Many of us, perhaps even most of us, have or still struggle with being trapped in some kind of addictive behavior. It can be using a substance such as alcohol, marijuana, cocaine, cigarettes, food, coffee, or sugar. It can also be a person addiction – being dependent on someone for love, approval, and attention or its opposite – chronically avoiding closeness. We can also avoid our fears, shame, and shock by staying busy, overworking, shopping, or obsessively needing control, power, or seeking multiple sexual partners.
How do we know if some behavior is an addiction?
The bottom line: An addiction is some kind of chronic behavior that keeps us from feeling the fears, emptiness, and profound shame inside that we all have and it has a destructive impact on our lives. Most of the time, we may not even know what we are avoiding because the behavior is so automatic. Or sometimes, we don’t recognize that it may be an addiction because it is socially acceptable and has benefits such as feeling sexually free and continually stimulated and entertained, or using substances as part of being with friends.
Andrew felt more comfortable being with people when he drank. It was only after a year of intensive inner work that he came to realize that he was hiding his insecurities behind alcohol. He joined a twelve-step program, committed to becoming sober, and went to regular meetings even though he was initially reluctant to label himself as an “alcoholic.” He also committed to frequent growth seminars and regular individual therapy.
Daniela is desperate for love and easily feels panic at the slightest indication of rejection or lack of availability from her boyfriend. He shrinks away from the pressure he feels from her and finds excuses to distance herself. He does not know how to deal with her panicked little girl and feels guilty to take his own space. But after working with his own issues, he has become clear that he does not want to be her mother/father and is beginning to learn to set limits. Daniela is a person addict, objectifying the other person to be her rescuer from her feelings of emptiness and loneliness.
Oscar can only be with a woman when he feels that she is devoted to him and gives him unconditional attention and support. He is deeply involved in his work projects and feels threatened when he is with a woman who has her own autonomy and her own projects. The moment he feels that the woman is less than totally available, he pulls away and begins a new relationship. Oscar is a control addict.
Samuel smokes marijuana regularly. He has never considered this an addiction because for him, smoking is an aspect of his freedom and his carefree lifestyle. Plus he likes the relaxation, expansiveness, and insights that it gives him. When he doesn’t smoke, he feels much more anxiety and even has a tremor in his hands. He is using the marijuana to medicate his anxiety. The problem is that he is not aware or dealing effectively with this anxiety. Furthermore, his addiction is driving his girlfriend away because she feels he is not present when he smokes.
What allows us to kick our habit? When are we finally ready to confront and recover from our addictive behavior?
First of all, we have to become aware that we have an addiction and that it is having negative effects on our life. Andrew did not feel real when he drank, Daniel recognizes he is driving his girlfriend away with his desperate clinging, and Oscar is missing a deep intimacy in his life. All three have recognized that they have a troublesome addiction.
Secondly, we have to feel strongly motivated to stop because we realize that the cost of the addiction has become too great. Perhaps the cost is our health, relationships, self-esteem or creativity. We have to reach a point when the desire for growth is greater than the need for instant gratification; when we have found the ability to contain the anxiety and feelings of emptiness and helplessness that is covered by the addictive behavior.
Our addictions are compelling. They are more than just a habit that we can get rid of with discipline and determination. Most of the time, someone who tries to recover from an addiction without doing the deep inner work of exploring fears and shame will not succeed. It doesn’t last because as soon as life circumstances aggravate the anxiety inside, we tend to return to our addictive behavior.
Matthew has had a problem with alcohol binging for a long time. He does not drink regularly but whenever his life becomes too stressful, he spends days drinking excessively. He has been to rehab three times and each time, he was convinced that his problem was solved. When the programs were over, he was strongly encouraged to continue with a twelve step program and go to regular meetings. But he refused fully convinced that he did not have a disease or the need for support to stay sober. As soon as his work stress became overwhelming, he went back to binge drinking.
The third criterion for stopping an addiction, is reaching out for reliable support. Depending on what we are dealing with it can be a close friend but most of the time, it needs to be someone who has been through the process successfully and knows intimately what it means to quit. We need someone we can call anytime the pressure becomes too great, someone who is available and who can talk us through the anxiety and the compulsion to return to our addiction. In most cases, it needs to be a sponsor, someone who is connected to the twelve-step program. There are good alternatives to the twelve-step program, but most often, we need structure and there are no alternatives to the need for guidance, inspiration and reliable and dependable support.
Finally, in our experience, we also need to commit to exploring the roots of why we have escaped into our addiction. It is important to find a therapist who is trained to compassionately guide us through our fears and feelings of emptiness. This means not only understanding where our fears come from but also learning how to build a container to hold the fears when they arise.
Recovering from an addiction is a challenge. But when we recognize it, see how it is impacting our happiness, feel the motivation to become the person we are meant to be, and reach out for help, we can overcome it.