I recently read an amazing novel that I probably should have read when I was fifteen, but never did. The book, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, is one of the most psychologically brilliant novels I’ve ever read. I think it says a lot about today’s current political climate, as well as having insights into the nature of addiction and self-hate. I’ll eschew the political opinions, and instead focus on the importance of telling the truth about the monster that lives within us all.
The protagonist, Dr. Victor Frankenstein, begins the novel by talking about the reasons he began to be possessed by the idea of cheating death and God by creating a human being from leftover body parts retrieved from corpses. As is the case with many human ills, he begins with what he believes to be noble intentions, hoping to take the sting out of death and relieve the world of this suffering forever. Similarly, those who suffer from addiction usually begin using substances for benign reasons. For some it’s to fit in socially, for others it is to medicate trauma, and for others it is simply to feel good or experience joy.
When Frankenstein looks upon the monster that his arrogance and obsession have created, he quickly becomes horrified by the creature, sending him into the cold without name, absent of compassion, and never explaining to the creature how he is related to his creator-father. By not naming the creature, Frankenstein tries to keep emotional distance from that which he finds detestable in himself. By banishing the being into the wilderness, he hopes that by ignoring his actions they will not bear fruit. When I am sitting across from someone who comes to my office because of chemical addiction, the first thing I do with them is to help them name the thing that is causing them the suffering and misery in their lives. Inevitably, the alcohol and drug addiction is the last thing they want to name, hoping against hope that it is some external pressure that is causing their unhappiness. Lately, I have seen some posts that are trying to put forth the idea that someone calling themselves an alcoholic or addict is shaming or demeaning. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth. Naming the disease of addiction, calling out the monster, is empowering. Anyone who has ever been to a 12 step meeting knows that members who identify themselves by these labels are empowered by the knowledge that they finally understand what has been haunting them and hurting their loved ones. Diagnosis and identification are key.
For a while, Frankenstein hears nothing from his monster and tries to resume his normal life. But though he cannot see his antagonist, it is never far from him. Eventually, after the monster kills Frankenstein’s younger brother, (innocence) it seeks him out and confronts him in a cave, which is symbolic of Frankenstein’s psyche. Understandably, Frankenstein greets his creation with rage and anger, referring to him as a daemon and trying to attack and kill him. Frankenstein expects the monster to be no more than an animal, and thus is astounded when he speaks to him eloquently, with a voice that he finds familiar:
“I expected this reception,” says the monster, “All men hate the wretched and I am miserable beyond all living things. Yet you my creator detests and spurn me to whom thou art bound by ties only dissolved by the annihilation of one of us”
The creature then begs Dr. Frankenstein to show him compassion, telling his creator that he longs for companionship, explaining how he has been wandering in the wilderness for years, suffering in the cold, isolated from humanity. But Frankenstein refuses to take responsibility for his creation, denying the psychological shadow and naively playing the victim:
“Abhorrent monster! Fiend that thou art! The tortures of hell art too mild a vengeance for your crimes.”
The monster finally convinces Frankenstein to at least listen to him, telling his creator the story of how he has suffered the last several years as he tries to figure out his relationship to life itself and why he is rejected by everyone that he meets. The monster begs Frankenstein for compassion and understanding, telling him that he only killed his younger brother to get his attention after being ignored for many, many years. The consequences of addiction are warning signs to be heeded. If individuals and families ignore the early signs of addiction (daily marijuana use, legal consequences, binge drinking, work and school problems, emotional volatility) the disease will morph into an uncontrollable force that can end in death or insanity.
Frankenstein, like most humans at one time or another, refuses to heed the monster’s warnings. In the end the monster he has created destroys the thing that Frankenstein loves the most, his wife Elizabeth. The monster strangles her on their wedding night as he promised he would, leaving Frankenstein to wander aimlessly in the icy wasteland(resentment and self-pity) until he finally dies aboard a ship, his monster visiting him on his deathbed, weeping for the loss of the thing which he destroyed. Still longing for acceptance and love.
The Opioid Epidemic is Frankenstein’s monster in complete manifestation; difficult to subdue, impossible to ignore, and deadly. If American’s want to put a dent in the Opioid Crisis, the monster will need to be confronted in the early stages. Not everyone who binge drinks or smokes marijuana will become an opiate addict or alcoholic, but some will. Let’s at least tell the truth about it. This pervasive idea that drugs and alcohol have all of a sudden become benign is ludicrous. That we as a society scream about the opioid crisis while glorifying marijuana and alcohol use, to me seems absurd. I have seen the effects of these drugs on lifetime users, and they and their families suffer tremendously. But in the end, it is up to the individuals to identify their own monsters, within themselves and within their family systems.
The lesson of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is that if we ignore our self-created monsters they will take vengeance. Had Frankenstein greeted his creation with understanding, honesty, and compassion, the outcome might have been different. And that which he loved would not have been destroyed.