Addiction – The Basics

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Many people have never experienced addiction of any sort. For these people it can be very hard to understand and grasp the logic behind drug abuse. With drug use getting more and more prevalent in America, it’s now common for people to dig deeper and look for the reasons why people use drugs and alcohol. This is not meant to be a complete list, nor is it meant to be medical advice, but I feel this article can shed some light for addicts or family members of addicts dealing with this burning question…

What is addiction?

Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g. alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g. gambling, sex, shopping) that can be pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities such as work, relationships, or health. Users may not be aware that their behavior is out of control and causing problems for themselves and others.

Basics of Addiction

Every addictive act is preceded by a feeling of overwhelming helplessness or powerlessness. The particular situations or feelings that produce this helplessness are different for different people. Addictive behavior reverses these underlying feelings of helplessness. The behavior is able to do this because taking an addictive action (or even deciding to take this action) is a way of doing something that the person expects will make him feel better, in an act that is completely in his/her own control. Hence, this action create a sense of being empowered, of regaining control against helplessness. The reversal of helplessness is the psychological function of addiction.

The reversal of helplessness is the psychological function of addiction.

A consequence of this for the treatment of addiction is to focus not on the addictive act itself, but on the feelings and events that preceded the very first thought of enacting an addictive behavior, when the sense of being utterly trapped arose. I call that point in time the “key moment” in addiction. It may arise shortly before the action, but often occurs quite long before it. For example, at 1 p.m. a man thinks of having a drink after work. He waits until 5 p.m. when he does go to a bar. To figure out the issues behind his addiction, the moment to focus on is not when he had the drink, but what was happening just before 1 p.m. that led him to feel overwhelmingly helpless.

The states of helplessness which precede addictive urges are always associated with a great anger, basically the normal rage anyone feels when utterly trapped. It is this rage at helplessness that is the powerful drive behind addiction. It explains why addictions have such an unstoppable quality: “Nobody and nothing is going to stop me (not even myself)!”

A therapeutic consequence of this is that people suffering with addictions can learn that their inability to keep themselves from repeating harmful behavior is an understandable psychological process, not a sign of spiritual or moral weakness or of cognitive ill logic.

In addictions, the emotional function (reversing helplessness) and the drive (normal rage at feeling trapped) are always expressed in a substitute action (technically called a “displacement”). All addictions are displacements, or substitutes, for taking a more direct action. It is the displacement nature of addictions that causes them to look the way they do.

All addictions are displacements, or substitutes, for taking a more direct action.

For example, a person with alcoholism who is cut off in traffic and is infuriated by this (because it leads him to feel terribly disempowered) feels an intense compulsion to start drinking, turns off the road, and heads for a bar. He is attempting to solve the problem of feeling helplessness by taking an action that is completely in his control and that he expects will make him feel better. However, this action is actually a substitute for a more direct response. If he had vigorously honked his horn and made an insulting gesture, written down the license plate number of the other driver and resolved to report him, or any of a variety of other more direct responses, he would have been much less likely to feel the impulse to have a drink.

In treatment of a person with an addiction, it is important to locate the more direct actions that could have been taken. Along with this, it is important to explore why those direct actions felt impossible at the time. Psychological symptoms can be understood and treated, but not by dealing with them as spiritual problems, lack of education, lack of motivation, or simply faulty thinking. We have failed to help people suffering with addictions because we have failed to understand addictive behavior as the psychological symptom that it is.