One of the things I love most about paranormal and urban fantasy is that there isn't a subject related to human behavior that isn't covered somewhere in the genre. I've written before that reading about supernatural species like vampires, shifters, the Fae and other creatures seems to bring humanity into sharp focus. What does it mean to be human? What separates our human nature from our animal natures? I've contemplated the existence of the soul and the reality of mortality as discriminators. One aspect I haven't touched on is instinct, which will be the subject of another post. Closely related to instinct, however, is compulsion--things we do that we cannot seem to control. When our compulsive behavior crosses a certain line--and I'm not quite sure where that is, just that, like pornography, I know it when I see it, compulsive behavior becomes addiction, the most lethal of all self destructive paths. Addiction pops up all over my beloved paranormal fantasy books, and it is a subject with which I have more familiarity than I would like.
The author who clearly knows the most about addiction, I'm guessing from personal experience, is JR Ward. In the world of the Black Dagger Brotherhood, it's my man (vampire) Phury who's the hard-core addict and when we get inside his head, it's a dangerous place to be. In Lover Enshrined, we are introduced to the Wizard, who is the nasty, undermining, devastatingly effective voice in Phury's head, the one constantly telling Phury what a piece of shit he is. More unfortunately, the Wizard is also there to keep the focus squarely on Phury's deeds, misdeeds and missed deeds, enslaving Phury in the bondage of a self-created prison. It is a terrible place to be, relieved only by relying on "red smoke," a narcotic somewhere between marijuana and an opiate. Phury smokes his "blunts" --hand rolled-- which then, appropriately, blunt his experience of the world at large, anesthetizing him against the pain of existence.
I've never read such a realistic account of the horrible, insistent, and consistent muttering inside my skull that was my addiction goading me to do that which I swore I wouldn't do anymore. Thankfully, for me it wasn't narcotics or alcohol. But active addiction will kill you one way or another. It will kill you quickly, like with drinking and drugging, or slowly, messily, and painfully, like cutting your wrists with an emery board, which is how food addiction will kill you. But, dead is dead, in the end, no matter how long it takes go get there. What nightmares are made of, truly.
And JR Ward gets it, as always. So many well-meaning, but misguided souls assume that if the addict would just "pick themselves up by their bootstraps," then they could "just say no." It doesn't work like that. As Phury demonstrates, if we could we would. Non-addicts often assume we who are on the other side of that line lack willpower. In fact, addicts are among the most strong-willed people on the planet. That's not the issue. The issue is the nature of addiction.
As always, I need state the caveat that I am not any sort of licensed professional and my opinions are just that. But in my experience, and after contemplating the essence of addiction, I'm going to have to take issue with both Ms. Ward and even with Alcoholics Anonymous, which, for the record, I believe to be an organization that works miracles on a daily basis. But in anthropomorphizing addiction, either as the “Wizard" or according to AA's "disease" model, we view addiction as something outside ourselves, rather than that which is inherent to our nature. The Wizard doesn't live on Oz, down a yellow brick road; he lives in us, in our id, inflating our egos and causing our self-will to run riot. I believe anyone can cross the line from occasional, compulsive behavior to full-blown addiction. In the United States we need only look around at all of those who share my particular brand of addiction.
So, in my mind, we can all go there. It can be as innocuous as biting our nails or being unable to pass up a deal. It can be more obvious, like smoking or chewing tobacco (or vaping--a new way to enslave the next generation). It can be more insidious, like telling ourselves that we don't need to drink every night, we just like to put a cap on the day, or being "unwilling" but not unable to leave our electronic devices at home for a day, or even an hour. Addiction is all around us, and for me, there is a spectrum. We tend not to do anything about our little habits unless they begin to negatively affect our quality of life.
The Wizard lives in all of us. Sometimes his voice is loud--or maybe it's a whisper saying all those unpleasant things in our heads: "Don't try, you won't succeed. You're fat; you're ugly, that outfit looks awful on you. You are way too stupid to make that work. You are not competent, creative, strong, funny, sexy, clever, or confident enough".
In the shorthand version of Wizard-speak we hear simply "you are not enough and never will be." Sometimes, the voice might mix it up and say instead, "there isn't enough, and you won't get your share, so give it up." Such a vicious little voice. We don't like that voice, so we use our substances or compulsive behaviors to soothe and smooth out the edges of a reality we don't feel like facing and to stifle that insufferable voice. But that voice is part of us, not separate. For years I blamed my mother for the obnoxious troll living rent-free in my brain. Then someone pointed out that I was the only one capable of plugging my ears, and saying, "Thanks for sharing, I don't choose to listen to you today."
Phury learns to stop listening to the Wizard eventually. It's not an easy path, even for characters in paranormal fantasy novels. The path for each of us to do the same is unique. My path involved putting down my drug of choice and facing my reality squarely, with honesty, openness and willingness to change. Tough stuff. Worthwhile. But my Wizard didn't leave the building. He can't. He's me. But there's more to me than that.