I want you to participate in a little experiment. Close your eyes, and think about a time in your life when you were really happy. Now, I’d like you to think of the word “addict”. What comes to mind? Be honest. I’m sure many of you envisioned a skinny, possibly homeless person, looking desperate for the next “fix”. You’re not alone in your conception of what addiction looks like, but you may be surprised to learn that most addicts are labelled as “functional addicts”. They are not on the margins of society, but instead are people we encounter every day. They are our doctor, our teacher, our neighbor, our parent, our sibling, or even our spouse. Addiction is defined as the continued use of a psychoactive drug, or the repetition of behavior despite its adverse effects.
In his Ted Talk entitled “The Power of Addiction and The Addiction of Power”, Gabor Mate suggests that in order to understand addiction, we need to approach the issue from a different perspective. He says that we needn’t ask ourselves “what is wrong with the addiction”, but rather “what is right about the addiction.” This reframing of the question allows us to interpret what the addict is getting from the “addiction” that (s)he doesn’t have naturally. Addicts get a release from pain, a sense of inner peace although temporary, or possibly a sense of control.
Addiction comes in many forms, and some are more socially acceptable than others. There’s drug and alcohol addiction, gambling and sex addictions, shopping addiction, internet addiction, and what we see more and more of today: addiction to social media. The most destructive addiction on a global scale may be the addiction to power and influence. I’m sure after reading through that itemized list, many of you started to feel a little uncomfortable. Well, that discomfort is an everyday feeling that others, like me, who suffer from less socially acceptable addictions face. In past posts, I’ve spoken openly about my battles with drugs and alcohol, and how even now that I’m 16 years clean and sober, I still face a constant struggle to live a healthy life. I can’t tell you how many times throughout the years I’ve had someone say to me: “Just limit yourself to one or two drinks.” If only it were that simple! I have no problems with gambling, food, or shopping, so it’s the same as if I were to say: “Just stop buying lottery tickets”, or “Just have 2 potato chips, or “Just buy one skirt, you don’t need two.”
I thought it might be beneficial to open a window into the mind of this addict so that you can getter better insight into how addiction is “cunning, baffling, and powerful”. Over the years I’ve spent many hours sitting in 12-step meetings and in all that time, the best definition I’ve heard is: “An addict is a megalomanic with an inferiority complex.” When social drinkers pick up a drink, they unwind, relax, and sometimes become a little more animated. When I pick up a drink, it’s for one purpose only: to fill an empty space in me, to shut off my mind. I never drank to get drunk. I used drugs and alcohol to gain a sense of belonging that had been absent for most of my life. Asking me to have only one or two drinks and thus limit my feelings of belonging, is next to impossible. For me, drugs and alcohol were always about immediate gratification, damn the consequences. The irony was that I used my addictions as a means to connect with others but the result was always a distancing from others, as I slipped further into myself and the consequences of my behavior pushed people further away.
After many failed attempts, addiction counseling at treatment centres, visits to psychiatrists and therapists, something finally snapped and I’d accepted that the way I was living my life was no longer sustainable. I can only speak for myself when I say that sitting in a room talking to other people who have the same brain, the same behaviors, and the same frustrations was the only way I could maintain some semblance of sobriety. When I walked into my first AA meeting, it was like finally finding the sense of belonging I’d been searching for using drugs and alcohol. I had days in my first few years of sobriety where I would literally be hanging on minute by minute, doing everything I could to distract myself from my addiction. The one thing I am sure of is that even my worst day sober is better than my best day using.
So, what’s it like today now that I’ve got 16 years, one day at a time, under my belt? I am reminded constantly that even though I’m not using drugs and alcohol today, my addiction is sitting in the back of my brain doing push-ups, and getting stronger each day. If I’m naive enough to pick up again, that addiction will ramp up to speed and begin from where I suppressed it 16 years ago. This brings me back to Gabor Mate’s reframing of addiction. What was I getting from drugs and alcohol that I was missing in my life? Coming to terms with the childhood sexual abuse in my past has afforded me the opportunity to take a look at my addictions in a new light. When a child is sexually abused, two things happen. One, there is an immediate disassociation of the “self” and normal development ceases. Also, the child begins to look at everything in his/her life through the lens of shame. The statistics are shocking in that an overwhelming majority of adults in addiction treatment programs are survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Even more disturbing are the numbers in the general population. 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 5 boys, are victims of childhood sexual abuse.
I have no scientific proof to support that the abuse I experienced as a child led to my drug and alcohol addiction starting in my early teens and running rampant as I got older. The more I unravel my past and the abuse, the more I see a young child who not only lost his innocence but also lost any sense of belonging. I was reminded of how tenuous my sobriety is just this past weekend. I was struggling with feelings of worthiness, and this caused me to spiral into feeling that I didn’t fit in or belong. Alone, and filled with pity and shame, I headed towards the local bar to drink these feelings away. As I was walking down the street, some kind of divine intervention told me to head right back home and sit quietly and meditate. I managed to stay sober one more day, but I was terrified how powerful the feelings to throw it all away and to just say “screw this” were. This morning when I was reading my book of daily meditations, I came across I great quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt that nicely articulates what I need to accept if I’m going to defend myself against future self-destructive thinking. “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
For me, the antidote to shame, self-doubt, envy, and anger, always lies in “gratitude”. If I can learn to simply accept the trauma from my childhood and the role of addiction in my life as things to be grateful of for making me into the person I am today, and as gateways to help me grow into a person who can make a meaningful contribution to this world, then I will indeed by “happy, joyous, and free.”