Addiction: Life-sentence or Learned Strategy?

When most of us think of addiction, images of addicts with hollow cheeks and empty eyes, begging for money to get their fix, show up in our minds. We think of prostitutes selling their bodies to get high, teenagers stealing family heirlooms to buy heroin or housewives snorting pills in between dinner parties and PTA meetings or angry fathers who can’t stop drinking. We think of the poor, the homeless or the dysfunctional. We think of the angry, the sad and the pathetic. We think of the weak, the unintelligent and the abusive, but rarely, when we think of addiction, do we think of ourselves. And yet, today, I want to propose an idea that might ruffle your previously constructed views of addiction, but that will also lead you closer to understanding how and why addiction is not a disease, but a spectrum of behaviors that can not only be unlearned, but healed within our nervous systems, such that it no longer runs and ruins our lives. Yes, our lives. 


Upon reading these words, you may think I’m being dismissive of addiction and its very real, very destructive, consequences. I’m not. In fact, it is my personal and professional experience withaddiction that has led me to write this post and to a model of healing that not only addresses the addiction itself, but also the root cause of the addiction which goes much deeper than broken brain chemistry - which is an outdated model of treatment. Addicts, as we know them, are not broken people with limited potential to thrive. Addicts are people in pain. Whether it be the pain of emotional arousal they can’t tolerate, cognitive distortions that cause deep shame or the pain of emptiness that arises when suppression tactics take over, it all leads to the same place: The use of external stimuli to calm and regulate a dysregulated nervous system. In other words, addiction is not a disease, it is a coping strategy. 


To clearly articulate this concept, we can look to the words of leading addiction expert Gabor Maté who says “Addiction is not the problem. Addiction is the attempt to solve a problem.”

Seen through the lens of problem solving, we see that the parameters of what constitutes addiction extend far beyond substance abuse and into any behavior, substance or habit we perpetually engage with to regulate ourselves despite its harmful consquences. Our stress, our disconnection, our shame, our triggers, our discomfort with emotions, our memories, our emptiness, our agitation…In all of these cases, the underlying mechanism remains the same: avoid pain. And pain avoidance is the biggest dis-ease of our time. 


When we need to avoid our pain, we, too, become addicts to that which aides our avoidance. We become work-aholics, sex addicts, attention seekers, social media scrollers, Xanax poppers, nightcap drinkers, exercise junkies, adrenaline seekers, porn watchers, chronic dieters, gamblers, gossipers, plastic surgery fanatics, sport lovers, neat freaks and more. Anything that can, and does, serve to distract us from our immediate discomfort can, and often is, used in addictive fashion. 


But how do we know when we’ve crossed the line from enjoyable hobby into destructive coping strategy? Unfortunately, the line isn’t a clear-cut one and requires that we slow ourselves and our lives down enough to see it, and even then it might not be enough with a deep desire to see ourselves clearly. Why? Because the very nature of an addiction is that it knows how to hide. It knows how to keep itself alive because our psyche depends on it for our emotional and psychological safety. 


When humans feel unsafe, they turn to survival energies to keep them alive. Stress hormones rise, contraction occurs, the sensory system becomes hyper-attuned, blood pressure rises and we become vigilant to threat, both real and perceived, in a “better-safe-than-sorry” mode of being. In survival-mode, our higher functioning brain capacity diminishes and our main concern becomes ourselves as fear is naturally self-interested. The more unsafe we feel, the more rigid, tense, insecure and stressed we become and seeing outside of our solitary reality becomes near impossible. And we begin to use strategies to cope, because a body under stress needs to cope. It cannot thrive through rest and recovery, ergo, it must cope with those demands. As stress grows, and our ability to tolerate discomfort is limited, there is a threshold of arousal we cross when our nervous systems are no longer able to find balance and we need something external to regulate it for us. For some of us, the threshold is high – we call these people resilient – for most of us, the limit is much lower, and we learn to lean on sources outside of our bodies to fix the problem. 


As a culture, we’ve dubbed people with dysregulated nervous systems weak. We call them lazy, lame, childish and pathetic. We judge their inability to pull it together and hate the choices they make that affect our wellbeing. And I get it. They are so painful. Sometimes painful enough that we contemplate whether or not life is worth living as we work through our own trauma and heartbreak around their choices. Alcoholic fathers, heroin addicted brothers, sex addicted partners, shopping addicted sisters… the damage is real. But if we want to heal ourselves, and ever have a chance at understanding our loved ones better, we have to start with the areas WE avoid. The areas we run. The areas we externally regulate. As we do this, we come to understand and have compassion for the human condition. We learn to give ourselves what we actually need instead of abstaining from life in more contracted, more rigid and more structured ways that do nothing to heal the pain we’re running from and everything to divest us of our vitality more than our suppression already has. 


Our addictions, as seen through the lens of self-medication, show us the way out. For many of us, what we cannot deal with is the internal arousal that arises in response to emotions, sensations, urges and feelings we have no practice processing. Ours is a culture that has deemed the language of the body (sensations, emotions, urges) inferior to that of the mind (logical, rationale, sense-making). Therefore, most of us have no practice in hearing, understanding or tuning into the body as it speaks and, rather than curiously exploring its messages, learn to fearfully avoid it. If curiosity says “move toward,” the message of fear is “move away.” And we do. In hundreds of ways everyday. Some of us more than others, but still, we run. And when we run, we cannot be home. 


To see the ways we medicate, abandon and rely on external sources of regulation, we must be willing to admit that we are not, in fact, thriving. From this place of acceptance, we surrender to the idea that perhaps there are some changes we’d like to make and can more easily access what they might be. Then we begin asking questions: 


What are the behaviors in my life that I would struggle to live without? 

What are the feelings I get when I engage in them? 

What feels good about it? 

What doesn’t feel good about it? 

What emotions or feelings am I most uncomfortable with? 

What do I do when they arise? 

If I imagine myself thriving, what is the picture I see? 

Does it include this behavior? 

It is possible that, if it does, I might be fantasizing about a life without pain through this behavior? (ex: fantasizing about working so hard you become a billionaire and never have to work again and never have any problems because you’re rich and happy sailing around the world on a yacht)


As we begin to ask deep, hard questions of ourselves, we lead ourselves into a place of clear seeing. Of awareness. Of receiving. For only when we are willing to ask are we able to receive an answer. And as we begin to uncover ourselves, then we can begin to meet ourselves. We begin to meet our needs, meet our fears, meet our hopes and meet our wounds. For, as is their design, we cannot let go o our mechanisms and behaviors until we can replace them with something healthier that satisfies the need we were trying to meet in the first place. As we learn to see the needs, we give up the vice grip we have on our protective strategies (addictions) and we become open to true resiliency. We begin to soothe our nervous systems, create safety in our relationships, ask for what we want, re-parent our inner child, learn new relational skills, find and enforce boundaries, pick up calming rituals and create a home inside ourselves that does not require us to abandon it in order to feel good. 


Addiction is painful. It is messy, complicated and hard to address. It affects those who are addicted and those who love them. It feels like it has a life of its own and can make even the most confident of us doubt our worth, validity and strength. But… what it does not mean is that we are broken. It does not mean we are lost and should give up. It, like any other strategy, is an indictor that our pain levels are higher than our ability to cope with them and we need help accessing, tolerating and processing them. Luckily, there are many, many ways to do this, and, with the help of wise and gentle practitioners, recovery, safety and security are not only possible, but probable. 


What is your experience with addiction? Do you or your loved ones struggle with tolerating discomfort the the point of addiction? Share your experiences in the comments below and remember: You are not broken. 


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