On Addiction

I don’t drink. But, when alcohol comes to mind, I am flooded with pleasant images — there is nothing repugnant about those first recollections. They are nothing but attractive! I recall also the relief from the moments immediately before using. Life was monochrome, boring; there was probably something immediately unpleasant going on — perhaps a lack of understanding with a family member or some persistent anxiety or looming unpleasant duty. Drinking was always a stepping out of these gray moments into a better place. It was a relief.

Beyond any chemical draw, addictions certainly entail a psychic draw — in most cases, probably prior to the chemical dependency. It is not only immediate. Addictions persist because of the persistent desire to escape from the complexity, challenges, frustrations and dissatisfactions of daily life into a place beyond reality that offers relief and relative comfort. For different addictions, the duration of that “vacation” can be quite different — relatively long for alcohol or opioids, short for masturbation or crack cocaine. It is pointless to ponder escape from any addiction without consideration of its positive conscious attraction, as well as the expectation of real life without addiction. Will it be the promised land of freedom, a dreaded chasm of emptiness, or even an anxiety-inducing nightmare?

Strictly speaking, real addictions are physiological.  That means they’re not just bad habits.  So we can’t easily choose to stop using, even if we really want to. It’s not just a matter of a conscious choice, but also a chemical dependency that may not be under the full control of consciousness. That might seem to imply that physiological addictions can only be overcome with pharmaceuticals — drugs to overcome drugs.  But that’s not completely true — if it were, then programs like AA could never work.

The explanation lies in the fact that body and mind are not separate — each affects the other.  So, an addict who is committed to getting clean, who has overcome whatever psychic barriers and hesitations stand in the way, who is sufficiently convinced that full-blown reality might have something good to offer, may well be able to get clean and stay clean, with the help of his or her “higher power,” which usually means some combination of God and the encouragement of the fellowship in the program. We could think of it as a case of “mind over matter” or even spirit over matter.

But, if it’s that simple, why are persistent longterm addictions so common?  Many people continue persistent active addictions for many decades.  They’re still alive — so they might be considered lucky in that respect!  Maybe they have “tried to quit” once or twice.  But, considering all the bad health consequences of their habit, why are they not fighting desperately to overcome their addiction?  Why are they not unrelenting in their pursuit of medical doctors, addiction counselors and 12 step groups to help them get free of their dependency?  I want to suggest three big reasons:

1. The desire to get clean needs to be bigger than your ego. The key is Step 1 of the 12 step programs:  the addict must start by admitting his powerlessness.  For some people it is very difficult to admit that they need help.  There is even a tradition of stubborn self-reliance that encourages us to shun assistance.  Personally, I suffered from that particular “disease” for most of my life. It showed up in ways that were not only related to alcoholism. For example, ,it took me years to admit that I needed knee replacements, not because I was afraid of the surgery, but because I didn’t want to admit that I was in any way defective!  Several years ago, I had to admit that I couldn’t control alcoholism by “drinking sensibly”  — the fellowship of AA led to a transformation of my willingness to rely upon others, and ultimately on God. For me, the acceptance of help against addiction was also a cure for excessive self-reliance.

2. You need to truly believe that freedom from addiction will lead to a better life.  We’ve all seen the person who has the health problems of someone 20 years older.  That person may well believe (incorrectly) that “it’s too late for me.” Maybe addiction isn’t just a bad habit, but living with addiction can itself be a bad habit.  Somehow the ability to imagine a better life can become atrophied over time. Then you have the young addict who is too young to imagine him or herself at age 50 — they just can’t imagine becoming that wheezing “old man.” 

3. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” This is an attitude of unrelenting pessimism.  Perhaps the addict might see that the addiction is harmful and even see that it limits his options for the future.  But he simply lacks any faith that the future can be much better.  If not this addiction, then something else will defeat any hopes he might have of a better life.  Any optimistic inspiration for a better life is quickly suppressed, often to avoid the inevitable pain of future disappointment.  Why get your hopes up? It feels safer to just smoke another joint or cigarette, have another drink or pop another pill.

Addiction keeps you down.  It keeps you in a place of hopelessness. It offers a quick fix of relief that avoids the pain and inconvenience of recovery.  It immunizes you against any hope that a better life is possible — and hence against the dread of future disappointments.  The longer one habitually indulges in addiction, the more deeply one can become convinced that he personally does not deserve anything better.

I mentioned above that AA helped me get over my stubborn self-reliance. That was an opening to something much, much bigger. I not only learned to accept help from others, but, more importantly, in recognizing my own failings, I learned to see myself as just one among many flawed people. “Miraculously” I even grew the ability to see so many strengths in others, where I had previously imagined my own superiority! All this was of course a serious blow to my pride, an opening into humility. I’m still working on that!

Humility comes naturally when you need to face the harm you have done (to yourself and others) through the prideful independence of the past (which is closely related to addictions). Then that leads to the realization of God’s ;mercy, and the subsequent realization that one is a precious child of God. I have come to realize that God will always have unlimited love for me, in spite of the abuses of my past life! I have learned to face the realization that God wants me to have a joyful life of boundless love forever! But, dear reader, if you’re not already a Christian, you’ll need an explanation for this last paragraph. That will have to wait for the next post.

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