Throughout the world, there is discord around the theories of addiction. Many believe it to be a disease or a chip in one’s DNA that leaves them predisposed to its throes. This idea seems to claim the popular vote—at least, it has in this writer’s experience. Having lost my father to alcoholism, I’ve fielded countless comments around his death: He was born with it. The disease got him. He was unlucky. While enlightening and—at times—consoling, this view has left me wondering if there was more to the why and how of his addiction. (And also, to that of my own.)
My curiosity led me to the work of Carder Stout, Ph.D, MFT. A Los Angeles-based psychologist who has worked with hundreds of addicts, Stout believes that addiction is a psychological energy; a fluid power that—much like other emotions—has the capacity to visit us and also to leave us. “I feel very strongly that addiction is not our natural state of being,” he says. “It’s something that we acquire from being human from the lived experience and the formation of our ego.” In this light, Stout believes that every one of us can experience the psychological energy of addiction in some way or another—be it for alcohol or chocolate or sex or fame or anything else.
What Stout’s theory suggests is fascinating: We are all addicts, he believes. And the way to move forward from our addictions is not to demonize them but rather to offer reverence and find ways to connect deeper with our souls. This is serious work considering how many people’s lives have been painfully punctuated by addiction—including that of Stout’s, who is a recovered addict himself. While his theory cannot obviate the hardship addiction can cause, it can provide a framework for shedding new light on addiction, and offer hope.
A Conversation with Carder Stout, PhD, MFT
How do you define addiction?
I believe that addiction is nothing more than psychological energy, and it is energy that is not ours to keep. Much like other emotions, like anger or anxiety or sadness, addiction tends to visit us and stay for a while, and then it can leave us—much in the same way that anger does. We might get angry about something, some situation, and then we feel the anger dissipate. I believe that addiction is the same type of energy.
I feel very strongly that addiction is not our natural state of being. It’s something that we acquire from our lived experience of being human and the formation of our ego. The ego is formed by the distillation of our human suffering, disappointments, emotional trauma and fear. This is where addiction breeds.
You have said that you believe each one of us is an addict. How so and in what ways?
This not only comes from my own experience, but also working with hundreds of addicts over my career as a psychologist, I feel as though addiction is an archetypical expression. This means that we all know the feeling, in some capacity. The way that we have framed addiction in Western culture is based on chemical dependency, alcoholism, gambling, or other things. But in actuality, it extends much farther than that. I believe that addiction is simply psychological energy that we all experience in our lives in some capacity.
This energy creates an obsession of the mind and a compulsion of the body. We think about something, and those thoughts ruminate, and then compel us take some sort of action. Whether it’s an obsessive thought that compels us to pick up the phone and call somebody, eat a pint of ice cream, or get on the scale compulsively to check our weight. It also extends to the workplace and people’s relationship with their jobs, and this quest that we have for success. And ultimately now in our culture, addiction extends to the realm of fame and recognition.
People may also become addicted to anger, as well as love and sex. Love addicts feel compelled to always want to search for that partner obsessively and they don’t feel whole until they have some connection to another human being. Each one of us, in some point in our lives, has gone through a cycle where we have experienced this energy: an obsession of the mind and a compulsion of the body.
This is interesting because addiction is often looked at as binary. That it’s something that you either have or you don’t.
Addiction has been demonized in our culture and thought of as a negative. As you said, you either have it or you don’t. It’s either in your DNA, you’re born with it and are one of the unlucky ones who has it, or you’re not. I’ve heard that talked about in the rooms of AA and among other colleagues in psychology. And I just don’t believe that’s true. I believe that addiction comes and goes like the wind through the trees—that it’s not ours to keep.
When does this energy usually appear?
It usually appears when we are going through some sort of difficult moment. When we’re experiencing some emotional trauma. When we have experienced a loss. When we are shifting and transitioning from one phase of our life to another. Where there’s uncertainty and there’s fear. That’s when addiction usually shows up. My belief is that addiction is a product of our circumstances.
How is modern life exacerbating this?
All of the patients that I have seen over the past decade have wrestled with this psychological energy, and it has shown up in their lives in some form or another. We live in a consumer culture where the messaging is about more is better, and more will make you happier. So, from a very young age, we are told to fill up, or look a certain way in order to be beautiful or handsome. This messaging is fuel for addictive energy.
How can we address this energy of addiction?
The way to address addiction is through spiritual means.
We have two sides of us: our spiritual side and our human side. I call the human side the ego, and I call the spiritual side the soul. When we come into the world, we are pure soul, and soul is really our divine connection to the universe. It’s where we store our love, hope, generosity, kindness, confidence, and our belief in self or self-assured nature. The ego is something that’s formed over time in our process of being human. It’s the distillation of our lived experience. Each time we experience some sort of psychological trauma—we feel rejected, we feel abandoned, we go through a loss—we experience fear. These vulnerable moments form our ego. We are in this constant pendulum swing between ego and soul. If we focus on developing a relationship with our soul, the energy of addiction cannot survive and will leave us.
What tips and practices do you have for identifying an addiction and doing the work to move forward from it?
People need to develop a relationship with their souls. They can do journaling exercises about what they believe their soul to be and what their belief system is around this concept. The soul can be synonymous with ones highest self or best self or authentic self or spiritual self. In this context the soul doesn’t have any religious affiliation. It’s the divinity and purity that resides in each one of us. When I started speaking with my soul in my early sobriety, things really shifted for me.
It takes a little practice to determine the difference between the voice of your soul and that of your ego. When you are really feeling gratitude and appreciation, in a place of love and laughter—a place of ease, you are operating from the soul. If you are in fear or in anger, in judgment, you are operating from a place of ego. There are these two conflicting voices, and it’s important for you to begin to know the difference. I have developed a meditation, which is a written dialogue, where I speak to my soul every morning. I ask my soul to be present in my life and to govern my thoughts and my actions and my words— because the soul appreciates being recognized. I am aware that each day my ego tries to cover the soul. With the constant complexities of our frenetic lives it is easy to move away from soul. That is why most people are in a lot of psychological discomfort and pain. A reunification and a return to the soul will eliminate much of that.
What is your take on when someone is addicted to a drug or chemical?
At a certain juncture when somebody has been drinking for decades, or consuming opioids or some sort of pharmaceutical or chemical, they can develop a chemical dependency on the properties of the drug. But chemical dependency is different than addiction. It is simply one of the driving factors that holds people captive with addictive energy. The chemicals create a reaction in the body and in the mind and affect our neurotransmitters, which are the chemicals in the brain, so if we stop taking them, we start to feel sick. That is the chemical dependency aspect of it—and that’s just one more element that leads to substance abuse. But again, there is a difference between chemical dependency and this addictive energy.
If you or a loved one is chemically addicted, it is very important to detox from those chemicals medically. Get the proper care, because it can be very dangerous to come off these chemicals as the physiology of the human structure is very fragile. If someone is chemically dependent, they need to get that proper medical care to detox.
When I got sober, I did it through the program of AA. What was attractive about that program to me was that there was a group of people that were like-minded and were going through the same sorts of things. It was very helpful to have a social connection. The specific tenants of the 12-step programs are spiritual in nature. So, whatever spiritual means one can find to address this addictive energy is the right direction to move in.
What are some other misconceptions around addiction?
This idea that addiction is passed from generation to generation, that it’s in the blood, in the DNA, is all theoretical. They’ve done some twin studies, but it’s all theory. And my theory is different. I believe that addiction is much more grounded in our circumstances and in our environment. And that it’s universal—an experience and that we all have. It just comes into our lives at different times and in different ways.
There are some people that would argue that once you’ve been bitten by the bug, you’re going to have it for the rest of your life. I don’t believe that that’s true—because it hasn’t been true in my case. I was someone who was addicted to not only alcohol substances, but also sex, love, food, success, fame, anger—all of it. Now none of that is present in my life. I am not an anomaly. I just have been very focused on treating this energy through spiritual means through connection to my soul and have found that it no longer has any power over me.
What would you say to someone who is feeling despondent in the face of their addiction?
I say this to my patients: Don’t demonize your addiction. Don’t hate your addiction. Don’t think of it as a weakness. It’s just a part of you, and if treated with reverence, respect and love, will remove itself. The things that we repress and think of in a negative way tend to grow stronger. If your relationship with addiction becomes one of curiosity and of appreciation and love, the addiction will get the attention that it is looking for and it will ultimately leave you.
I would also say that addiction is not your natural state of being. It is not who you are. Addiction is squatting inside of you. It is an unwanted guest. If you do the spiritual work, this energy will move from you and go back out into the atmosphere where it belongs. I am living proof of this. I’ve worked with many people that also are on the other side of it, completely. There is a path forward, so don’t lose hope.
Dr. Carder Stout is an LA based psychologist and author who treats patients for anxiety, depression, addiction, trauma and relationship issues. His first book LOST IN GHOST TOWN received critical acclaim and was called “Upsettingly beautiful” by Rolling Stone Magazine. To learn more visit carderstout.com.