by DR. CARDER STOUT
We live in the age of addiction. It is a time of unbridled desire and reckless overconsumption. Addicts seem to be everywhere. We point our fingers at the drunks stumbling down the street and recognize the drug-addled miscreants shuffling behind abandoned buildings in the bad sections of town. Addiction may have infiltrated our immediate family and close circle of friends as well. Perhaps a distant aunt gets combative at family gatherings after a few wine spritzers or a neighbor’s boy is smoking bong hits in the community tree house. A sister is limiting her food intake and exercising multiple times per day. A father is frequenting strip clubs and meeting women in hotels while his family wonders why he is never home. This is the addiction that we talk about at the dinner table and whisper about in the schoolyard. It is the overt and identified kind. We express our strong opinions about it and in some cases try to help. These are the addicts on display. These are the ones we know.
While these are the people society has characterized as true addicts, we often overlook a simple fact—that we may be addicts ourselves. Much like other psychological issues, addiction manifests in varying degrees of severity. Some individuals may be overcome by its powerful current while others may experience it more subtly, like a plodding drip. You may be unaware of your addictive tendencies or simply brush them off as non-threatening character flaws.
“Addiction is inside you no matter how far your soul has evolved.”
The truth is that each one of us possesses the same attributes that fuel alcoholic binges, restrictive eating patterns, and marital infidelity. Yes, addiction is inside you no matter how far your soul has evolved. It resides in your psyche and binds you together with all other addicted beings in the world. Addiction is archetypal. This means that we all share its energy in the unconscious part of our psyche. It is a feeling that we know instinctively and is imprinted in our DNA. We could not shake it if we tried.
So, what is addiction anyway? This is a question that has sparked some debate in recent years. One contingent of prestigious psychologists considers it a genetic disease, while others would argue that it is a learned condition brought on by the trappings of one’s environment. I respectfully disagree with both of these theories. As someone who has faced my own addiction for over 30 years, I have come to know it well. It is my belief that addiction is simply energy. It is energy that flows through the body and lodges itself in the mind. Initially, it saturates the body with a sense of longing and fills the mind with invasive and obsessive thoughts. These repetitive thoughts will not cease until some sort of compulsive act has been committed. Here is an example. There is one homemade peanut butter chocolate chip cookie left in the tin and you are thinking about it relentlessly. You have already eaten two and by no means are still hungry but still have the urge to eat the last one. In fact, it is difficult for you to concentrate on anything else until it is in your mouth. You have just succumbed to addiction. Addiction is the inability to control your urges in the face of potentially negative consequences. You are attempting to stay healthy and that cookie does not correspond well with your proposed fitness program. But you couldn’t control yourself so you ate it anyway. When this behavior becomes a pattern, you are in the throes of an addictive cycle.
“It is my belief that addiction is simply energy. It is energy that flows through the body and lodges itself in the mind.”
There are some who believe addiction is an ailment that will never affect them directly. They claim to practice most things in moderation and profess to clean living and well-balanced conventions. We may all applaud those who enrich their psyche with healthy endeavors that nurture and caress the soul. This does not keep them from the experience of addiction. There are some addictions that may not be considered detrimental. A habit of exercising obsessively may fall into this category. Many profess that rigorous daily exercise helps the body, mind, and spirit in innumerable ways. I agree with this sentiment, but there is a fine line between what is healthy and what is harmful. A good way to gauge your relationship to exercise is to allow yourself a few weeks off. See how you feel. If your anxiety levels rise, your self-esteem drops, and you are riddled with an obsessive urge to get on the treadmill, then you may need to realign. This is also true with work addiction. There are people who are so consumed by their jobs that all else in their lives becomes secondary. If work has become a compulsion that temporarily relieves you of negative thoughts about yourself, then it may have dangerous implications. You could be self-medicating through your job. You could become dependent on it for a sense of self worth instead of learning how to cultivate your own inner happiness.
For every human interaction there is a potential addiction. There are people addicted to sarcasm. They hardly ever speak an earnest word. Others are addicted to exaggeration. They cannot tell a story without adding several inches to the punchline. Some are addicted to their own anger. You may see them flying into a purple sandstorm of toxic rage. They cannot help themselves because the dark energy serves a purpose. Many are addicted to misery. They are much more comfortable when thing are coming apart at the seams. Perhaps they were born on a nest of needles. Their notion of love has been fashioned by discomfort. Others cannot seem to shake the pain of their past. They are addicted to the images that have long flown by. They relive the trauma of their younger days in both dreams and waking life.
“There is a strong link between addiction and unresolved trauma.”
In fact, there is a strong link between addiction and unresolved trauma. Trauma does not always have to be physical abuse, injury, or the witnessing of a catastrophic or frightening event. Trauma can be subtle and perplexing and come from strong feelings emerging from childhood. A child who feels neglected, abandoned, or overlooked may experience emotional trauma. A child growing up with a narcissistic parent may not feel loved or supported and internalize a sense of being worthless. These feelings are stored in the young and undeveloped psyche and often turn into harmful beliefs. These beliefs ultimately serve as a catalyst to activate addiction later in life. Trauma does not create addiction, but it is a part of the energy surrounding it.
I first encountered my addiction when I was 11-years-old. My parents were in the beginning stages of a long and bitter divorce. There were leather suitcases perpetually in the hallway outside their bedroom. My father was coming and going and finally left for good. Somehow I blamed myself for their unhappiness. My safe and protected world was fracturing and I could do nothing to put it back together. So, for a few years I stopped eating food. Perhaps I did not feel worthy of treating myself to nourishment in the face of such shame. I slowly withered away and could no longer attend school. In the late ’70s it was considered rare for an adolescent boy to have an eating disorder. I was shuffled from doctor to doctor who basically took my weight and told me to eat more. The trauma of my parent’s divorce went untreated and buried itself in my psyche.
“Trauma can be subtle and perplexing and come from strong feelings emerging from childhood.”
As I grew into a young man my addiction resurfaced. It had changed shapes and now appeared as a voracious appetite for alcohol and drugs. I consumed them recklessly and became dependent upon them to soothe my aching heart. I was confused and did not know who I was in the world. I felt different and alone. I put substances in my body to relieve a trough of negative feelings about myself. Initially they gave me some relief, but it was fleeting. Soon even the largest of doses could not comfort the sadness in my soul. I nearly died and often wished that I had. I was unrecognizable and dis-invited to the homes of my family. Ultimately I received the help that I needed and began a new way of life. But the addiction never went away. It is still with me and often growls with a muffled roar. I have come to know and love my addiction. It is a part of me and I have learned to love all of my parts. The more love and attention I give to it, the more it behaves itself.
Addiction is inside you just as it resides in me. It is a universal presence that lives in our unconscious and rises and falls according to the personal story of our life. It connects us in the present with a bond of human frailty and unites us with the lineage of those who came before us. Addiction has always been here and will always remain. It is nothing to fear. In fact, enduring its disquieting provocations allows us to heighten our resolve and explore what it truly means to be alive. You may have already felt your addiction lurking in the shadows. It may be waking from its slumber and gently modifying the nature of your thoughts. Do not feel ashamed, as it is part of your nature. Look around and you will not feel so alone. Addiction is everywhere.
“In fact, enduring addiction’s disquieting provocations allows us to heighten our resolve and explore what it truly means to be alive.”
One of the most prevalent types of addiction today is the fascination with technological devices. People just cannot put their cell phones down. These little computers give us so much pleasure that we keep them with us at all times. Social media, email, texting, and surfing the net are incessantly available. I have literally seen people bumping into each other on the street while engaged with their phones. We know about the dangers of texting and driving, but many do it anyway. We hear the phone buzz and cannot control the impulse to pick it up. There is an obsessive need to feel connected that is relinquished by the compulsive act of checking the screen. Did someone like our post or respond to our query? We want to know immediately and our sense of self can be affected by the result. We are getting attention and validation from an intricate system of tiny microchips. It is a love affair gone wrong. Children huddle in dark rooms on sunny afternoons to play video games. Married couples sit at dinner and read stock indexes, news blogs, and trending gossip. A close friend of mine recently hosted a birthday party for his 16-year-old daughter. There were a dozen teenagers sitting by the pool and all of them were on their phones. They were actually texting one another instead of speaking. The scene was utterly silent until the cake arrived and they started singing. Behavior like this is rapidly becoming the norm.
There is also a surge of attention focused on enhancing our physical appearance. It seems as though we no longer want to accept the aging process. Growing old is no longer cool, and the lines on our faces are the perceived enemy. You know the one I am talking about. The small wrinkle above your brow. It glares at you relentlessly and seems to expand every day. You cannot look into the mirror without seeing it. You are now engaged in a cycle of obsessive thinking. You poke, prod, and rub it but it is there to stay. You realize that a small shot of botox will make it all go away. Here lies the compulsive action. A few months later the cycle repeats itself. Yes, this is addiction. You have become dependent on a shot to make you feel better. Without it you feel insecure and your self-confidence is lost. You imagine that success is contingent on the smoothness of your forehead. As you scan the room it is evident that your colleagues confirm your sentiments exactly. But few disclose the secret nature of their regimen around the water cooler. These are private matters that are accepted in a public way. Society has approved the idea that looking younger is vital no matter how it is achieved. Addiction is therefore swept under the rug to preserve the more prevalent social demand.
“There is nothing you can do to stop the avalanche. Whether you are in a rehab or quietly dealing with your issues at home, there is only one real solution. Acknowledge its existence and offer your friendship.”
During the last decade I have been a therapist at some of the most renowned treatment centers in the world. I have worked with addiction to sex and drugs and rock n’ roll. I have treated porn addiction, love and relationship addicts, and husbands addicted to cheating. I have worked with technological addiction, social media addicts, and wives addicted to their work. I have helped gambling addicts, alcoholics, and patients with a number of food related addictions. No matter the type of addiction, the energy is the same. It radiated from the same archetypal source and followed a distinct pattern of obsessive thinking punctuated by compulsive behavior. Many of these addicts attempted to ignore this energy and maintain their secretly unbalanced lives. The energy thrived, yet they never tried to understand its origins. This was their downfall.
Until it is acknowledged, addiction will continue to gather strength. There is nothing you can do to stop the avalanche. Whether you are in a rehab or quietly dealing with your issues at home, there is only one real solution. Acknowledge its existence and offer your friendship. This is an act of goodwill and acceptance. This may sound counter-intuitive. How can we befriend something that is so destructive and selfish? Why should we treat it with reverence and respect? The answer is quite fundamental and requisite to our understanding of human nature. It is the things we despise and resent that sap our strength and ability to function. Alternatively, it is kindness and compassion that has the ability to diffuse negative energy. We must learn to approach ourselves with a non-judgmental attitude. Addiction is a part of each on of us and therefore should be embraced as one of our many qualities. When we begin to love those aspects of ourselves that seem unattractive and undesirable, then we can begin to heal. It is loving energy that heals all wounds and mends all things that are broken.
I encourage you to give your addiction a name. Imagine what it looks like. Invite it over for coffee and conversation. You will be amazed that a small amount of recognition and positive attention will transform your relationship to it. Your addiction will surrender and no longer control you. Your addiction will become your ally. Peace will be restored in your psyche.
Carder Stout, PhD is a Los Angeles-based therapist with a private practice in Brentwood, where he treats clients for anxiety, depression, addiction, and trauma. As a specialist in relationships, he is adept at helping clients become more truthful with themselves and their partners.