Whether I attribute it to something gone haywire in my orbitofrontal cortex, misaligned or misfiring opiate and dopamine receptors, or even the sexual violence incurred in my childhood, the answer always comes out the same--I am an addict. Being ensnared in an active addiction is a tortuous death spiral, a soul-sucking spiritual thirst, a cantankerous craving, an insatiable seduction, but most of, an anxiety-fueled obsession that’s all about self-negation.
I’m coming up on 18 years of being clean and sober, yet I’m ever so vigilant of how tenuous my sobriety can be. The longer I go without a drink or a drug, the more susceptible I am to getting lulled into complacency. It’s a daily reminder that while I’m going about rebuilding my life after drugs and alcohol, that snake called addiction is just off in the distance, slithering and snarling, waiting for me to take those first steps into the doorway of denial.
How can I describe what addiction is to someone who isn’t an addict? In my mind, the closest anyone has ever come to capturing the entrancing enticement of addiction is Dr. Vincent Felitti when he said: “It is hard to get enough of something that almost works.”
I used to think my struggles with addiction were all about my craving to fill an insatiable void inside me. I’m only beginning to understand how mistaken that thinking was. Addiction has more to do with what I’m trying to avoid than it does with any void inside me. In fact, I no longer subscribe to the belief that, like the hole in a doughnut, we all have an empty space inside of us that desires to be filled. It’s self-defeating going about your life thinking you’re in some way broken, or walking around with this aching cavern in your soul that screams out to be filled.
We are indeed all “whole”—The real issue lies in what, and whom, we permit to fill those crevices inside us. We’ve all been given limited space to work with, so if you want to welcome more joy, love, and forgiveness into your life, you’ll need to make space for it by purging some of the anger, hate, and self-pity from your life.
For years, I’ve wrestled with what recovery is supposed to look like. Are we ever really recovered from an addiction, or are we treading a path of recovering, of which we are given a daily, and sometimes hourly reprieve? Alcoholics Anonymous has held dominion over the recovery field and its 12-step offshoots for decades. And if you follow their direction, there is no such thing as cutting down, only cutting out. It feels almost blasphemous to second guess such a rigid direction that has managed to keep me sober this long, but I wonder if given the resources, support, and self-knowledge, if more addicts would internalize less shame, and thus have a better hope of recovery were a less stringent program in place.
This brings me back to the idea that addiction, a universal human condition, is simply a matter of not making space for other people and things in your life. Sometimes the volume is just turned up too high, and we fail to see the need to purge toxins from our soul. And these can take many forms—friends, family, substances, and behaviors. So how do we go about burrowing into our addictions and making room for goodness to enter our lives? It starts with getting honest with yourself and admitting that someone or something is standing in the way of you feeling whole. Next, you come to the realization that the addiction is merely a symptom to a much deeper problem in your soul. All the alcohol, drugs, shopping, work, and sex you use to numb your problem, in time, will no longer soothe the discomfort in you that can’t be silenced, only unearthed. At this point, you’ll need all the help you can get to fortify yourself to keep pushing through when its ever so easy to slide back into numbing and denying. Here’s when you’ll have to rely on the easiest “most difficult” thing in the world--forgiveness. You don’t have to be the person you were, but if you want any hope of wedging that addiction out of its foothold in your soul, you’ll need to find forgiveness for yourself and those who may have hurt you. And finally, once you’ve cleared that toxic space inside you and you’ve allowed joy and love to take its place, you’ll have to take responsibility to fight like hell to keep that addiction from slithering back in.
I’d like to leave you with beautiful words of Naguib Mahfouz: “The problem is not that the truth is harsh but that the liberation from the ignorance is as painful as being born. Run after truth until you’re breathless. Accept the pain involved in re-creating yourself afresh. These ideas will take a life to comprehend, a hard one interspersed with drunken moments.”