The Illuminating Recovery of Dr. Oliver Sacks

One of my favorite authors is Dr. Oliver Sacks, the famed clinical neurologist and author of such works as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Awakenings, and Seeing Voices. Two of Sacks books (Hallucinations and On the Move) and a Sacks biography (And How Are You, Dr. Sacks by Lawrence Weschler) recount Sacks early drug experimentation, his eventual addiction to amphetamines, and his subsequent recovery process.

Sacks’ recovery from addiction began in 1966 as an epiphany about the destructiveness of his accelerating sexual and drug appetites. That breakthrough of self-perception led Sacks to seek help from psychotherapist Dr. Shingold who accepted Sacks as a patient on the condition that Sacks cease his drug use. Through therapy, Sacks developed a deeper understanding of the potential threats his drug use posed to his career and his life, but there was another even more powerful catalyst of his recovery. As Sacks describes:

“…the fact is that through all of those drug experiences, I had been trying to get somewhere, and finally, I did, and what had previously been a febrile incandescence, a sterile awakening, became a fertile awakening. And after that, I didn’t need the drugs anymore” (And How Are You, Dr. Sacks, p. 78).

Looking back later on this process, Sacks reflected, “I would continue to seek satisfaction in drugs, I felt, unless I had satisfying—and hopefully, creative—work. It was crucial for me to find something with meaning, and this, for me, was seeing patients” (On the Move, p. 146)….The joy I got from doing this [recording the experiences of his patients through his writings] was real—infinitely more substantial than the vapid mania of amphetamines—and I never took amphetamines again.” (Hallucinations, p. 1627-1628)

Drug use, like most if not all human behavior, is purposeful. The diverse needs potentially met via drug use reveal differences in the seductiveness of such experiences and the wide variability of addiction vulnerability, severity, and duration. For some people, drugs serve a function so powerful, so central to one’s essence, that they become THE purpose for living.  

Dr. Sacks recovery narrative illuminates the distinction between recovering from and recovering to. The former often involves the painful accumulation of drug consequences. While such pain can constitute a powerful push force towards recovery, pain alone is often an invitation for escalating hopelessness and further intensification of drug use. Dr. Sacks experienced such consequences, but his recovery did not become anchored until he found a greater purpose for living—a pull force, which in Sacks case was the meaning found in his work with patients and his writing.

The case of Dr. Oliver Sacks suggests that understanding the twin mysteries of addiction and recovery require discovery of what is being searched for within the drug experience as well as discovery of a more effective, meaningful, and sustainable answer to that search. Those of us involved in helping facilitate the recovery process would be well-served reminding ourselves of the multitude of needs and purposes that feed excessive drug use and the equally diverse range of alternatives through which those same needs can be met.