Looking for love in all the wrong places, in a bottle, a needle, an orgasm, a casino, a shopping mall. Whatever our substance or behavior of choice, we hope that this time it will fill the emptiness in our soul, but the hole doesn’t get filled, and the behavior goes on and on. By the time we realize we are hurting ourselves, we are already well into the grips of addiction.
What compels our mind to repeat behavior that we want to stop? To keep us motivated to survive, nature loaded us up with sensations of pleasure and pain. Because the pleasure of eating and making babies is built so deeply into our biological reward system, when we can satisfy these pleasure centers, we feel we are on the right track. We humans are clever, though, and have found substances and other addictions that hijack the brain’s pleasure-reward system, giving us jolts of pleasure without advancing nature’s original intentions. The instant gratification from a drug or addictive behavior bedazzles us into overlooking destructive results, such as broken relationships, disease, ruined careers, accidents and prison. While those around us become convinced we are hurting ourselves, we continue to feel charged up about our behavior, defending our right to fulfill our pleasure, and denying we’re causing any harm to ourselves or others.
From time to time all of us experience the pain and emptiness of living. When these feelings are especially powerful, we feel compelled to avoid or dampen the pain. Every one of us struggles in our own way to relieve the anxiety of life, whether by watching television, talking with a friend, going out for a run, sleeping or reaching for an addictive substance.
Most of us learned ways to escape bad feelings by watching our parents. Whenever dad came home from work he reached for a beer. Whenever mom was feeling edgy she reached for a tranquilizer, or went shopping. When it’s time for us to face adult pressures we resort to the habits we learned as children.
Some of the ways we ease anxiety are better than others, either carrying us towards a better tomorrow or tearing us down. When we ease our suffering with an addictive substance, we get only temporary relief, creating a void that we try to fill again and again. Some addictions grab hold of our nerves faster than others, and once hooked, become difficult to change. Heroin and crack cocaine are rapidly addictive, seducing us with their promise for the ultimate high, and then reconstructing our nervous system to demand more and more.
When we take drugs like cocaine, heroin and alcohol, pleasurable neurotransmitters flood our brain. To handle this flood, our nerve cells quickly grow additional receptors, forcing us to take a larger dose in order to experience the same buzz. As we take the increased dose, our nerves grow still more receptors. As the addiction digs in, our nerve cells demand more, and without our fix we may feel severe anxiety, deep depression, nausea and an inability to experience even the simplest pleasure. Once addicted, we must maintain our level of intake just to break even. What started out as an exciting high, ends up as a desperate struggle to stay out of the darkness of withdrawal.
Alcoholism creates special problems, because our culture accepts alcohol, even though it is highly addicting. Like other addicting substances, it kills (driving accidents and overdoses), maims (liver and artery disease, and fetal injuries from drinking during pregnancy), and damages families (abandoned and abused children, abusive relationships). Cigarette smoking at first seems more innocent. Smokers hold responsible jobs, maintain relationships, and raise families. Yet cigarette smoking is a cruel addiction, that progressively reduces the quality of our health and ultimately cuts our life short.
Nature has built into us powerful pleasure centers, expecting us to eat to keep our body alive and have sex to perpetuate our species. These activities trigger so much pleasure we can become over-focused on them, and become addicted to food or sex, leading to self destructive behavior that crowds out other dimensions of our lives.
Other natural body functions trigger powerful cascades of hormones and sensations. When we become angry or afraid, our body responds with a fight-or-flight response that captivates our attention and sends our mind and body into an ancient pattern. While these responses were valuable for survival in the wild, in modern life we have developed an awkward relationship with our fight-or-flight responses. As we grow up, we may form an addictive relationship to these responses, actively provoking them through rage, thrill and risk seeking and self mutilation.
Breaking addictive patterns
There are so many obstacles to stopping addiction, it’s a wonder anyone succeeds. When stopping, we must put up with enormous anxieties and stresses, the very things that drove us to the addiction in the first place. Somehow we need a second chance, to unlearn old patterns and learn new ones. For many addicts, we are only ready to change after we hit bottom, when we have run out of excuses, and it’s obvious that our old way is not working. By that time so much may have been destroyed. For alcoholics we may have already wrecked our marriage, our children and our body. For cigarette smokers, hitting bottom is often too late.
We use our addictive behavior as a quick fix to some relentless need in our soul. The more we shut down these deep needs with substances or addictive behaviors, the less we know about ourselves. We must learn what pain we are trying to numb, or what void we are trying to fill, and then learn ways to relieve our internal pressures in healthier more long lasting ways, such as improving self-esteem, learning to soothe our anxiety and fear and finding a deeper meaning to our life.
The longer we allow addiction to be our main tool, the more options we cut off. We burn out supportive family and friends, and forget or never learn other less destructive solutions to our problems. Now, as we struggle to end addiction, we must rebuild our bridges and learn new methods of survival. Alcoholics Anonymous and other Twelve Step programs teach us the basics of connecting responsibly with our supportive social network and also give us tools to get through our days and minutes without substances. Trusting and relying on a higher power helps us heal us from the painful loneliness of our addiction.
Meditation teaches us about the relentless pressure of our thought process, and gradually shows us how to work with our own mental patterns more effectively. Counseling helps us not only change a behavior, but also as a tool for growth and change.
The energy we have been bottling up with our addictions must come out somewhere. To manage our transition, we can harness our energy more positively, in activities such as running or prayer, substituting a positive “addiction” for one that has been destroying our lives. Artists, actors and musicians when in the flow of creativity, experience a sublime pleasure that may be deeply rewarding, and extremely hard work can also provide feelings of euphoria.
When we substitute less destructive behavior, we may be falling into our old addictive pattern in a new disguise. Excess focus on work may relieve our need for substances, but may crowd out other dimensions of our lives.
We all want pleasure, love and peace, but for some of us these emotional rewards seem attainable only through substances or addictive behaviors. Once these behaviors are in place, they take on a life of their own, and create momentum that is difficult to break. When we realize that the way we’ve been living is taking us further from our goals, we look for ways to change, digging deeper into our mind, heart and soul, learning about our patterns, and substituting new ones. Because addictions begin and are sustained in the lonely isolation of our own needs, we must grow beyond the limits of our own satisfaction and join a larger community, seeking agents of change in our individual, social and spiritual life.
See also: Alcohol, Anxiety, Beliefs, Meditation, Obsession, Rehab, Soothing, Twelve Steps
Consuming Passions by Bob Forman (out of print)
The Recovery Book by Al J. Mooney, M.D., Arlene Eisenberg and Howard Eisenberg
Waking up just in time by Abraham J. Twerski, M.D.
Alcoholics Anonymous (also known as “The Big Book”)
Positive Addiction by William Glasser
Care of the soul by Thomas Moore