Oliver Sacks was a British neurologist, naturalist and author. He was born on July 09, 1933 in London, England, into a family of physicians and scientists (his mother was a surgeon and his father a general practitioner). He earned his medical degree at Oxford University (Queen’s College) in 1960. He removed himself from England and what family and community he had there and went to the United States where he trained at Mt Zion Hospital in San Francisco and at UCLA. Sacks describes this period in his life. He says,
“When I moved to Los Angeles, I found a sort of community among the weightlifters on Muscle Beach, and with my fellow neurology residents at U.L.C.A., but I craved some deeper connection – ‘meaning’ – in my life, and it was the absence of this, I think, that drew me into near-suicidal addiction to amphetamines in the 1960s.”
Despite his academic achievements, a rift with his family and a lack of clear purpose brought Sacks to the brink of despair. His addiction to amphetamines could have led to his death. Amphetamines are highly addictive drugs. When amphetamines are used for recreational purposes they can be extremely dangerous. Not only is there an increased risk of overdose, but there is also a risk of physical dependence, organ damage, psychosis and even death. Sacks describes his four-year addiction to amphetamines. He says,
“I do not know how much a propensity to addiction is “hardwired” or how much it depends on circumstances or state of mind. All I know is that I was hooked after that night with an amphetamine-soaked joint and was to remain hooked for the next four years. In the thrall of amphetamines, sleep was impossible, food was neglected, and everything was subordinated to the stimulation of the pleasure centres in my brain.”
A life without meaning and purpose is a life without a destination. Like a boat adrift on the ocean, there is no telling where you might end up. Two thousand years ago the Roman philosopher Seneca wrote,
“Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind.”
In his best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl detailed his time spent in a Nazi concentration camp and his secret to surviving the camp despite losing the family members he was imprisoned with. The secret was finding meaning in even the most horrific circumstances.
In the Forward to Man’s Search for Meaning, Harold S. Kushner writes,
“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure (Freud), or a quest for power (Adler), but a quest for meaning. The greatest task for any person is to find meaning in his or her life.
Frankl saw three possible sources for meaning: in work (doing something significant), in love (caring for another person), and in courage during difficult times.”
Sacks’ recovery started, slowly. He found meaningful work in New York, in a chronic care hospital in the Bronx. He says,
“I was fascinated by my patients there, cared for them deeply, and felt something of a mission to tell their stories – stories of situations virtually unknown, almost unimaginable, to the general public and, indeed, to many of my colleagues. I had discovered my vocation…Almost unconsciously; I became a storyteller at a time when medical narrative was almost extinct.”
As well as being a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine, Sacks became a best-selling author. He is best known for his collections of neurological case histories, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Will Self wrote the Introduction to this book and points to Sacks use of extreme examples to magnify the human condition. He says,
“In his writing, Sacks presents us with the most graphic forms of human alienation so as to unite us with ourselves.”
We all experience alienation. We all question how we fit in, whether we belong. Sacks reminds us that our quest for meaning guarantees our future. It inspires a positive outlook and imbues us with a sense of gratitude. He says,
“To live on a day-to-day basis is insufficient; we need to transcend, transport, escape; we need meaning, understanding, and explanation; we need to see over-all patterns in our lives. We need hope, the sense of a future; the freedom to get beyond ourselves…in states of mind that allow us to rise above our immediate surroundings and see the beauty and value of the world we live in.”
Our mental health can be threatened suddenly and unexpectedly. It might be a medical diagnosis or news of a family tragedy. Our world comes crashing down, our wellness undermined. We feel frightened, panic-stricken, broken lost.
This was author, Matt Haig’s experience. He writes about the day his world caved in his book Reasons To Stay Alive. He was aged 24 and could see no way to go on living.
Haig was living in Spain – in one of the more sedate and beautiful corners of the island of Ibiza. It was September. He was due to return to London in a fortnight. He describes the onset of depression.
“It started with a thought. Something was going wrong. That was the start. Before I realised what it was. And then, a second or so later, there was a strange sensation inside my head. Some biological activity in the rear of my skull, not far above my neck. A pulsing or intense flickering combined with a tingling sensation. I thought I was about to die.”
Haig came to understand that one of the key symptoms of depression is to see no hope. No future. He says,
“Far from the tunnel having light at the end of it, it seems that it is blocked at both ends, and you are inside it.”
But to Haig’s relief, he discovered depression lies. Depression itself isn’t a lie but it messes with your thinking.
On the third day, Haig left the villa and went outside to kill himself. A depressive just wants to feel an absence of pain.
He made it to the edge of the cliff. As he looked out over what was surely the most beautiful view in the world he reasoned,
“I could stop feeling this way simply by taking another step. It was so preposterously easy – a single step – versus the pain of being alive.”
There were three things Haig found tipped the scales in favour of life. They were
1. The fear of death
2. The love of his family and girlfriend
3. The realisation that he might not die but be paralysed for the remainder of his life.
“I think life always provides reasons not to die if we listen hard enough. Those reasons can stem from the past – the people who raised us, maybe, or friends or lovers – or from the future – the possibilities we would be switching off.”
Haig could have surrendered to the impulse to take that final step. He could have ended his life right there. But he summoned the courage to go on living. And he has this word of hope and encouragement for all who struggle with depression.
“Life is never perfect. I still get depressed from time to time. But I’m in a better place. The pain is never as bad. I’ve found out who I am. I’m happy. Right now, I am happy. The storm ends. Believe me.”