We all have ways of dealing with the more uncomfortable aspects of our lives, but what happens when our coping becomes dysfunctional and destructive? This article explores some of the deeper, more painful aspects of addiction and proposes a realistic and structured way out to freedom.
A vicious cycle.
There are few things more painful that the hopeless cycle of addiction. The knowing that this behaviour is unhelpful, irrational or even destructive is often not enough to overcome it and move on to a life of freedom. Whether it is ourselves trapped in a behaviour we cannot escape from, or someone close to us battling with something that to all intents and purposes seems to serve no purpose, the frustration and hurt that results is very real and affects nearly everyone in our society on some level.
One aspect of the problem lies in the fact that for many addictions the particular behaviour is – in moderation – acceptable in our society. Food addictions, sex addictions, gambling and other forms of risk-taking are all based on behaviours that form part of our normal everyday life. Substances such as tobacco and alcohol are tolerated, having had an historical significance, and which are very much part of our culture today. Even the more serious drug addictions, such as cocaine and heroin are regarded by some as glamorous or rebellious in some way. The message we are given then, is that while we cannot avoid contact with many of these things in our society, it is up to us as individuals to engage with them in a responsible way.
So what is it that makes over-indulgence in any of these behaviours more likely in one person than another? Given that we are overwhelmed with messages about why these things are bad for us the answer is quite controversial: The key to understanding any addiction is in looking at how it benefits us. When we are in pain, distress or feeling insecure our first response is to find a way to feel better. Whether searching for a biscuit, reaching for a pint or pinning your hopes on a big win, the neurochemical response is a release of the feel-good hormone dopamine associated with feelings of pleasure. For those of us who experience deep-seated pain much of the time, such behaviours protect us from being overwhelmed by negative emotion.
Another way that we protect ourselves from pain, especially if it relates to our expectations of other people, is to build up emotional walls that keep others at bay. Whilst this is an effective protective strategy, it also creates and adds to any existing feelings of loneliness. We may rely on food to keep us company, or engage in a habitual behaviour to distract from the pain. With some substances, the chemical effects of alcohol or drugs help us to temporarily let down those walls, meaning that we can get the connection with others that we may have been really longing for. On the other hand if we struggle with low self-esteem and find social interactions agonising, the addiction can provide relief and make us feel better able to interact with others.
An unconscious trap.
Sadly much of this reasoning is unconscious and many of us caught in the cycle of addiction, whether it manifests as intense or mild, are unaware of the way that we try to make ourselves feel better. Further, we are often only aware of the urge to behave that way when we are prevented from following through, and the negative feelings associated with not satisfying that impulse only confirm to us that quitting the behaviour is bad and to be avoided. What is also distressing, both to the addict and the onlooker, is that the underlying emotional pain is never truly overcome by the addiction. It may be temporarily covered over with a fleeting moment of sensory pleasure, but the lingering pain only intensifies once the ‘high’ fades away. This is made worse by the fact that we may also become traumatised by the addictive behaviour and its consequences. Indeed it often seems as if there is no way out.
A structured path.
Given that the experience of addiction is often fraught with confusion and deception, it is all too easy for the path to recovery to become muddled too. Getting free involves preparation and planning, as well as a realistic assessment of whether it is possible to make a commitment. This is where it is helpful to get support, either in the form of self-education – many people do successfully quit an addiction by themselves – or with the calm and focused guidance of someone trained to see beyond the puzzling contradictions that addiction creates. Working through a systematic approach with someone who recognises the real hurt and distress of addiction creates a foundation of empathy and trust. Work is done at a steady pace, ensuring that you are supported and challenged throughout, giving you a greater sense of confidence in your ability to take control of the addiction and to take control of your life.
Take some time to consider the following questions for yourself. Take care of yourself as you do so, as uncomfortable issues may arise. If you would like some support in sorting through your discoveries please feel free to get in touch.
- Can you identify any addictive behaviours in your life? They may be more or less obvious, but you are likely to identify something you feel is not entirely healthy.
- What are the benefits of these addictive tendencies? Think about how you cope with your difficult emotions and how you relate to others.
- Have you ever tried to overcome these behaviours? How successful were you? What unconscious patterns might have made this process more difficult?
- What preparations would you need to make in order to make that commitment to stop? What would help you feel more confident in your ability to live your life in freedom?
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