Addiction is a problem of meaning.
Rather than simply looking at addiction as a disease, we need to broaden our understanding of what drives addiction so we can better address its root causes.
How is addiction a meaning problem?
Without a sense of meaning and purpose, a person may turn to drug use and addictive behaviors to fill the void of an existential vacuum. The problem is that this void is infinite. As one goes further down this infinite rabbet-hole, one takes on an increasingly distorted view of themselves and the world.
In the void, self-destructive behaviors begin to make sense. They are rationalized, minimized, and justified at all cost.
As one’s former self becomes a faint glimmer at the beginning of a long tunnel, the descent into addiction reorients one’s sense of meaning and purpose. If it takes over, the addiction becomes the sole guiding principal.
Why get up? To engage in the addiction. Why leave the house? To engage in the addiction. Why do anything? To engage in the addiction.
It is paradoxically a nihilistic sense of purpose. It answers the why question, but leaves the person caught in a self-referential loop of desperation and despair. Like Victor Frankl said: “suffering without meaning is despair”.
So how do we get someone out of an addiction?
The answer is not simple, nor is it easy. Beyond potentially useful medical treatments, we need to look at rebuilding the persons “why”. As Friedrich Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how”.
Victor Frankl proposed his concept of logotherapy as a treatment for addiction. Put simply, it is a form of talk therapy that attempts to rebuild a persons sense of purpose by exploring things that are meaningful to them. Although this concept is not often used in the addictions field, the more recent concept of motivational interviewing builds on the same ideas, becoming a gold standard counseling technique with hundreds of studies showing its effectiveness.
In short, motivational interviewing is a collaborative conversation focused on helping a person gain motivation to change. This is done by eliciting their own reasons for change and collaborating on an action-plan. See Miller and Rollnick’s book for more information on this counseling method: Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change.
Counseling can help someone connect to their “why”, but we can’t simply rely on trying to fix the problem after the fact. Increasing the use of counseling while neglecting an unhealthy social environment is like trying to fix an overflowing sink by buying more mops. Instead, we need to look at the source of the problem and work on turning off the tap.
How do social environments produce addiction?
Unhealthy social environments produce addiction when there is a lack of community. When people no longer feel like they belong and their sense of purpose is lacking, they are left with the existential vacuum mentioned in the beginning. In his book Suicide, Sociologist Émile Durkheim states:
“Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free him from all social pressure is to abandon him to himself and demoralize him.”
Community is essential to our why. This means “community” in the true sense of the word. At its root, community means being integrated into a network of individuals who you feel have your back, and therefore, you have theirs. On one hand, this is a sense of belonging; on the other hand, it is a sense of service. This is what gives us true meaning.
As we all continue to reach out every day to the things that save our lives from utter meaninglessness, we need to be mindful of how our social environments foster this sense of resilience.
No one randomly wakes up one day and rationally decides to become addicted to something. It is a symptom of larger forces. Rather than looking at addiction as an individual pathology, we need to understand addiction as a social pathology. Individual counseling must work to help connect individuals to their broader social environment, while politicians, business owners, and everyday citizens need to work at facilitating better communities.
When we have a why, we figure out the how. It is community that helps us connect to this why.