People are addicted to all kinds of things. Alcohol. Adderal. Caffeine. Cocaine. Food. Phones. Nicotine. Starving. Working. Gambling. Gaming. Exercise. Sex.
Addiction is an insidious beast. Addictive behaviors exist on a continuum. The need for a coffee fix is certainly different than selling your soul for a hit of cocaine, but as is often the case in life – most things taken to extremes can become problematic. Slowly and then all at once, someone convinced they were making their own choices becomes controlled. Left unchecked, addiction can obliterate relationships, suck bank accounts dry, and completely hijack lives.
Hallmarks of addiction include:
Cravings for the vice of choice
Continued use of substance or behavior despite adverse consequences
A loss of control and inability to cut back or completely curtail the problematic action
Consumed and preoccupied, people struggling with addiction develop a myopic focus on their drug of choice. Over time, a higher dose is required to yield the same level of satisfaction. Soon, their lives begin to shrink. The addictive behavior or substance takes precedence over other important priorities.
When people think about addiction, I posit that we often focus too much on the wrong things. With addiction, symptoms alone don't tell the whole story. Symptoms are mere signals that something is awry. Treatment targets behavior, but this is a flimsy solution unless we understand and address what underlies and drives destructive actions.
Addictions, of all sorts, are attempts at solving problems. The justice system punishes addicts. The medical system scolds them and admonishes, "Stop acting this way. Try harder." Instead of asking solely about symptoms, perhaps we should start inquiring, "Why the pain?" Addictions are strategies to self-medicate. Too often, people who are trying to help confuse consequences with causes. Addictions are about escape – from self, emotions, memories, and reality. They are a tool to cope with boredom, pain, confusion, disappointment, betrayal, anxiety, anger, hurt, and grief. Jaded cynics may warn you that addicts are liars. I believe that a far more productive, compassionate, and realistic reframe is that people contending with addictive tendencies are deceived by mental distortions and are compelled to compulsive action out of intense desperation.
To truly heal, the individual grappling with addiction has to reach a breaking point of being sick and tired of being sick and tired. The truth is recovery is bloody hard. People must ultimately be ready and wanting to change for themselves—not because someone is telling them they have to or because someone else wants them to. No one can recover for anyone else. It is up to the person fighting the battle in his/her mind to do the heavy lifting of healing. This can be painful, heartbreaking, and create a sense of helplessness for the people who love a person engaging in self-destructive behavior. At times, life-saving emergency intervention is required to keep someone in the throes of addiction alive, but in the long run, someone who is struggling must ultimately make his/her own choice to reclaim their life. In the end, they, and they alone, will decide how they want to live. When someone is reticent or ambivalent about committing to the change process, he or she may cycle through a revolving door of treatment. This arduous process can be mystifying and maddening for the people around them.
For most, recovery is a lifelong journey. Proclivity toward a certain behavior or substance, particularly at times of heightened stress, becomes an Achilles heel. The hard work of later stages of this journey—maintenance and relapse prevention—are often invisible to the outside, but the effort required to continue to take the" best next step" still takes a considerable amount of work.
It may be convenient for your ego to "other" people struggling with addiction. People don't want to associate themselves with the stereotyped images of "addicts" that they have construed in their mind: a prostitute with sallow skin and sunken in eyes strung out on coke standing on the street corner or a homeless drunk man under the bridge wreaking of a stench of scotch and sweat. Yet, the reality is that you maybe have more in common with people whose lives have been overrun by addiction than you think. They are laughing with you at happy hour. They are running next to you on the treadmill at the gym. They work in the office adjacent to yours. They are your colleagues, cousins, friends, and favorite celebrities. Perhaps, when you're willing to take a painfully honest look in the mirror, they look more like you than you want to think.
Should someone else read this?
Don’t miss pure-signal-no-noise posts like this one:
If there is someone in your life who would benefit from things like better sleep, improved relationships, strategies for managing stress, and becoming more self-aware invite them to the inbox party. Finding Joy may be the gentle nudge they need to help improve their EQ.