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It takes courage to choose pain in order to find freedom from addiction. But to those who succeed the effort to overcome the addiction is well spent. There is the opportunity after successfully battling the cravings, compulsions and inner demons that drive addictive behavior of achieving a level of happiness beyond description.
The term "addiction" is used in many contexts to describe an obsession, compulsion caused by physical or psychological dependence. Physical dependence refers to drugs (including certain medications prescribed by a doctor) or a substance that when is suddenly removed causes withdrawal. This occurs because the body has developed a reliance on it for normal functioning. Psychological dependence, can also include drug and alcohol addiction, video games, crime, compulsive overeating, problem gambling, sex, love, computer addiction, work, excessive exercise, pornography, shopping (the listing can be quite extensive) involves a recurring compulsion by an individual to engage in some specific activity, despite very harmful consequences to the individual's health, mental state or social life. People often shift from chemical dependencies to behavioral addictive disorders. Rapid advances in technology, overstimulation and subsequent diminishing effort toward emotional growth and awareness are making some individuals more susceptible to "self-medicating" with out of control behaviors.
At the core, whether it is to an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, people, drugs, betting, or food, etc., addiction often involves a continuing attempt to fill an inner emptiness. It is a free-floating yearning for something missing in your life. Addictions are turned to because they seem to temporarily fill this sense of emptiness or incompleteness. Over time this diminishes and then the addiction itself can pose a serious, sometimes life threatening problem.
The fear of emptiness is a dark secret and may be buried into everybody's collective unconscious. According to eastern spiritual philosophy, for the mind, emptiness means non existence and is associated with fear. When we are not filling ourselves by attending to our own feelings, needs and well-being, we will feel empty and alone inside. Addictions are an abandonment of self, in that they are not a healthy and loving way of dealing with painful feelings. And it is the self-abandonment that causes fear, anxiety, and depression. Avoiding responsibility for creating our fear by turning to addictions is another self-abandonment. The self-abandonment creates deep inner emptiness and aloneness, which perpetuates the addictive behavior. When we are not asking throughout the day what is loving to ourselves - what is in our highest good - and taking loving action in our own behalf, we will be empty within no matter how much we do for others and no matter how much others do for us. We are the only ones, in connection with a spiritual source of love, who can fill up the inner emptiness. The spiritual challenge is to step out of our cultural assumption that preconditions us to run away from emptiness at any cost. Emptiness is not inherently bad but we need to find ways to tolerate it.
Shame and Guilt
Shame and guilt are two powerful forces that fuel addictive and compulsive behavior. They cause a person to become more secretive, detached, and emotionally disengaged from the very people and activities that help them sustain a meaningful sense of life. Feelings of loneliness and isolation, anxiety and depressed mood thus arise, which the person then tries to ignore and push away through seeking the momentary relief and satisfaction that the addiction provides. This is then followed by further shame, guilt and hiding and a vicious addictive cycle is created.
Addiction is often a symptom of a deeper emotional, psychological or spiritual problem. Often there is a trauma history, depression, eating disorders, sexual abuse, and obsessive- compulsive disorders and other complicating issues. A slow progressive deterioration can set in that may go unnoticed or denied until life becomes unmanageable and extremely painful.
Addictions are reinforced and maintained by:
- Physical Cravings
- Psychological longing for euphoria
- Physical and emotional pain related to addicts having:
- A tendency to hold low opinions of themselves and to constantly remind themselves of their deficiencies
- Distorted or unrealistic beliefs about themselves, their behavior, other people, and the events that occur in the world around them
- A desire to escape from or to suppress unpleasant emotions
- Difficulty coping with stress; at least one powerful memory of an intense high experienced at a crucial time in their lives and an ever-present desire to recapture the euphoric feeling
- An uncanny ability for addicts to deny that they have a problem
Psychological counseling and spirituality is often an integral part of recovery. Effective treatment acknowledges the benefits of the addiction (generally a false sense of well being) while offering motivation and support for recovery. It helps to be nonjudgmental and acknowledge realistically that people take drugs and engaged in other forms of addictive behavior, believing it is functional given the limited choices they are aware of. It's crucial to understand what an addiction means to a person, that is, how does it work for an individual. In what ways does it seem to help out - either with thoughts, feelings, or dealings with others? These needs are real. For example, for some people the experience of craving, the excited anticipation of satisfying the craving, and carrying out the addictive behavior itself can all serve to give the person an enhanced sense of being alive and energized, of having a purpose, or a feeling of accomplishment, power, or contentment. For someone else, the behavior can serve to numb out or deaden underlying depressive or anxious feelings. To attempt to suppress or extinguish the "bad behavior" without understanding the positive meanings it may have for you is an almost certain recipe for relapse. The tools of recovery will usually involve counseling, support groups, diet, exercise, and nutrition and lifestyle changes. Effective treatment can address these obstacles, with the caveat that there must be a strong commitment to move on and do whatever is necessary to make this happen. Avoiding people, places and things that support the addiction is part of a commitment to heal.
I generally encourage clients to include twelve step support meetings in addition to the counseling I provide. There are specific programs for both for physical and psychological dependence. AA and Overeaters Anonymous are examples. Some clients are not inclined to participate, often citing concerns about references to a higher power. I am very pragmatic and tend to support what works. Overall, clients who utilize counseling and attend a support group do better than those who chose not to participate in a ten step program. There are other support programs which are valuable, but they don't seem to be readily available in our area. My counseling generally supports what the client is working on with the 12 steps. If the client chooses not to utilize a 12 Step program I often utilize aspects of the program that I believe are applicable for his/hers goals. The 12 step program encompasses good psychotherapy practice, examples are:
- Acknowledging unmanageability, being harmfully over controlling, having an excessive need for approval, denial, and rationalization (Step 1)
- Finding the courage and willingness to engage in a meaningful self-evaluation of personal, moral, daily conduct which caused failure and hurt to others. To acknowledge mistakes due to being selfish, dishonest or frightened. It is a great relief to finally face ourselves. (Step 4).
- Discover the choices and attitudes that drove the acting out and destructive roles chosen to play (Step 4)
- Describe the hurt that has been done to others (Step 5).
- Admit our wrongs honestly and demonstrate a willingness to set these matters straight (Steps 8 and 9)