Have you ever felt like you have a “something” shaped hole in your life? Like there’s something missing but you just can’t quite put your finger on it? And, somehow you seem to know that that something is the secret ingredient that you absolutely need to have, do or be.
That something hole might look a whole lot like alcohol, drugs, gambling, sugar, food in excess, sex, shopping, gossip, co-dependent relationships . . . on and on it goes with a whole range of things we human beings can get up to …. you get the picture.
Welcome to obsession and addiction.
Addiction is a tricky word because most people don’t like to label themselves as an “addict”, an “alcoholic”, a “compulsive over-eater” etc. etc. Even people who are already in Recovery might not like to label a “harmless” handbag experience (repeated 52 times a year) as addiction.
That word addiction often brings up images of destitution and a low bottom existence that finds a person living in a park, unkempt and un-showered while swilling cheap alcohol from a bottle encased in a brown paper bag. Or you’re having a shot (of heroin for the uninitiated) every other hour just to function.
Those extremes are not the reality of addiction for most people. The average person struck by addiction lives an entirely normal life except for their propensity to search endlessly for the object of their desire. Mind you, the word desire doesn’t really cut it after a while.
What’s astonishing is how fast a person can go from a simple desire for something outside of themselves to ‘my very existence depends upon getting it’. People who are struck by addiction, seem to go straight from a want to a need without much pause. We seem to need that something with as much intensity and fervour as we do air.
In Maddie Lynne’s brilliant photo The Addict’s Breakfast she nails a few of the ways in which people turn to other things when we’re out of alignment. I’m all for having a fabulous time doing crazy stuff but when a want becomes a need I know I’m in trouble.
The types of addictions shown above (and any others you can think of) are fuelled by a mindset of lack where a person feels that they’re not ok unless their needing something is fulfilled. The predominant feeling is that “I’ll be better when I get / have / do ________ (fill in your favourite thing)”.
Generally speaking when we’re uncomfortable or have the feeling that we’re about to be uncomfortable we reach (or plan, plot and scheme) for something that might relieve our discomfort. Often times, those moments come along with a bunch of bad feelings like loneliness, discomfort, resentment, anger, jealousy and comparison of any kind. Those feelings along with a physical craving mean that we’ll reach for the familiar something to take the discomfort away.
When we do something often enough we create a pattern of behaviour that ensures that we pay attention to what it was that relieved our discomfort. Our brain and body perk up with the reward knowing that if we feel that way again we know how to fix it. This is the beginning of an obsession and then from there an addiction.
Pema Chodron says:
“All addiction stems from that moment where we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, to pad it, to do whatever it is that seems to ease the pain”
An interesting part of the addiction story is that there is an innate desire in us to want to change. A desire to confront the way we feel and then transform into something else. It’s like we’ve hypnotised ourselves into believing that change happens outside of us. But the problem with that is that using something outside of ourselves doesn’t empower us to realise that some substance or behaviour (think gambling, social media, pornography etc. ) is going to change how we really feel inside.
Interestingly, all that really happens is that the addiction drives us further from true change and transformation as human beings. The very thing that we think will solve our problems usually turns on us and creates infinitely more problems.
Here are some of the questions I might ask when a person thinks they may have a problem with addiction.
Is one or more of the following happening to you? (this is not an exhaustive list but a general guideline)
- an inability to control the amount of alcohol, drugs consumed or rewarding experiences you are engaging in
- a change in your personality
- an inability to control the frequency or length of time engaging in the behaviour (gambling, shopping, internet/social media)
- a craving or increased hunger or desire for alcohol, drugs or rewarding experiences
- constant planning to acquire the alcohol, drugs or rewarding experiences
- hiding of alcohol, drugs or rewarding experiences
- not recognising the onset of significant problems or change in behaviour
- breakdown of personal relationships because of alcohol, drugs or rewarding experiences
- a preoccupation of recurring thoughts about alcohol, drugs or rewarding experiences
- a persistent desire for alcohol, drugs or rewarding experiences over time
- excessive time lost in using alcohol, drugs or rewarding experiences
- excessive time in recovering from the effects including financial recovery
- neglect of responsibilities at home, school or work
- an altered evaluation of the benefits and harms associated with alcohol, drugs or rewarding experiences
- an inaccurate belief that problems experienced in one’s life are attributable to other causes or people
- an increase in depression, anxiety and/or emotional pain when unable to obtain alcohol, drugs or rewarding experiences
A good question to ask yourself is “if you’re not living the kind of life you’ve always dreamed of, do you think [alcohol, drugs or rewarding experiences] might have something to do with it?”
There is life after addiction. That life is called Recovery. It is available to everyone. It’s possible for everyone. The decision to pursue a life in recovery is an important and life-changing decision for anyone suffering from addiction.
Ongoing self-management is vitally important over the longer term but all recovery needs to start with support. It is almost impossible to recover from addiction without it.
Mutual support is available in most countries through 12-Step fellowships. There are 200+ 12-step fellowships across the world that address addiction to a huge range of substances and behaviours.
If 12-step is not for you there are also a wealth of professionally trained and certified professionals throughout the world.
If in doubt as to where to go for help reach out to your local doctor or medical facility.
Please leave comments here below.
In Australia you can contact Alcoholics Anonymous on 1300 22 22 22, Narcotics Anonymous on 1300 652 830 or look up any of the other amazing 12-step fellowships. There’s also support for other addiction or mental health issues available through lifeline.org.au and beyondblue.org.au
In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.