What is addiction? When your addiction’s here, you’re not. You feel like somebody else. You seem distant, as if you don’t really know me, telling me I am something I am not. I can’t trust you. I can’t rely on you. I see that you’re scared. You’re frightened. You are angry, but your anger is a block of ice, or the still surface of a lake, or a bomb in my face. It never feels right. You’re obsessed. You can’t stop yourself. What is addiction?
There’s a way of thinking about addiction that I find helpful. Addiction happens when I use a substance or a behaviour to help me feel better; but the result is that I feel worse. The more I use, the more anxious I feel. The more anxious I feel, the more I use. My anxiety eats me up. What is addiction?
Why do I feel anxious? I know why, not that it helps. I feel anxious because of things in my life that don’t add up. Addiction is economics. Take something in to balance the books, to compensate, to fill the black hole in me. What is addiction? The Bank of Me, my central bank, is in trouble. We know about what happens when there is a run on the Pound, on the Dollar, on the Euro, when people lose confidence in a national currency, but this is a run on Me. I have no confidence in Me. I crash. What is addiction?
This crash has come about, like all crashes, because I have lost touch with a sense of something real. Let’s not get into what is real, or what’s not, but how about simply a sense of it? I crash because I invest again and again in thoughts and feelings about myself that someone who’s never known me, who gets to know me, might think of as unreal, untrue and unhelpful (if something helpful might be for me to believe, for example, I am not a terminal problem). Something, for example, such as me believing that if I say what I truly want or think I am doing something wrong.
So a lot of the time I might not be honest, or I might say very little, or I might organize my life so I don’t have to say those kinds of things much, or at all. I do my best to hide who I think I am and be who I think will be acceptable.
But if I am not myself, I feel anxious.
Anxiety is something that eats me up. The less I feel able to be myself in the world, the worse it gets. What can we do about anxiety? And I say we because I believe you or I can’t do much about it on our own. The more people we involve, in fact, the better it can get (which is why group psychotherapy can be so helpful for addicts).
To overcome anxiety I need to be myself as far as possible: not to betray myself (‘I’m fine, it doesn’t matter’), not to be ashamed of myself (‘I’m useless’), not to be afraid of myself (‘I’m too much’). If I can’t be myself life will feel unfair. I’ll become deeply angry with myself – full of resentment.
At the clinic I manage we use Mandy Saligari’s way of thinking about anxiety. She talks about the ‘core characteristics of addiction’ and names twelve: Fear, Obsession, Denial, Deceit, Expectation, Resentment, Projection, Control, Compulsion, Shame, Self-Centredness (-pity, or –will) and Isolation. Of course, when someone tells me about the feeling that leads to them using they often talk about anxiety. Sometimes they simply say they feel shit. I try to get them talking about what life’s like through the lens, or maybe the ear-trumpet (because I think we need to tune in most of all to what we hear), or perhaps the nose (somewhere else I’ll talk about scent and psychotherapy) of the core characteristics.
What happens to you when you feel unable to tell me, or this group, you can’t be yourself? What is addiction?
I could complicate things a good deal by getting into questions of who I am, or what might be contained in this sentence: ‘I don’t feel myself today’, but not now.
Where was I? What is addiction?
If you read my first paragraph and compare it to the list of the ‘core characteristics’ you’ll see that describing what it’s like to try and be with an addict becomes possible if you refer to existential states such as like Fear, Obsession, Denial and Deceit. An addict has been overwhelmed, effaced, run out of town by their feleings. They stop being themselves and they use something outside of them to try and make themselves feel better. They cling on to something in the world like an anchor, hoping it will make them feel better. I’m talking about self-medication theories.
Anxiety blocks presence, so people use things, substances such as drugs, or behaviours, as ways of hauling themselves back into the world. Unfortunately, something like crack will always take you somewhere different from everybody else.
Come back. Neither of us may really know where we are, or who we are, but the less you try to anchor yourself outside of yourself the more I will be able to know you. Of course I will ‘get you’ in ways you will never be able to get yourself, but can you live with that? Or does it frighten you too much? Will you never let me in?
Daniel Stern writes about forms of vitality and what prevents us being present. Gene Gendlin describes ways of knowing better what’s interrupting our sense of who we are. Of course there’s also Freud, especially in The Uncanny. I’ve mentioned it here: Anxiety
This is addiction, I think. An illness of not really being here, and all of the things I might do to cope with that. There’s a way of getting out of it, I believe, as long as we don’t get lost in dreams of what it might be like to be superhuman, or even human. We have to learn to be ourselves.