When you think of “addiction”, what comes to mind? Chances are, your first thoughts are drugs and alcohol. For the longest time, these were the primary addictions talked about and then gambling became an area of concern and interest, especially with the advent of VLTs and on-line gambling. In many circles these days, though, the term addiction is being used in a much broader way. Gabor Mate, M.D., one of the leading authorities on addiction in Canada who worked with heroin addicts on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, talks about the epidemic of addictions in our society, why we are prone to them and what is needed to liberate us from their hold on our emotions and behaviors. In his book entitled “In the Realm of the Hungry Ghost: Close Encounters With Addiction”, he defines addiction as a continuum that extends from the homeless, street addict to the workaholic, physician who is addicted to recognition, fame and self-promotion. He shares his own unique yet painful struggle with compulsive purchasing of classical music, an addiction which he described as having played havoc with his life. At a recent workshop where I had the opportunity to meet him, he spoke about how his addiction had cost him hundreds of thousands of dollars and had come close to ruining his marriage. It was inspiring and felt safe to be in a working group with him because he was so very honest and open about his personal problems with addiction. He traced the source of his addiction problem back to his infant days during the Nazi occupation in Hungary when his parents played classical music steadily to calm their fears and raise their spirits. In his view, his behavior fits the new, more contemporary, definition of addiction in that: 1) it has no brake system once it starts; and 2) it has compromised the quality of his life significantly (i.e., in his case, straining his budget, taxing his marriage and robbing him of precious time).
Drugs and alcohol are not the most serious of addictions. When the movement to quit smoking began, we learned that cigarettes were more addictive than heroin. Still there are people, despite deep shame and multiple attempts to quit, who are haunted by this insidious addiction. Then there are those addictions that are terribly damaging but they have been normalized and down played because our society deems them not only acceptable but admirable. Examples are the “workaholic” and “perfectionist”. As any therapist knows, these are terribly difficult addictions to undo because people not only receive praise for them but develop internal belief systems that are self-reinforcing. How many times have I heard a perfectionist say: “If it wasn’t for my perfectionism, I would never have achieved the success that I have today.” While such a conclusion defies evidence from psychological research that perfectionism can actually cripple functioning and has serious negative side effects, people may cling to their belief system even when it clearly has ceased to ring true and no longer serves them. When there are advantages to such addictions, more often than not, the costs out weigh the benefits. For instance, how many successful career people who felt that they had to work endlessly over time, discovered later that they missed out on most of their children’s lives?
When the term “addiction” is used more broadly, there is no more of this “us” versus “them” mentality. One realizes that you can end up being addicted to almost anything…worry, shopping, exercise, food, approval, rage, television, technology, on-line dating, etc. and that addiction is rampant in our society. The problem is not in the content but in the process. It’s in the way the behavior controls your mood/behavior and negatively affects your life that is of significance. We all need to take a closer look at ourselves, own our own addictive behavior and become aware of what drives it. Addiction is always a way to escape what ails you. My own observation as a therapist is that when psychological mechanisms of blocking are no longer sufficient, more powerful mechanisms to numb, shut down and feel better, kick in. At rock bottom, all of us want the same thing…to feel better. We need to realize this and not criticize or punish ourselves for it but rather recognize that all addictions are fed by the same need….to avoid painful feelings and to try to feel good. The best way to lessen the hold that an addiction has on you is not to beat yourself up but rather to take a hard look at what is causing you pain and to begin to find those healthy things that can make you feel better. This can be quite the challenge as once you have become really good at being on the run, it can become difficult to find out what you are running from! Some have described addiction as “the hole in your soul”. Often, being able to feel better requires going back to earlier family-of-origin experiences in order to heal childhood injuries such as feelings of rejection or the fear of abandonment so that they no longer wreak havoc with your contemporary life and relationships. For many, this has become not only a psychological quest but a spiritual one as well. In Gabor Mate’s view: “Addiction floods in where self knowledge and divine knowledge are missing…spiritual and psychological work are both necessary to reclaim our true nature.”
For more information about Dr. Esses, go to www.doctoresses.ca