by so much attention, so much money, so many possessions, had no opportunity to figure out what he really wanted and how he could get it. Fear, stress, and worry controlled his life. Driven by these different voices, Desi succumbed to drug and alcohol abuse.
While in the public eye, he appeared to live on top of the world, but, in reality, the young rock star was destroying himself. His mother, increasingly concerned about her son’s destructive behavior, begged him to seek therapy. At the age of twenty-one, after years of seeking solace in drugs and alcohol, Desi himself had grown tired of the person that he had become. His habits were killing him, and he knew he had to admit defeat and picked himself up in search of real answers.
With his family’s support, Desi enrolled in a succession of counseling and detox programs, but his life continued to slide throughout his teens and early twenties. Drugs and alcohol, his poor relationships, his alienation from himself, and his negative general outlook eventually wore him out: "It was crazy. I had to go full circle. My mother told me to be a “good boy.” But to have fun, to be creative, I convinced myself to get involved in drugs. When I would see doctors, they [would play] the game: I give them money, they give me prescriptions. So, finally, I’m laying on my back in the hospital as the doctor shows me a brain scan of what the drugs do to my brain. I ask him how to change it, and he says essentially, 'Be a good boy”--start doing real things for yourself—I could begin with AA."
Doctors told him that his 25 year-old brain, after years of chemical abuse, now looked like the brain of a sixty year-old. Desi now had proof that his lifestyle would kill him. Out of control with his own life, he had to find out who he really was. Desi’s initial strategy was to find himself through therapy. For six years Desi experimented with different forms of psychotherapy, hoping that one would finally help him find his answers for the critical connections with self, other, and God.
Even the so-called best therapists could not cure Desi of his illness. Desi thus realized that his problem was a kind of “allergy,” an allergy that no outside help could heal. Whether it was through whiskey, sex, or psychotherapy, Desi’s search for authenticity would remain futile until he mustered the courage to take an honest look at himself. But when he finally looked within, he found that the self that he thought was his own was in fact an imaginary construct.
Desi finally took charge of changing his life and joined a non-profit group that encouraged self-analysis and advocated taking personal responsibility: “It’s about changing your life by actions,” he said, “not saying one thing and doing another.”
In his efforts to begin a genuine, healthier life, Desi chose a route to self-discovery that extended beyond obvious questions for living a moral life. He began to challenge every one of his habits--even his work as an actor and performer: “Alcoholism and drugs [are] less killers than our planet’s addiction to stress,” he explained that the key, for him, was to listen to himself and not adopt the identity or doctrine of anyone else: to establish authentic connections with himself, others, and God. For this reason he did not feel engaged by the majority of medical, psychological, or religious instructions. He admitted, “I wish someone had told me at an earlier age the importance of finding myself versus living in a pre-conditioned state. It would have saved me many hardships through the years.”
Desi had not lost faith in medicine or psychology, nor did he think that spiritual Truth did not exist. Rather, he knew from experience that these forces could hold a person captive to a false self unless he or she found meaning within, that is unless directives from these agencies inspired expereinces, behavior that resonated with his life as a whole. He commented, "God should be the most practical thing there is. He should be the most obvious thing there is. Real life should be obvious, practical, verifiable, a fact. Either it is a fact or its not. Period."
The living connection between himself, others, and God that Desi works so hard to maintain has freed him from the pain, bondage, and emptiness he found in paths towards excesses to find worldly success of his past. Forging this connection, however, has entailed a struggle to refashion his self-perception. As a necessary part of this process, which he described as the acquisition of “two educations,” Desi learned to love himself by understanding how this identity came to be, and has become attuned to his physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Desi sought wholeness in his life, an inner peace, that was previously missing. He sought his true self: his spontenity, creativity, reason, freedom, discernment, spirituality, love.
While the road Desi has traveled in the name of self-discovery has been arduous, he could not have found intimacy without inner peace, “We take responsibility for our own emotions;” until one can be responsible, one “can’t really be loving.” Having engaged his reeducation and taken charge of his life, Desi found his balance by continuing his pursuit of knowledge and spirituality, playing in his band, supporting his wife’s ballet company, and “being” with his family. Desi reminds us that, whatever mistakes or the setbacks we encounter, we must never shut ourselves off to the vitality of life. Desi said: "My mother was great; she really tried hard to understand what I was going through and what I really needed. She was there for me. She really understood and wanted to help me get it together. It’s too bad that she didn’t have the support for herself that I found."
Confronted with his false self, Desi realized his life was no longer his own: “I got tired of being me…I was killing myself…I know for a fact that something was running my life calling itself identity, calling itself me which wasn’t me at all.” He would begin—and continue—to look within, to take responsibility for his thoughts and actions. His path to authenticity would not be an easy one, but as he remarked, “Honesty is strength. Honesty is courage….I’m still addicted to certain emotions…I’m beginning to see that those things are harmful…until you see it clearly and make the change, life is unnecessarily difficult.”
John T. Chirban, Ph.D., Th.D. is a clinical instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of True Coming of Age: A Dynamic Process That Leads to Emotional Stability, Spiritual Growth, and Meaningful Relationships. For more information please visit www.drchirban.com, https://www.facebook.com/drchirban and https://twitter.com/drjohnchirban.