As I mentioned in the previous posting, there was something in the last letter of Pavlina that I found really interesting. In concrete terms, it was this passage of her letter: „…my self-perception is very often dependent on something external. When everything is working well for me, everybody is nice to me, I feel good. Much worse is, when someone is unagreeable to me, criticise me, don´t understand me, don´t accept me. The lack of material things is bad for me as well.“
How should we read this text thinking about self and identity? As an expression of self-doubt? Lack of self-confidence? A pathological state of mind? Or as an inevitable human condition, confirmation of the fact that person is a social product? Answering these questions always requires us to have some kind of theory of self, of the very nature of our mind. There are plenty of such theories in various disciplines such as psychology, sociology, psychiatry, philosophy, linguistics, neuroscience, gender or cultural theory. Firstly, to find some clue how to relate the theories to one another, we can distinguish two extreme kinds of determinism: individual and societal.
In the context of drug and addiction field, we may meet individual determinism in some traditional treatment settings of drug addiction. At least in my country, addiction treatment in large amount takes place in special departements of psychiatric clinics where people are accomodated, have strict rules for their daily routine and interaction with one another and the largest part of the treatment consists of „repairing one´s mind“: through individual, group psychotherapy, journal writing, work, etc.. Then, typically after three months, the treatment is believed to be finished and the person is released, hopefully with their mind changed. The idea behind this kind of treatment is that there is something wrong in the individual mind of a person in respect to the fact that he or she takes drugs or drinks alcohol in such excessive way. The suggested solution is to fix it, resolve it, with the available tools for the mind. We are not able to evaluate such kind of treatment away from the behaviour of the person: the only success measure is whether or not he or she starts to use drugs or drink alcohol again. If he or she does, the conclusion may be either that they were not prepared for the treatment yet, that they did not give enough effort to the treatment or that the person is damaged so badly and inherently that the amount treatment was not enough (interesting is that there are not many claims that the treatment itself was badly performed). Much too often, the individual determinism influences also the „patient“ and so, when there are any kinds of self-doubt after finishing the treatment, he or she can start to blame oneself, getting feelings of loss and then there is just a small step to taking the drug again to finally confirm that they have failed. Anyway, „relapse“ is the prove that the „wrong thing“ is still there, in their mind, and so they have to have it treated again.
The second, societal type of determinism may perceive the „addicts“, „junkies“ or „alcoholics“ as a life-long social role which is inevitable because of the power relations in the society. The individuals cannot fight back againts such a fate and therefore are condemned to stay addicts for whole their life. Even if they manage to stop taking drugs, the society with its institution inevitably pushes the person into the same social role again and again. The explanation of addiction tells us that there is not anything bad in the individual but more likely in the society. Thus, the representatives of society should make the living conditions for the addicts at least bearable.
Ian Burkitt, social science theorist at the University of Bradford writes in his book Social Selves: Theories of Self and Society that every search for nature of self may be captured by a question that people try to answer which is: „who am I“? He refuses both kinds of the determinisms mentioned and perceives the answer to this in much more complicated interplay of individual and society. Even if we mostly try to find the answer the question „who am I“ within ourselves, it is not the kind of task that we can resolve alone. As Burkitt writes: „…we look to other people to see the image of ourselves reflected back in their words, attitudes, expressions or actions.“ Then, Burkitt elaborates on different approaches to the relation of self and society, many of which agree upon an assumption that we are born into relationships and we are created by these relationships. In this respect, the society changes of last decades had great influence on our selves. Even if there isn´t any agreement on consequences of these changes, at least we can wittness the huge exapnsion of possible relationships: from the first years of our lives we are connected to different images of people all around the world through TV, movie, satellite and especially internet. We can see how they live and we can compare it to what our parents are telling us to see if they are „right“ or not. On one side, this situation is opening many new possibilities for developing and changing one´s identity, on the other side, it instantly threatens our intimate relationships and our sense of certainty and stability which we gain through them.
Since one hundred years ago, in the time when the psychiatric departments for addicts were being established, people lived most of their lives within one set of relationships and the identity, status and role they have gained in these relationship was often staing with them for most of their lives being very difficult to change, it is no wonder that people perceived the identity of addict, junkie or alcoholic so fatal. But today, this view does not make sense any longer. People can easily change their settings, either geographically or just symbolically attach themselves to another people with another assumptions, beliefs, life-style. Today´s society welcome flexible, reflexive selves with a potential for change. The kind of selves that are produced by traditional treatment of addiction are no longer useful!
But there is the other, more pessimistic side, that is, the decline of certainty in intimate relationship, fragmentation of relationships. Self-doubts, feeling of misunderstanding and incapacity of oneself which are well captured in the Pavlina´s letter mentioned at the beginning, is a side effect of this situation. So, we may read this letter more as a characteristics of today´s society than the self, but at the same time, we should ask: what may an individual do about this? How does one gain at least sufficient sense of certainty that makes his or her life bearable? It looks as if I should start to work on „part 3“…