A young man talks about his inability to stop using cocaine, “I need it to stay awake to stay safe on the street.” The fact that he cannot afford housing, due to his cocaine use, does not seem to impact his use. A woman’s adult children tell her they won’t invite her to their Christmas gathering if she does not stop drinking. She spends Christmas alone. A young woman tells her boyfriend that if she catches him with heroin, their relationship is over, and he won’t be allowed to see their two-year-old son. “I’ve tried detox, then re-hab, then 12 steps. Nothing can keep me from using.” He is now living in a rooming house in another neighbourhood.
When it comes to addictions, particularly drug or alcohol addictions, society has strong moral judgements. Addicts are seen as lacking self-control, focused on their own pleasure, loving themselves more than others, and are just generally, morally deficient.
When people talk to me about addiction, we may talk about frequency and amounts used to determine physical impact and to measure success when looking at what amount the individual wishes to be using. I may refer to the DSM (Diagnostic Statistical Manual) to determine whether the individuals current use is within the criteria for diagnosis. When people continue to use more than they want to, they often talk to themselves about their moral reprehensibility. “I’m a bad person.” I have no self-discipline.” “What’s wrong with me?”
But if we start with the assumption that humans are rational creatures whose primary concern is their own survival, then we need to assume that people made decisions regarding their behaviours and substance use for a reason. Sometimes, for a very good reason.
I once heard someone talk about alcohol as saving the life of many members of her community. This might sound insane, unless you understand why people turn to high uses of drugs, alcohol, or other behaviours. The people I talk to about addiction use it to ‘fix’ something that is wrong, emotionally, or sometimes, physiologically. When talking to people who’ve had trauma experiences, they talk see their substance use as a way to avoid re-living their trauma, which they believe, would drive them to suicide. Some use substances to stay awake and avoid nightmares, some to avoid chronic physical pain, others use it to block out memories.
Others use it to ‘balance’ something they feel is ‘off’ internally, sometimes later discovering an underlying, untreated mental illness or other health condition.
Some people use alcohol, drugs or other behaviours because, as young people, they were never provided with tools to address conflict or stress in their lives.
We’re conditioned to avoid pain. This avoidance is hardwired into our survival instinct. Some substances have chemical effects that ‘hook’ us, even when the substances are causing more pain than the things that we are trying to ‘medicate.’ Sometimes we’ve come to believe that even though our circumstances may have changed from when we first started using substances (we are no longer in an abusive relationship, or we now have supports around us) that we don’t have the strength to face the underlying pain.
Recently, I heard someone talk about addiction as a relationship. The idea was, not to try to define which activities are considered bad, or how much to use, but to look at the substance or behavior as something you are in relationship with. Like all relationships, there may be good times and there may be bad times.
When looking at behaviors or substance use, ask yourself how is it going for you? Are you getting as much out of the relationship as you are putting into it? Are you able to negotiate the relationship (i.e. how often you ‘see’ each other, etc.) or do you feel that you don’t have a say anymore.
Is this relationship adding to the aspects of your life that are most important to you?
What do the people you trust, who care about you and want the best for you, say about this relationship? Are they concerned? Are you in the ‘honeymoon’ stage? How would you know if you should be concerned about the relationship? If you are unsure about this, relationship and at all worried, talk to a counselor or friend who is not in this same kind of relationship (or maybe used to be, but is no longer) with this behavior or substance, to get feedback. Notice your reaction to feedback about this relationship. Are you feeling enraged, irritated or defensive? What do you think that means?
I genuinely believe that shame is not helpful for those who are looking to change their behaviors or relationships with behaviors or substances.
I find that people who are looking for a change are often immobilized by their own shame. They fear more rejection from others, which sometimes results in dishonesty about their behaviour. Looking at what the relationship with a behaviour or substance is doing for you, without moral judgments or shame, is much more likely to allow you to consider what is worth changing and where you might need supports.
For a fantastic read about the causes of addiction, check out, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” by Gabor Matte*
*Please note: I have signed on as an affiliate sales person for McNally Robinson which means that if you click on the above link, and decide to purchase the book I’ve recommended, I will receive an affiliate’s fee. I only recommend books I have read and believe to be worth recommending.
Also check out Men & Trauma- Anger, Anxiety, Addiction & Depression
Check out Mental Illness – A Relationship Story
See also 7 Ways to Love a Volcano