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The Agnostic Pulpit: Addictions

 article about The Agnostic Pulpit: Addictions

This article belongs to Addictions Anonymous column.


This article belongs to Addictions theme.


"What the hell is wrong with you?"

Every addict hears this question sooner or later. Why would any rational, mature person destroy a life with an addiction to alcohol, drugs, or gambling? To be brutally honest, addicts are generally neither rational nor mature. Addiction is a problem, but not the problem. And here is where most addicts stop listening; they hate bad news.

The addict wants the pusher to be honest. The least they should do is let a shrink be honest, too.

There comes a time when we must tell the addict the truth, clear enough and loud enough to get through the smoke of denial and rationalization. The timing and the tone are critical, but it must be done.

If someone has an addiction, what else is wrong? I don't mean wrong as in bad or evil. I mean wrong as in weakness or vulnerability. Nobody wants to be called weak or defective, but dancing around a personality problem is not helpful.

The addiction can't be stopped permanently if whatever else is wrong in the personality is not fixed. Years of psychotherapy or emersion in a self-help group may not be necessary, but even brief therapy of the right kind can uncover problems.

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The addiction prone person may have become so used to feeling awful that they think it is normal and unavoidable.
Finding a normal life starts with willingness. When someone is caught up in an addiction, it's hard for them to listen to advice or suggestions. Sometimes, at moments of great despair, they may listen. Sometimes, in sober reflection, a willingness to change appears. If the addict can manage to stay cool, clean, and sober for a few days, he or she will be able to see the problem. What is the usual mood at such times? Chances are it's not a very pleasant experience. It could be chronic anger, deep depression, self-loathing, racing thoughts, and so on. Now the problem becomes clear, and more addictive behaviour may blot it out for a while, but that is not a cure. The addiction prone person may have become so used to feeling awful that they think it is normal and unavoidable.

When things go very wrong in life, we often end up feeling angry, lonely, scared, isolated, or helpless. A lot of bad stuff can happen in life and leave us unaffected. Some things, however, have a lasting effect on emotion and mood. Past situations include all kinds of traumatic events, anything from losing a parent to being abused physically. More recent or current events range from job loss to chronic pain. It all comes down to feeling very unhappy most of the time without some mood altering addiction. The addictive solution is to reach for something that makes the bad feelings go away.

Really bad things in life can leave us with unremitting negative feelings. Addiction is self-medication for these negative feelings, but it is never a cure.

Psychology has finally begun to develop an interest in happiness, and we have realized the importance of developing a calm, happy, and optimistic view of the world as a part of normal, everyday living. It can be accomplished if that is what a person decides to want.

The Zen masters are fond of saying, "Misery is optional." What they seem to mean is that we inflict unnecessary emotion turmoil upon ourselves. And, I think, it is in that context of emotional misery that we become vulnerable to an addiction that makes us feel better, at least for a little while.

Once we know what the real emotional problems in personality are, then it's up to the addict to make the changes, and all we can do is act as cheerleaders as our friend struggles to learn and grow.

(Julian I. Taber, Ph.D. is author of Addictions Anonymous: Outgrowing Addiction with a Universal, Secular Program of Self-Development: ISBN 978-1-60145-647-2)


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