The word ‘addiction’ started life in Roman times. A slave was addicted to a master by a formal contract. In mediaeval times monks wre similarly ‘addicted’ to God. In both the case of slave and monk, the whole being was given away. One’s will, one’s desires, one’s idetity were no longer one’s own. Every thought and action was under the sway of Master or God. One had given oneself away, one had lost oneself. All choices, all decisions such as they were in a very limited spectrum were determined by the Other.
Similarly, today, we talk of addicts to substances or behaviours as having lost their self, having given themselves away. All thoughts, feelings, actions are determined by the centrality of the Master, God, Other. Just as every aspect of a slave’s or monk’s life was determined beyond themselves, so the modern addict is enslaved in every aspect of their life to the object of their addiction.
That is why those who talk of the addict’s responsibility and choice are not only cruel, they are ignorant of the nature of addiction. Addiction is a state of being in which one has disowned oneself. A slave would have many moments of hating the Master, of wishing to be free, yet they were bound firmly. A monk may waver in his faith, wish to be free of the strict demands of God, but having given himself over he must endure.
We do indeed talk today of an adict’s being enslaved to the object of their addiction. We may say too, for instance, that alcohol is a drinker’s god.Yet there is a big difference between today’s addicts and the original ones of slavery and monasticism. An addict today can become free.
The experience of most addicts who start on the road to freedom is important. Often, usually, by will power alone they can stop the behaviour they wish to be free of. But then they relapse. Clever scientists suggest that the brain has ‘pathways’ which strongly affect our behaviour. Addictive pathways are literally, biologically laid down in the brain and are powerful. Linkages between the parts of the brain that control impulses are weakened. The good news is that these ‘pathways’ can be altered. The brain is said to be ‘plastic’. It is not fixed, but constantly changing in the light of new learning.
Some evidence suggests that relying on will power alone to defeat addiction can be counter-productive for every time you fight the brain pathways they fight back! There are evangelical claims that such and such a therapy – 12 steps for instance – is the one and only way to ‘defeat’ addiction. Yet words like ‘defeat’ suggest fighting, using yourself to fight yourself. All addicts know this dreadful experience of inner struggle, trying not to do what they don’t want to do while at the same time wanting to do it!
Another aspect of addiction, depending on how long it has lasted, is that every part of life has adapted to it. With the object of desire as the central command all else revolves around it: relationships, work, money, leisure, love. An addict may function in society, have a job and family, but she will place these as second to the object of desire. That is why we hear of ‘trusted’ employees stealing from work, husbands stealing from wives, betrayal, broken promises, bankruptcy. Substance addicts will slowly be committing suicide via the damage to their bodies. Actual suicide may occur in the case of addicts who have struggled so hard for so long against themselves and lost.
An addict who starts young will never learn healthy relationship and social skills, monetary skills, impulse control skills. Recovering from addiction needs much, much more than simply stopping. It may mean learning from scratch what was never learned through natural maturation. On the other hand, those who have been addicted for a short period may have the foundations from earlier life to return to and build upon.
It is often overlooked that there is a strong recognition that most addicts recover by themselves, without any input from specialist services or support groups (and it is sadly worth pointing out too that many who enter specialist services and support groups do not recover. There may be something very naive – if very profitable – in private clinics’ offering 12 weeks ‘recovery’ cures). Young people who are addicted in their energetic teens and 20s are known to ‘mature out’ when they start a family, settle into employment and replace one way of being with a healthier way of being. The famous study of Vietnam soldiers, addicted to heroin in Nam, shows that 80% of them recovered naturally when they returned from the war to their families. A ‘bad’ thing is wiped out by a ‘good’ thing.
One of the great potential benefits of any recovery method is that the addict has taken responsibility for owning their condition. Remember, there are many millions of addicts who deny their condition at first: some will go to the grave denying it. For some, and by now means all, group meetings provide a weekly or daily regularity that has been missing in life. For some, by no means all, the very sociability of groups takes the addict from the well known deep self-centred thinking to the beginning of entering the world of social interaction. These benefits, rather than the particular programme, may be what accounts for their success for some, but by no means all.
There is absolutely no such thing as a typical addict. Somebody with an addiction has a unique history, is a unique person. Yet one may perhaps allude to a certain common problem facing some in the early stages of recovery. It’s almost like dread. You’e done three, six, twelve months but you feel empty, lost, nothing grabs your interest. Not uncommonly there is a state of clinical depression and/or anxiety. Underlying mental health conditions which brought about addiction in the first place may surface. These can be treated clinically. But there is also often a deep unease at the level of being. After years sealed off from life, what is life? What is my life? I’ve stopped drinking or gambling or my sex addiction but my life doesn’t feel any better for it. What’s the point? Remember that such feelings will amost always be accompanied by intense negative feelings of guilt, shame and bitter self-recrimination.
The bad news is that there is no magic answer, whatever evangelical gurus or sellers of this or that method say. Addiction is every bit as devestating as cancer in those cases where statistics show the numbers that sadly don’t make it out. The better news is that most people do recover, more often on their own than not. And one thing seems to help above all others. Whether with or without support, it’s finding healthier, deep meanings to life. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived most of the second world war in concentration camps because he was used as a doctor. He wrote a book* in which his central insight is that the dreadful conditions of the camps brought people to their kneees, physically, mentally and spiritually Yet some died very quickly. Others in identical circumstances survived. Those who survived, he said, had deep within them some core meanng to their lives; for some it was religion, for others it was their family outside the camps, for some it was music or literature or writing, for some it was helping others. This idea of having a deep meaning for being (or reasons to be alive) is seen as crucial to surviving the sufferings life throws our way.
Addicts by the nature of addiction have developed a specific sense of time peculiar to addiction. The time of the ordinary world is filled with boredom or threat, but the immediacy of engagement with the object of desire shuts out that ordinary world. In the ordinary world the biggest dread is not of pain but of meaningless, something much deeper and more intense than boredom. Unease with time is relieved by triggering the addictive process which provides not only a relief from unease but a sharp and powerful pulse of energetic feeling. (This process is described particularly acutely in the experience of playing electronic gambling machines: it’s called ‘being in the machine zone’. Note the word being).
Recovery has to come to terms with recovery from that addictive way of handling time. It means finding meaning in long term feeling, thinking, doing, being. For some it may need no more than becoming ‘addicted’ to the love of one’s children and grandchildren. For others, trainspotting is enough. But after the years of fury, and the early period of srtuggling recovery, it is true that, after all, time heals.
* Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning