To begin with, in attempting to write this article I illustrated for myself the whole gamut of the cycle of addiction!
I denied that it had to be ready for whatever date I’d been given, and rationalised that it would take me only a few hours to write it. I became full of self-doubt and lack of confidence about my ability to do so, and questioned if it (I) would be good enough. I completely lost my sense of reality, it pre-occupied me – racing mind, fears, etc. I was projecting all kinds of outcomes and yet managed to stay immobile and stuck as in one of the best books ever written about addiction – ‘I’ll Quit Tomorrow.” I was always going to write this tomorrow! Procrastination had set in and to myself I quoted a little saying, “I’ll only procrastinate so I’ll have plans for tomorrow!”
So tomorrow is finally today and thus I begin! I’m going to write about:
The losses that occur in addiction – for the purpose of this article when I refer to addiction I’m referring to the addiction to any mood altering substance or activity, i.e. alcohol, drugs, food, gambling, sex etc. I will then touch upon the losses incurred in giving up one’s addiction. I will then explore the “gains” of addiction – this may sound paradoxical – but then addiction is all about paradox.
Some definitions of addiction that I think capture some of the essence of and touch on the losses of this “baffling, powerful, cunning” (Big Book of A.A.) condition are:
“The absence of joy from one’s life is the most important cause as well as the fundamental effect of addiction.” Deepak Chopra.
Addiction, whether to alcohol, food, drugs, gambling or sex is one way we try to fill the emptiness we feel inside.
In addiction, our connection to our self – our experience, our feelings and our deep inner knowing is cut off. We lose our capacity to know what is true for our self and without that sense of self, we lose our ability to relate to others, become unconscious and disconnected, not only to self but to the universe and to everything in it.
We are whole human beings and thus the losses of addiction affect us in all the areas of that human person.
Losses Affect the Addict in All These Areas of their Life and Psyche
Below, I’ve just named more kinds of loss and these will be touched on again:
loss of self, loss of choice, loss of control, loss of reality, loss of spirit, loss of freedom, loss of life-style, loss of self-worth (ego strength and self-esteem), loss of values and morals, loss of relationships, loss of communication, loss of feelings, loss of boundaries, loss of sense of adequacy, loss of sexuality, loss of judgement, loss of jobs/careers, loss of families, loss of memories, loss of years of life and life experiences, ‘growing up,’ maturity, loss of the ability to cope and to function - mentally, emotionally, physically – loss of ability to make decisions, loss of being able to be a lover, a parent, a son, a daughter, a friend.
These losses are endless and keep growing as the addiction progresses. In the fellowships of recovery, like A.A. and N.A. (Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous), there is a little word often mentioned to the addict when they rationalise or compare their losses with others – that word is “yet.”
One of the biggest losses perhaps, in addiction on is that of losing the illusion of what addiction offered in the beginning – a sense of wholeness, of well-being, of ease, of confidence, of relaxation and most of all perhaps of spirituality.
Carl Jung in his letter to Bill W., a co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous spoke of this “thirst for wholeness,” this yearning for a deeper transcendent experience. He wrote, “Alcohol in Latin is Spiritus and you use the same word for the highest religious experience as well as for the most depraving poison. The helpful formula therefore is; ‘spiritus contra spiritum – spirit against the spirits.”
As the relationship with the drug/activity of choice deepens, this unique relationship, one of deep trust (it’ll never let me down), one that always does what it’s required to do, all other relationships are eroded and eventually the primary and only maintained relationship is this by now, exclusive one between the addict and their mood altering substance or activity.
Why doesn’t the person stop or even control their habit? Why don’t they see what is happening to them? How? one asks, can this happen? How can it continue, everyone asks all around the addict? What is seen is chaos, destruction, unmanageability, shameful, embarrassing behaviour and eventually total loss of control.
To the addict, who is feeling good about themselves, feeling special, important, whole, even spiritual, it makes perfect sense that this relationship is maintained at all cost – and the costs as previously mentioned are usually very high.
The very idea of losing all that this drug or activity offers is unbearable and unthinkable, far too threatening, in fact, no greater threat exists for addicts.
They may also ask themselves: “How can I stop?’ This is too painful to even contemplate, so the addict has to disavow the painful reality of their lives, to stay out of touch as it exists at all cost. As the addiction deepens and the ‘magic’ begins to wane, the effort of staying – mood altered demands more (drink, drugs, time, money etc.) and despite all this, it doesn’t work like it used. As the addict becomes less effective in all the spheres of his/her life, there develops a nagging but deep sense of inadequacy, a waning of ego strength or self-worth, an inability to function or behave appropriately or adequately. These feelings of inadequacy mount until they become a chronic self-loathing causing great pain and discomfort and therefore even stronger urges to mood-alter. Where at one time the addict used the drug/activity of their choice to feel better than good, it then changed to help the addict feel good, and finally became necessary to numb and medicate the worsening feelings about themselves and their entire world. This world has now become very narrow, and almost like a prison, with no choice but to continue using in order to escape reality. Loss of control, which is the hallmark of addiction, is now present.
Process of Addiction
I feel it is necessary briefly to describe what happens in this process and how it is established. The chief symptom of addiction is denial of the condition – the level of denial in addiction is almost unbelievable. As Ruth Maxwell states in her book The Booze Battle the denial transforms the addict into a Mad Hatter, “I’m ok, everything’s under control, it’s Alice who’s acting a bit strangely.”
Defenses are now also set in place. The defenses continue to grow so that the addict can survive in the face of their problems. The greater the pain, the higher and more rigid the defenses become and this whole process is unconscious. Repression of feelings, of memories, of unpleasant, embarrassing behaviour and events. In doing this, the addict is able to pretend they don’t feel and therefore don’t have to act upon these feelings.
This is entirely unconscious – rationalisations must be unconscious if they are to be successful.
Drinking/drugging has become uncomfortable – the addict can no longer successfully pretend that it was worth it. Against this onslaught, automatically and invariably, intellectual defenses rise to rationalise feelings of discomfort about self. This is the beginning of a relentless suppression of the emotions by the intellect. Eventually, the addict will be completely out of touch with emotions.
Minimising, projecting, blaming are some of the other defenses used which enable the addiction to continue. It is important to note that the families, partners and all close to the addict also get caught up in this cycle of denial and defenses. It is the only way they can cope or survive, and again it is an unconscious process.
Co-dependency usually sets in for partners of addicts – this simply means that that person loses himself or herself in the addiction. They become obsessed with trying to control, manage or stop the addicts destructive behaviour and thus lose the ability to recognise and deal with their own needs and wants.
To illustrate more clearly how the addict really feels about themselves and the pain that they’re experiencing underneath the layers of denial and defenses, I’m quoting from someone in recovery from addiction who has described it thus:
“I have no peace within myself and outside myself I create chaos. I wreak havoc with myself and those I should love. I am mutilated in my addiction. I am a burden to myself and a prisoner to my addiction. My eyes are dim and see no beauty or light. I am a spiritual zombie. I am an earthbound human, but less than human, a Being without spirituality. I am a body without a soul.”
I think this poignantly reveals a glimpse into the utter loss and despair of addiction.
As in any loss in life, denying a reality when it is painful is normal. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross in her book, On Death & Dying identifies five stages we go through in the grieving process:
Denial Anger Bargaining Depression Acceptance
This process has to be worked through in dealing with the many losses of addiction both for the addict and their families. Freud described this activity as “grief work,” and in essence what it means is allowing ourselves to mourn the losses which are at the core of our hurt. This is painful, but grieving these losses can be both helpful and healthy and can ultimately lead into a more creative and serene way of living. We can either reach out for help and grow from the experience, or give up, and stay locked in the prison of addiction. There can be no life without attachments and addiction is a very strong form of attachment. There can be no attachments without inevitable loss, no inevitable loss without feeling grief, no healing grief without growing pain.
A loss that I mentioned earlier, although it may seem strange, is the loss involved for the addict in giving up their addiction; in losing this primary relationship, which is what it had become.
To the addict, their drug/activity of choice had become their best friend. It had given them good feelings, had numbed pain and blotted out painful reality, had never let them down and was always there to turn to.
When the addict begins to realise that the drug/alcohol/activity doesn’t work any more and that the relationship has to come to an end, it is the same grieving process that they have to work through in order to enter into recovery and to re-invest their energies into a new way of living. This letting go is difficult and involves a lot of change which is not easy for any of us – change of a lifestyle, of friends perhaps, of places that would be harmful to revisit and sometimes letting go of people and relationships that are not healing and supportive.
Healing and Recovery
Beginning the journey of recovery begins with the first step as in any journey. Step One of the fellowships of A.A., N.A., etc. is “we admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.”
Beginning recovery is about discovery of the self. As we move deeper into our self we find that we are able to clarify what we feel and this leads to an undiscovered inner reality that eventually reveals more about the self.
People in recovery first begin to discover themselves by acknowledging their addiction. This is yet another paradox. We begin to heal by first identifying with the addiction that has damaged the self. This is the cornerstone of the fellowships of recovery, which are a vital part of the journey of healing.
Forgiveness is another essential element in recovery. It is the capstone for the healing process. It is not easy for the addict to forgive the pain and hurts inflicted on oneself and others in the trauma of addiction, but without doing so, leading a healthy fulfilling life of recovery would be impossible.
To finish I quote from Stephanie Covington’s book, A Woman’s Way Through the 12 steps:
I would not a spiritual life without having travelled the path of addiction.
Alcoholics Anonymous – Big Book
Maxwell, Ruth The Booze Battle
Bennor, David, Healing Emotional Wounds
Covington, Stephanie, A Woman’s Way Through the 12 Steps
[Rita O’Sullivan works as a psychotherapist in the Rutland Centre.]