I have drugs on my mind. I’ve just read The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton’s bleak autobiography about doping in professional cycling. It contains more than enough about injections of the hormone EPO and bags of blood sitting in the fridge next to the milk, waiting to be transfused. But it makes surprisingly little mention of arguably the strongest, most addictive drug of them all: adrenalin.
We have just witnessed more proof of the dangerous draw of adrenalin. Last week, Andrew Flintoff, the former England cricketer, fought a professional boxer in Manchester. After finally escaping all the pain that comes with a career as a fast bowler, Flintoff volunteered to step into a professional boxing ring. Madness? Absolutely. Surprising? Less so. Flintoff has always struggled to maintain focus and self-discipline without the prospect of a serious adrenalin rush around the corner. He said his life was “drifting”. With cricket gone, he was searching for a new dealer.
Boxing offers the most guaranteed form of adrenalin: that which follows from being in real and immediate physical danger. The exchampion boxer Barry McGuigan, who helped train Flintoff for his fight, has described the unmatchable thrill of stepping into the ring. McGuigan is unusually well-adjusted but nothing in the rest of his life has come close to equalling it.
The new normal
It is much wider than boxing, or even sport. The distance between “normal” living and life fuelled by adrenalin is almost as great as the gap between sleep and wakefulness. After a real adrenalin rush, the rest of life resembles a somnolent haze. That is why depressives are often prone to adrenalin addiction. Indeed, Flintoff recently made a programme about depression that revealed his own struggles.
When I was a cricketer, I never thought of myself as being ruled by adrenalin. But I can now see that the veneer of self-control and rationality was quite thin. In my darkest moments, it was adrenalin that I relied upon. Once, just before the start of a crucial one-day game, I thought I wouldn’t be able to play at all. I felt swamped and exhausted by team politics and tensions. I was about to open the batting, and even after I’d put my helmet on – the final signal to switch into competitive mode – I felt only diffident emptiness. I went through my usual routine. I always tried to find a moment of peace before I batted, a mini-meditation. Not this time. I couldn’t escape feeling burdened and heavy, and my head sank against the wall behind me. It was one of the only times I walked out to bat expecting to fail.
I was rescued by a flash of confrontation early in my innings, followed by a surge of adrenalin. A chance remark by an opponent lit a fuse inside me. I suspect adrenalin can be fuelled by three different sources: first, the feeling of being on the stage; secondly, competitiveness or conflict; finally, the elation that comes with pushing your physical limits. Suddenly, all three were working together. Mental exhaustion gave way to alertness, heaviness was replaced by lightness, diffidence turned into sharp focus. If you’d told me when I’d been waiting to bat that I’d soon feel on top form, I would have replied that it wasn’t possible.
Even now, when I’m in the middle of a run of speeches in the space of a few days, I feel certain that I won’t be able to get “up” for the next one. But the surprising truth is that it is often much easier to get into performance mode when you are burned out than when you are fully refreshed and rested. The adrenalin, perhaps, remains nearer the surface when you’re tired: your mind, anticipating another emergency, is ready to respond with a shot of the drug that will get you through. In cricket, we used to use the phrase “worn in”, meaning just tired enough to play at your best. Paradoxically, I came to fear feeling 100 per cent healthy and rested. It was often accompanied by complacency out on the field.
The uncomfortable logic follows that you often perform at your best when you feel at your worst. And it is a cumulative phenomenon: deeper lows, higher highs. The point is that many people live almost their whole lives in that state of flux. They are literally addicts. Anyone who has visited an actor’s dressing room after a play will have been shocked to find not a star glowing with the elation of triumph, but a pale, ill-looking shadow of the person you’ve just admired on the stage. As the adrenalin drains away, you are watching a painful transition: from performer to civilian. The highs of alcohol may soon follow; but they will turn out to be an inadequate alternative. The only real solution is yet another performance. The same cycle of dependence applies in business, politics and the arts. The stage is universal –whether it is a boardroom, podium or concert hall.
Escape to victory
The adrenalin addiction can trip into potentially lethal self-delusion. That it has worked before does not mean it will keep on working indefinitely. Muhammad Ali overcame improbable odds to regain the heavyweight world title a record three times. They said he was mad to fight the younger, stronger George Foreman in 1974. But Ali suffered and triumphed. Why shouldn’t he repeat that pattern yet again against Trevor Berbick in 1981? It was an appalling spectacle: slowed in speech and step, punch-drunk and drowsy, he stood almost stationary as punches rained down on him. Why wasn’t he talked out of it beforehand? Because those gifted with unshakeable selfbelief don’t listen. That is what makes them great. And what makes them so vulnerable to terrible misjudgements.
Many have judged Flintoff’s motivation cynically, suggesting he is merely seeking for another dose of the limelight. Surely there are many easier ways – that do not involve risking being pummelled by professional fighters – for a celebrity to boost his public image?
No, the addiction is much more fundamental. It is not fame, it is adrenalin. I only hope he can find another, safer outlet. Sadly, only one result was more worrying than defeat last weekend and it happened: victory.