Psychology Sociology

Healing Addiction by Rebuilding Purpose

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 s.rose@queensu.ca 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?


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28 comments

  1. Thank you Steve for this article. My daughter suffers from addiction. She is 22. (You subscribed to my blog awhile ago). I think you are spot on re: the root causes. And I appreciate that you pointed out that it is both internal and external isolation. I could respond for an hour – LOL – but am on my way to work, unfortunately! 🙂 I just know that from the earliest age my daughter was “different.” She seemed to have a high anxiety/level of discomfort internal button.. and she was always trying to “fit in” but seemed to fail quite a bit at that. She tried so hard, and she never seemed to value her own strengths – always overshooting. When she would sleep I would whisper in her ear that she was smart, beautiful and loved by me. (Because I am not sure she believed it when she was awake). BUT she has found LTR – and it was through the 12 steps (which I think gave her enormous purpose and made her confront things she was uncomfortable with – and therefore work thru them). And she lives with others in LTR so she has found her “community.” She did recently relapse – but she found her way back quickly and that I think is because she has finally found inner strength – and has a social circle that loves her – and a job that she is really good at. She is n o longer isolated.

  2. A very thought provoking and reasoned article. The area about isolation and being alone hits a cord with me. I am at risk of carrying out my addictions when I choose not to try or have social connections. At the moment I am going through my latest withdrawal and I am beginning to see my life’s purpose was about self. Letting self will run wild and not having a the desire to connect with others on a healthy intimate basis.

  3. wow, this post really struck a chord with me. I decided after losing my mum to addiction it was time to finally be brave enough to write about my experience in the hopes that it raises awareness.

      1. Thank you, Ana! I figured it out. Your article makes a strong case for the link between creativity and self-medication. Your following quote illustrates this very well: “Such individuals, in the words of Robert Lowell, ‘see too much, and feel it with one skin-layer missing.'”

    1. I liked the article. It made me feel weird, but in a good way. Although I suppose I could just feel weird because I’m back on drugs. So much for a year, eh?
      Thanks for dropping the link!

  4. You’re right.
    Drugs and alcohol are never the issues for those of us who are addicts. At least not in the beginning.
    Drugs and alcohol are our solution; we are the problem.
    We had shit going on prior to turning to substances and that same shit is still waiting on us when we get sober, but now we get to face them absent of having the chance to turn around and cling to the coping mechanism that we’re used to utilizing. Whether that be the bottle, the straw, the razor blade, the promiscuous sex, the needle, etc. It’s uncomfortable for a long time after, and it sucks ass.
    I always refer to my early sobriety as “repair mode,” because I’m just scurrying around, helplessly trying to fix everything that I can. I say “helplessly” because I destroy all of my relationships while I’m using so by the time I’m ready to cut the bullshit, I have to put the pieces back together myself.
    Do I blame anyone other than me for that? No, absolutely not. I take full responsibility, but it’s hard. It’s really hard getting sober, and sometimes, it’s even harder to stay sober.
    Thankfully, I’ve been doing it for almost year now. Some days I don’t want to be, but it’s possible.
    Fuck addiction.

    1. I’m sorry — the first part of that comment was lost. In it I offered that many of our culture’s independent self medicators would be uniquely, significantly and creatively contributive to our culture were it not for factors such as the extreme poverty caused by, and preoccupation with, problematic supply lines, inability to interface with an already prohibitively repressive employment system due to nearly universal drug testing, societal snap judgments around any uniqueness in personal appearance, facial expression, mannerism and tone of voice, and constant and overwhelming fear of imprisonment, as well as the total disruptions of periodic imprisonment itself.
      The link was meant to provide a resource for insight into long prevailing reasons for self medication in the creative arena.
      Happy to provide further communionon on this topic, with which my life path has brought me into frequent connection.

  5. Steve, really interesting to understand the difference between isolation and loneliness; there seems to be a lot in the media that our generation is the loneliest so this is very topical. Would be good to hear how you would put your thoughts above into practice.

  6. Hi Steve,
    I am very interested in your perspective on addiction (and other mental health issues) as a sociologist. I typically see things from a psychology point of view–more looking at the individual and not necessarily the person’s connections. Thank you for sharing this article. I’m going to check out what else you have written here.

  7. This is absolutely one of the very best articles I think I have ever read on addiction and I should know I am addicted to weed and ice atm, normally a poly user I have cut out a lot of drugs but these last ones, and the ice is proving far more difficult that I ever anticipated.
    This article could explain my hump. I don’t have any real life friends and am not allowed out so isolation is something I have become accustomed to over the last 18 years. That is not health for any young woman, let alone human being.
    Isolation and a lack of social bonds does bring about a lack of meaning and purpose.
    Purpose is that ideal on the horizon, that promise of something better, the wanting to give something back, the need to be needed and to be loved and to love. Purpose brings hope, passion, fulfillment and a sense of pride, it fills the void that is full of pain in which addiction festers and lies in wait greedily.
    … Wow. You rally put this so simply and eloquently,
    You are cut off from the entire world through your addiction, everything you view, touch, smell, taste, say, portray and do is shaped and viewed through the lens of your drug of choice in some way, shape or form. You become self-involved and retreat from others into a world that takes away all of the anguish inside. You become comfortably numb.
    Sometimes…
    You are just so filled with shame, loneliness and confusion that the way seems very dark and experiencing self doubt about your recovery is a harrowing experience.
    You are scared of who you confide in, because you have experienced judgment and condemnation before and the harsh stinging nettle of criticism thrown at you from all sides, including yourself.
    You have shrunk into a shadow of what you once were and all that you could be.
    Authenticity is lost, when you pride yourself on being real.
    Belonging and contributing are the last things we are thinking about, because we never believed we were good enough to be part of.
    Purpose brings hope and hope springs eternal….Maybe there is hope, for me, out of this thing called ICE….
    Thank you for a superb article.
    Very well said
    Kind regards
    ~Angelbrite~
    P.S I shall try to get my partner if he has time to share here, He doesn’t use or drink and has witnessed me love my drugs more than him for 18 years with patience, love, kindness, compassion and a steadfast loyalty which I have never known before. I am sure he could describe what it is like in a manner that I cannot.

    1. Wow! Thank you for sharing your personal experience. Looks like you are struggling with quite a bit of social isolation. If you don’t mind sharing, what is it that keeps you from being “allowed” out?

  8. I was just thinking of how helpful would it be to also design something on “how to self-talk” with one’s own addiction.
    And I couldn’t agree more with you on how changing the perspective we see addiction. How do we help people rebuilding purpose? I will think about it…

    1. Thank you for the suggestion! Self-talk tools are for sure helpful in working through cognitive distortions that further isolate us in unproductive thought patterns. When it comes to rebuilding purpose, I’ve recently come up with a model that seems to be helpful. Over the next few articles, I will try to lay it out in a more practical way.

      Thank you for your input. I look forward to hearing your own thoughts on rebuilding purpose.

    1. Thanks for the interest! I will keep publishing articles here, but in addition to the articles, I have started a new project recording an audio/visual series of online modules explaining practical techniques on how to communicate with someone suffering from an addiction. It is still in progress, so any suggestions on content that may be relevant to you is helpful.

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