Addiction is a Mystique and a Mystery
Addiction is defined as “the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, such as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.” What makes so many of us prone to addiction in its various forms? What causes us to be open to this enslavement? And how do we begin to undo it?
Human beings become addicted because we are complex. Addictions are like a jigsaw puzzle where all the pieces are on the table but no one quite knows what the whole picture should be. Here are the main pieces:
The addictive substance or behavior
Social pressure for and against addiction
A vulnerable psyche
The X factor
It’s important to understand all five elements, because leaving anyone out leads to false hope and tragically, temporary cures (or no cure at all). If you have a family member who is an addict, don’t form an opinion until you have looked at every piece of the puzzle. You don’t want to fall into the trap of blame and shame, which is always waiting when addiction starts creating intense stress in a relationship.
The addictive substance or behavior. This piece of the puzzle has always grabbed the headlines. A hundred years ago it was “demon” rum and whiskey. In the fifties, the demon became heroin, now it’s crack. In reality, no substance is a demon. The ability of a drug to induce pleasure isn’t an evil. There must be another element, or a number of them, to turn any substance addictive. Millions of people try cocaine, heroin, LSD, and marijuana and then walk away. The ones who can’t walk away are different, and it’s that difference we must isolate and heal. The same goes for addictive behavior such as overeating or craving power or the need to control.
Brain chemistry. Drugs change the brain by affecting receptors in your brain cells that exist for pleasure and the cessation of pain. If you take any substance long enough, the brain adapts by altering its receptors, and then the trouble begins. The burned-out addict is actually a burned-out brain. When pleasure receptors are overloaded, then they no longer transmit signals of pleasure. Instead, the addict finds himself fending off pain. This becomes the chief reason for getting high, and it marks a far more desperate phase of addiction. When your whole purpose in life is not to feel agony, existence becomes hollow and meaningless.
Social pressure. Although we all have an image in our minds of the secretive addict shooting up or drinking alone, society always plays a part. Cocktail parties are social events that permit people to escape social rules. They are temporary vacations from inhibition. They are also group bonding sessions, as is passing a joint. Social pressure is complicated. It can work to encourage belonging, but it can also throw you out of the group and make you an outcast. Addicts experience both sides. Before they are labeled addicts and shunned by society, they went through an early phase of trying to belong. The net result is a deep confusion about where they stand with family and friends.
Vulnerable psyche. Addicts aren’t weaker than other people, nor are they morally deficient, irrational, stupid or undisciplined. All those labels are used by outsiders who want to judge against the addict. If you discard moral self-righteousness, the reality is that addiction preys upon some kind of psychological wound. It seems to cure the wound at first. The first high is often described by addicts as a kind of miracle cure or religious euphoria. Their reaction is extreme because at a deeper level they are seekers of healing. A hidden trauma or unconscious need has been searching for a cure. It quickly becomes obvious, however, that addiction mimics a cure—it is actually only a distraction or an empty escape. What the addict really wants—a sense of meaning, a grip on reality, a self that doesn’t feel impaired—still hasn’t been found.
The X factor. Having figured out the first four pieces of the puzzle, a great deal of good can be done. Addicts can be brought to healing and self-knowledge. They can be weaned off substances and their brains (slowly) returned to a more balanced chemical state. Yet there remains the X factor. Call it a predisposition, karma, the unconscious or a perverse urge to self-destruction. For some addicts, the journey of addiction is existential. They want to experience a kind of “left hand path,” to pick up a term from Indian spirituality. Wrestling with the devil tempts them into a private melodrama of the soul. The lure of temptation is seductive to everyone, not just addicts. Ultimately we want to come through to the other side. The point isn’t self-destruction (except in some rare cases), but finding safety and a better reason to be alive.
Added up together, these five pieces give us understanding about what creates addicts. They also explain why we are such an addicted society. As the result of more leisure, money and the absence of old moral strictures, along with a craving for distraction, modern America is an addict’s paradise. The term is used ironically—in which we are all free to define our own existence. In other words, we are free to explore human complexity. This isn’t to make light of addicts. They can cause enormous harm to themselves and others (always remembering that the greatest harm by far isn’t caused by exotic or illegal substances but by alcohol).
It turns out that there will never be one picture of addiction, even when all the pieces are on the table. Each addict is unique. The pieces fit together differently from one person to another, and in the end, the X factor counts for a lot. As long as addiction enjoys a mystique that is at once forbidden, criminal, tempting and scary, no one will discover a rational solution. Too much of our irrational side comes into play. Hard as it may be, coming to terms with any addiction means coming to terms with the complexity of a life journey, with all of its dark passages and hidden motivations.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction see below for further information and treatment options:
Sierra Tucson Treatment Center 1-800-842-4487 or from the U.K. 0800 891166
The Meadows 1-800-MEADOWS
Free Addiction Helpline 1-866-569-7077
Gamblers Anonymous (213) 386-8789
Stopping Overshopping (917) 885-6887