Wednesday, March 31, 2021

26. Drugs, Distractions, and Decisions: The Three Paths To Peace

Andrew Cuomo announced today that recreational use of marijuana would be legal in the state of New York.  Like most people, I was thrilled with this news, as criminalizing recreational drugs disproportionately impacts people of color and perpetuates racial injustices within the legal system.  As a therapist, I am simultaneously grateful yet cautious for the mental health opportunities legalized drug use has to offer.  

One of my goals when I moved to New York City in 2005 was to meet and learn from the legendary Dr. Albert Ellis.  Although he was the first practitioner in American Psychology to challenge and question the efficacy of “insight oriented” therapies, his place in history has been overlooked and erased by conservatives who prioritized a less sex-affirmative and humane approach to mental health and emotional wellness.  I nevertheless gained a much deeper respect for human resilience through his teachings, and came to understand that there are fundamentally three paths to serenity and acceptance.  Part of the joy of turning fifty for me has been to honor and respect how each of these have helped and supported me at various times in my struggles:

  This can be best described as the act of “keeping busy.”  There are times in our lives when we deal effectively with grief or pain by keeping very very engaged and active, hopefully in a way that serves our greater purpose.  I know this has been my go to throughout most of my work life — I have always found an alleviation of trauma and struggle by “escaping” into my work.  This was especially helpful when I was going through difficulties related to death and dying that were so prevalent during AIDS traumas, as well as this past year during the COVID19 crisis.  

Drugs:  This involves the act of intentionally changing your brain chemistry in order to experience a different mood or perception. This can be accomplished in several healthy ways, such as through a guided group experience, an intentional use of a psychedelic, a prescribed psychiatric medication, or simply a night out drinking with trusted friends.  Chemically altered states can offer an “as-if” experience, an experimental role play into another way of living and thinking, that can support therapeutic goals.  In my 20s, MMDA (Ecstasy) and various amphetamines allowed me to try on a confidence I aspired to feel in sober life, like wearing a costume or doing drag for a limited amount of time.  

Dr. Ellis taught us that there was nothing “wrong” or flawed about using forms of distraction or drug-alteration to experience moments of peace, acceptance, or pleasure.  But in of and themselves, they are insufficient and incomplete.   Sustainable mood changes and mental growth derive primarily from intentionally deciding to change our thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions in order to enhance emotional health, mood, and spiritual balance.  This arguably is a much more challenging yet rewarding path to take.

Decisions:  Healthy mental decisions are reminders to “think about what you’re thinking about.”  That no matter what is done to my body, no matter what is happening to me in the external realm, I still have the power to change my mind and attitude about the circumstances and change how I think in order to change how I feel.  So if I don’t get something or someone I want, I can change the emotional effects by changing the mental cause.  As discussed in Lesson 33, Tina Turner’s life lessons as well as her new book and documentary illustrate the power of changing one’s mind in order to change one’s emotional state, and extricate yourself from abusive toxic relationships.  

My good friend Krishna Stone has advised me on many occasions about making different decisions in response to events and situations.  In her own words, “Decisions are day-to-day experiences that allow me agency over my reactions.  We make decisions, healthy or not, all the time.  As I get older I have greater intuition and that helps me to exercise decisions that lead to empowerment.  This helps me realize that if I made an error, I have the opportunity to reflect and decide differently.”

Krishna's wisdom reminds me of Viktor Frankl's writing in Man's Search For Meaning, "The last of human freedoms is to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."  Or to put it another way, we can consciously practice in the realm of decision, intention, and mindfulness in order to enjoy higher plains of meaningful existence.  But if we're solely focused on the realms of distraction or staying high, then we can miss the greater insights that are available to us through the power of our own clear thoughts.  

There are many tools I've learned to practice healthier decisions on my life's journey.  The majority of these 50 Lessons of 50 are examples of how I’ve decided to live more consistently with peace, purpose, and pleasure throughout my fifty years despite some steep uphill battles.  One thing I know for certain: staying super busy and stoned won’t help me to heal from the trauma I'm carrying from four years of Trump, one year of COVID19, wounds from childhood, nor the stigma of aging as a 50-year-old gay man.  But utilizing the decision of mental discipline, rational thinking, and intentional action, all help me to get closer each and every day to liberation.  I look forward to more conversations about these methods as we move toward the second half of the 50 Lessons of 50 series.   

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707

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