capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

We Still Don’t Understand Addiction

We still don’t understand addiction.

We still don’t understand its complexity—not really, anyway—because if we did, our society would not have such a visceral stigmatization towards the people who are struggling. We still don’t understand what causes it or why it happens to some people and not others or why it’s so unbelievably hard to recover from.

The problem with addiction is that it defies the “normal logic and rules” we tend to carry in life. Addiction steals our pragmatic logic of balance, morals, ethics, desires, and dreams. And with that, terrorizes souls, mercilessly and with a hungry vengeance.

We are allowed to be angry at that. Addiction results in devastating violence, countless suicides and homicides, broken families, and shattered relationships. It’s a terrifying and selfish and cunning disease. It is normal to get angry, confused, and resentful towards it.

We point fingers and blame the victims for choosing to use drugs in the first place. .After all, everyone knows drugs are “bad!” They should know better! We negate the fact, of course, that the most abused drug is alcohol (which is legal) closely followed by prescription drugs (which are also legal). We negate the fact, of course, that we choose to engage in questionable behaviors everyday (be it our daily fast-food habits, texting and driving phenomenon, obsessions with tanning, and so on) despite knowing the risks. Drugs are “bad,” but they are quite an attractive option when life is bad, as life for an addict commonly is.

At this, people tend to argue, “Well, my life isn’t all that great, but I’m not an alcoholic…” And, to that, I say, “Congratulations! You are very lucky! Life is really hard and going through it with an addiction makes it even harder.” Consider this: the life before addiction tends to be difficult. The life during addiction tends to be difficult. And, yes, the life even AFTER addiction, with all the withdrawals and cravings and triggers and mental processing, tends to be even more difficult.

I am far more fascinated by what leads people to addiction, rather than the why. The why is easily explained. As long as we are conscious humans, we will be drawn to experimenting with mind-alteration. And, as long as we are emotional humans, we will be drawn to alter and control our emotional states. And, finally, as long as we are in psychological pain, we will be drawn to finding effective remedies. I am concerned with what happened to cause that pain…what is it that you need a remedy for?

I work with the “addicts” that have lost everything, the addicts who have been incarcerated, who have been pronounced dead, who have relapsed more times than they can count, who know what it’s like to wish they were dead every single day, because death feels more welcoming than this life. These are the addicts that society has given up on, the addicts who often bum on the streets, prostitute in motels for blow, lost in the cracks of society. I also work with the “addicts” who appear functionally normal, who work high-powered careers, who have partners and families and religion, who also know what it is like to be trapped, victimized, and burdened in a life they wish they didn’t have.

There tends to be loneliness–gut-wrenching, hallowed loneliness, even when surrounded by people—and a complete lack of self. There tends to be some combination of depression, anxiety, insecurities, and trauma. There tends to be emotional instability, unmet needs, suppression of feelings. Addiction is the crossroads of psychological wounding and emotional suppression. It is a life characterized by fear and shame, a life driven by chronic compulsion.

We do not understand addiction, because if we did, we would have a cure. And, to date, despite all the methods and therapies, the recovery rates of addiction remain stubbornly low. We have a record number of meetings and treatment centers and medications, and addiction still fights back with fierce vigor. “Experts” still disagree on the definition of abstinence and sobriety. People can argue all day about the efficacies of Alcoholics Anonymous, of prescribing Suboxone, of whether harm reduction works, of whether marijuana should even be considered a drug, of the pros and cons of Xanax, etc. Anyone who thinks addiction is “easily” beat doesn’t understand it. Anyone who thinks addiction is “easily” avoided also doesn’t understand it.

If there is anything people need to understand about addiction, it’s that it isn’t the easy way out. It may seem that way—especially to ones who aren’t struggling—but a life of physical, emotional, financial, and psychological pain, a life centered on a substance—instead of on passion, love, and meaning—is a devastating one. We can be angry at the addiction. We can be hurt and saddened and confused by it. But, ultimately, as a society, if we ever want progress, we need to understand just how painful and horrific an average day in the life of addiction really is.