“It is impossible to understand addiction without asking what relief the addict finds, or hopes to find, in the drug or the addictive behaviour.” – Gabor Mate, MD, Canadian physician and addiction expert
We all engage in behaviors that offer us relief from something that is bothering us inside. Whether it is jogging to work out stress or a cup of coffee to give us a break from exhaustion, we try to solve our own problems with actions and/or chemicals. The relief becomes a reward, and the reward becomes a habit.
Habits can be socially acceptable activities like jogging and coffee. It can be drinking with friends to loosen up, smoking pot to calm down, and using meth when you want to get things done. It can be overeating to relieve boredom or over-working to relieve loneliness. It can be gambling or shopping or sex to feel something meaningful, or self-cutting to feel anything at all. Habits often involve people that you can’t seem to let go.
Sometimes, these habits start to become problems of their own. Sometimes, you feel pain with it, you feel pain without it, and you feel stuck in an impossible dilemma of swinging back and forth between the two. This habit that sometimes makes you feel complete and sometimes hurts you unbearably can be a person, an activity, or a substance. Addiction can happen with much more than just drugs. It is not the chemicals themselves, but the way rewards affect a brain that is in distress. The survival brain feels like if it doesn’t have that person, activity, or substance, you are going to die. Your rational brain knows that is not true, but your survival brain doesn’t and grips on tighter like your life depends on it.
Addiction treatment helps you understand what it is that you are seeking to relieve, what emotional discomfort or pain you are trying to escape. You may remember a time when you solved those problems in a different way and rediscover resources within you that you have lost touch with. You start building a safe environment, physically and emotionally, for yourself. You build a life that is abundant in support, resources, and meaning to cushion survival brain’s fears of being lost and abandoned. When you manage to finally persuade your survival brain to loosen up that death grip, you will do it in a warm and gentle way that makes that part of you feel comforted and connected.
Addiction treatment is NOT telling you you have a problem with willpower. Whatever willpower you have, survival brain is more primal and visceral. If you have ever seen someone freeze in imminent danger, you understand that they are not choosing to freeze, but some part of their brain has taken over and paralyzed their ability to choose rationally. Judgment and shame does the opposite of reassuring your survival brain that it is safe and are correlated with relapse. One of the first tasks in addiction treatment is to soothe that urge to blame yourself.
My approach to addiction treatment is influenced by attachment theory. People who feel secure in and connected to their place in their tribe, who feel attached in a healthy and abundant way, are not vulnerable to survival brain’s desperate grip on habits that hurt. I also use EMDR’s addiction protocol to process urges and underlying motivations for use.