Addiction – what is it anyway?
An addiction is anything that is hard to stop doing regardless of the negative affects it has on your life and the harm it brings to those around you. It feels like an intense need for a substance and this substance can take the form of food, cigarettes, gambling, sex, shopping, video games or alcohol– just to name a few.
Regardless of the form the addiction takes, addiction is common and shared among people of all races, socio economic backgrounds and education, basically no one set of people is immune to becoming addicted to a substance or behaviour, people from all walks of life are affected.
Though addiction is common place, many people suffering from an addiction, including the friends and family members of those suffering are ashamed to talk about it. It is my hope this essay will help keep the dialogue going, as talking about mental health issues and addiction is a step toward understanding and therefore healing.
Why Does Addiction Happen?
In my experience, having had a close friend addicted to alcohol and another to stimulants as well as my own struggle with a food, addiction is not caused by one single factor and it definitely does not show up because of mental weakness or a lack of willpower.
Research states however, that a few of the factors that affect the probability of having an addiction include genetics, our natural brain chemistry, traumatic childhood experiences, mental & emotional health (people dealing with depression and/or anxiety) and simply not knowing how to deal with stress.
Research also states that if one has parents that have an addiction or have struggled with addiction in the past, that person will have a higher propensity of becoming addicted to a substance or behavior.
In regards to brain chemistry, addictive substances and behaviors increase the level of dopamine (a pleasure chemical) in the brain, which gives the feeling of positivity and good will. In my case, dopamine is released in my brain when I eat sugary and salty foods. In the case of my two friends they suffered serious childhood traumas, emotional and physical abuse, and they never dealt with them, as they never felt they were able to talk about these issues to their families. This caused them to seek comfort in their substances. The fact of the matter is, no one wants to feel pain; it is through their different vices that my friends found some temporary relief and a temporary escape.
Regarding mental health, (depression/anxiety) I know many people that suffer form anxiety/depression. In my case, as I am also sure in the case of my friends, our substances helped us deal with anxiety. When I was very excited or worried I would get very anxious and felt I needed food to calm my nerves. And there it was, my erroneous belief that food, my drug of choice would make my experience somehow better. My friends, I dare say, also “self medicated” with their own substances, thinking it was the most effective tool in their arsenal to ease whatever trauma or discomfort they were dealing with at the time.
With that said…
How many of us in some way look for an external source of power when dealing with our issues? How many of us avoid facing or torments and struggles? How many of us didn’t have to learn how to deal with our traumas, anxiety, and depression? As humans, we will find tactics to deal with the traumas of life, some less obvious than others, some healthier than others.
For years people would go through the humiliation and shame of having someone in their family addicted to drugs or alcohol as if it is an attestation of the individuals lack of strength or lack of self-control. Let’s me ensure I am crystal clear here: it is not!
Lack of will power has nothing to do with being an addict, relapsing or falling into old habits. If you don’t believe me just go ask anyone who has ever been on a diet. Relapsing also has nothing to do with a lack of good intentions to stick to a program either, just remember when you started the gym on January 1st and stopped going by the third week of February. Let us all think twice before we exalt ourselves over those struggling with recovery.
The work – paying attention to triggers
“…A person with mental illness can recover even though the illness is not ‘cured’… Recovery is a way of living a satisfying, hopeful, and contributing life even with limitations caused by the illness. Recovery involves the development of new meaning and purpose in one’s life as one grows beyond the catastrophic effects of mental illness.“ ~ Recovery from Mental Illness, William Anthony
Going deeper into my own issues, there are tools and lifestyle changes I had to incorporate in order to live a healthier life and that included finding ways to properly and effectively deal with stress. Psychotherapy, self help books, my spiritual practices, exercise and volunteering are all tools I still use. I also had to identify certain situations and people that are triggers for me and either avoid them all together or if I could not, pro-actively arm myself with appropriate affirmations & self talk to minimize the “perceived stress” these triggers would cause.
Coping strategies are therefore imperative in healing, also being conscious of the fact that major changes, (a death in the family for instance) can be a serious trigger to relapse if not acknowledged properly. I experienced this when I lost my dear brother to senseless gun violence on July 1st Canada Day in Toronto 3 years ago. Remaining conscious through my grief, allowing myself to go deeply into my pain and not try to mask it helped me to avoid what could have been a major setback.
Then there are the days that stress compounds. Little two headed stress goblins seem to call on all their little stress goblin buddies in the universe to happen to you, and all at the same time! It can feel as if there is a cosmic conspiracy against you, to give you – and only you – a bad day/week/ month! This is not the case, the universe is friendly and you must make the effort to fix the narrative in your head that claims otherwise. This is a part of the work.
Doing the work will also help you to do the work, because it builds confidence, confidence that you can and will deal properly with whatever stresses are flung in your direction. Fixing my narrative also opened me up to realise these stresses were a sacred and weird gift from the universe, they are opportunities for us to practice conscious thoughts, acts and practice using our tools. These stresses are here to help make us stronger and what a gift that truly is.
The road to success is often paved with relapse
Often times a relapse can feel like failure. I had seen my friend struggle with this: “Julia” he would say “I was doing so well… you know?… 7 months two weeks… you know?” The shame and the disappointment were, for lack of better words “too real”. We have all heard the stories of folk being sober 11 yrs., 12 years etc. then suffer a relapse. Very often, relapse is a part of the road to recovery. Again, Relapses have nothing to do with lack of will power and it definitely has nothing to do with a lack of good intentions. Having a plan in hand ready for when stresses do occur, can allow the addict to feel more in control when crisis do occur.
If you know someone suffering with an addiction of any kind the best thing to do is to encourage them and to be as informed as you can about the addiction and the factors that may trigger them. It is important to help the loved one change their narrative. Personally I had to reframe relapses, as I have had to reframe failures in business. Again, it is worth repeating, a Relapse should be seen as a disguised gift, an opportunity to learn ones triggers, and how to better deal with them – a relapse is not a failure, it is a part of the journey to success, it is an opportunity to pinpoint what works and what does not.
In conclusion – there is no conclusion.
Managing addiction is an ongoing process, think of it this way: any one of us can fall into the grip of anger or a road rage at any time, addicts have to be conscious that at any time there may be an external factor that wants to tip the scale and send them hurling in a less than healthy direction.
Understanding that recovery is not only a goal but also a process is important for the journey. It is learning how to truly live a higher quality of life and making space in ones reality to being ready to receive that higher quality of life. It is recognizing and investigating one’s own triggers and being conscious in decisions. Therefore, In conclusion, there is no conclusion in living with addiction. It is a journey, a continuing process into our highest selves, keeping the hope and the vision of the person we intend to become clear and in view at all times.
Though it is often said people need to hit rock bottom – I personally do not believe this to be fully true, I think people need to hit “adequate discomfort” from the addiction, in order to get to the point of surrender and non-resistance. I also am an advocate of hope in the future. In recovery, without hope and a belief that we can have a better life and a better existence we would lack the motivation to even try.
So The next time you meet someone or the family member of someone struggling with recovery, remember your own failed diets, remember all the times you needed a kind word of encouragement and support, then have some compassion. Most important don’t be embarrassed or afraid to talk about the addiction and be sure to listen. Honest compassionate dialogue about addiction is a wonderful gateway to recovery.
C.E.O. & Founder of Not Your Child Corp.