Addiction: A Whack-A-Mole Proposition

I change. I know that sounds pretty vague and elementary, but it’s the truth. The problem is that I don’t always change for the better, or into something I have not previously been. I guess you could use other words–like morph, or cycle–but the reality is that reality is not static. Sometimes things that seem like progress are actually growth and sometimes they are the re-manifestation of some earlier incarnation that was not necessarily the goal or desirable outcome.

It is common knowledge in the drug/alcohol recovery community that addictions are swapped for other addictions with amazing rapidity. The nature of my addiction is that I unconsciously gravitate toward those things that allow me to become more fully engaged with myself and myself alone. In this state, other people become incidental to my immediate goals. It can be shameful to admit, but insight and an admission of my awareness are the proverbial first steps toward changing the things I have come to loathe in myself. I have very recently realized that I am currently mired in such a cycle.

Addiction is misunderstood and deceptive. What is usually touted as an addiction is actually the addicted person’s current object of obsession. Rather than saying that someone is “addicted to alcohol,” it is more correct to term that their addiction is “currently focused on alcohol.” Different people may condemn that statement as either misinformed, incomplete, or flat-out wrong, but I stand behind it. This is why so many people in recovery do the addiction shuffle. There is a principle in physics called “Horror vacui,” commonly stated as “Nature abhors a vacuum.” The removal of the object of someone’s addiction creates such a vacuum that can then easily be filled with any number of other behaviors or substances.

Addiction is a complex and dynamic physical, spiritual, psychological, and emotional phenomenon that is best viewed as an inherent part of a person’s makeup. To reduce it to a mere substance or action is to belittle its true power. Alcohol is merely a liquid that has a certain effect on such people. Cocaine is a powder (or other form…) that stimulates people in a specific way. A slot machine is a bunch of electronic components slapped into a pretty package. The point is that these things are just a few of the stimuli that trigger a biological organism’s addictive tendencies that, when established in an individual, will yield surprisingly predictable results over any significant period of time. The actual addiction is what is termed the disease, condition, phenomenon, or illness rather than the trigger.

When I first came to 12 step recovery I noticed that recovering alcoholics can consume a prodigious amount of sugar, coffee, and cigarettes, the whole time while sitting in a meeting discussing how they have conquered their alcoholism. This is where what I am saying is controversial–many recovering alcoholics I know firmly separate “alcoholism” from the rest of the addiction spectrum as if it is hard science. Old-timers talk about how only ten percent of drinkers are alcoholics as opposed to the supposed 100% of heroin addicts you would get if you made people inject themselves with heroin on a long-term basis. I disagree with that reasoning as fallacious because it fails to take into account that you can become physically dependent upon a substance without developing an actual addiction to it. What is actually occurring is that old-timers and sticklers in AA, or “pure alcoholics,” still retain some of the residual fear from AA’s pioneers that allowing addicts to discuss their experiences with things such as drugs, shopping, sex, and gambling will threaten AA’s immediate purpose and water down the message in a way that could be harmful to the overall program. This is understandable, but increasingly archaic thinking in a world where there are so many more things to which addicts are drawn than 75 years ago when AA first came on the scene.

Among my friends in recovery I have personal, firsthand knowledge that I sit in AA meetings with people that are or have, during their abstinence from alcohol, been actively addicted to one or more of the following: illicit drugs (heroin, cocaine, marijuana, crystal meth…); legal drugs (caffeine, nicotine, Benadryl); sex; gambling; shopping; the internet; exercise; food; starving themselves; television; tattoos; piercings; and, adrenaline (extreme activities like skydiving, racing, motorcycles…). The common thread is that there is a key process, or innate force, that drives each of us to seek out such things. Addiction is the individual’s constant, restless search for something that will facilitate an in-the-moment euphoria, effectively (but temporarily) nullifying the individual’s ability to experience his/her uncontrollable but all powerful negative reality (self-hatred, self-loathing, shame, fear, anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts…). Drugs and alcohol are mere facilitators of that process. When we discuss powerlessness over alcohol, we are really professing an inability to control our insatiable compulsion to escape ourselves.

Until these things are widely disseminated and are understood on a societal level, addicts will continue to be enabled by friends and family and can even be harmed by those in the recovery community that are intensely protective of their own brand of recovery. I am an addict. I run 40 miles per week. I meditate. I buy too many things. I drink more than my share of coffee. I listen to loud, aggressive music and I drive fast. I do these things because I enjoy them and because, in the scheme of things, they are the more desirable and less harmful alternatives to the drugs and alcohol from which I have been abstinent for over 16 years.

There is not enough time or space to delve into the spiritual aspects of recovery in this post, but I do not want to leave any reader with the impression that it does not exist or is some kind of myth. I will address it in another post in the near future as I feel it only correct and responsible to do so. My main point is that, in addition to the role of spiritual progress in combating addiction, sometimes we addicts just need to find the things that we can live with as viable alternatives to those that helped us create so much destruction in our lives and the lives of others. Until next time.

Peace,

Christopher

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