I used to think addiction was an obsession with pleasure.
Growing up with a stable upbringing, strong mental health, and a relative lack of any enduring hardships, I assumed people regularly used drugs because they loved the pleasure of getting high. It never occurred to me that perhaps people are not addicted to the pleasure; people are addicted to a way of escaping pain.
This way of thinking about addiction changed everything.
Rather than a form of overindulgence, I began thinking of addiction as a form of self-medication. Thinking about it as simply an overindulgence only recognizes the tip of the iceberg, neglecting the massive invisible pain underneath.
So what causes this underlying pain?
Although many people might use substances to escape from psychological pain caused by trauma, not everyone who has suffered a trauma will form an addiction. Then, you might argue that perhaps it is the ones with a genetic risk that form the addiction. But this still didn’t answer the question of why some people with a genetic risk don’t form an addiction.
As a sociologist, I decided to look at how our social environments also contribute to addiction. Our brains don’t operate in a vacuum. Our minds are constantly sending and receiving signals within our social worlds. We are social beings and therefore need to be understood within our social contexts.
Everything I learned from my research on veterans in transition to civilian life as taught me that social life matters… a lot. Without healthy social bonds, we risk feeling isolated and life loses meaning.
Feeling isolated is different than being alone. We can feel isolated within a crowd; we can also feel connected while alone.
When we feel isolated, we experience a lack of meaning. Meaning comes from being connected with something larger than ourselves. Some people may think of this as a form of spirituality. Our social environments may also fill this function.
Becoming obsessed with the social roots of addiction, I needed to create a model of how this worked. I felt like I was on the verge of figuring it out.
One evening, everything seemed to click. I’d been thinking about the individual, society, and the interaction between the two. But what was the missing link?
I believe the missing link is purpose.
Addiction closes us off to the outside world. We are so preoccupied with self-medicating, we cannot see beyond ourselves. We are also closed off to our inner world We lose touch with our unique skills and ability to contribute in the world. We lose touch with our own values and no longer focus on our prior interests.
Our basic psychological needs go unmet, feeling isolated, trapped, and on a downward spiral, we fall into a sense of despair.
Addiction is a way of coping with the pain of this despair.
Luckily, addiction doesn’t need to be the answer. Another way of overcoming despair requires connecting with a sense of purpose. Rebuilding purpose takes time. It requires gaining a certain level of awareness regarding our own unique abilities, values, and interests. It then requires connecting our individual abilities to a social context where we can gain a sense of contribution and belonging, two major ingredients of purpose.
Someone with an addiction may feel so preoccupied, self-concerned, and isolated, the word “contribution” and “belonging” is the last thing they can think about. I believe this should be the central long-term treatment goal for persons with an addiction. Rebuilding purpose can take time.
When talking to a loved one suffering from an addiction, it is important to remember that they already likely feel socially isolated, so harsh judgments, criticisms, and tough love is generally counterproductive.
Since I’ve come to this understanding of addiction, I’ve noticed how many misconceptions still exist. These misconceptions keep people locked into inner and outer conflicts.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about addressing these misconceptions by putting together an online course on how to talk to someone with an addiction. If this is something you are interested in, feel free to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below.
Do you regularly interact with someone who struggles with addiction? What are some of the most challenging aspects of the interaction? What are some helpful things you have learned?