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Understanding Addiction: Life’s call to meaning

Understanding Addiction

Regardless of our circumstances, many of us pursue pleasure or relief in the short-term to manage some difficult life event or state of mind. There is nothing inherently wrong with the desire to avoid pain or to cope with anxiety in a way that allows us to temporarily disconnect from that suffering. Makes perfect survival sense. However, in understanding addiction more deeply, there is a call to see the manifestation of addictive behavior as a quest for greater meaning in our lives.

Very often our friends, family and even society judge the way that we cope with our struggles without considering how hard it really is to react any other way. These judgments can come from a place of compassion, where a loved one might be worried about their loved one’s drug or alcohol use. That sensitivity is easy to imagine when we look at people in close relationships. But what happens when we see a stranger drunk in the street or hear a story about a person who can no longer pay their rent because they’ve spent all their money gambling or on drugs? It can be difficult to adopt the same level of understanding and empathy for people we don’t know.

The reality is that we don’t always know why people act the way that they do. We are quick to judge people based on the behaviors and decisions that they make. Does it change the way that we feel if we learn that someone got bad news and decides to have a drink to relax? What if someone chooses drugs to cope with the loss of a family member or physical pain? Context matters. Yet we’re often less interested in the why of someone’s behavior, particularly if we’ve already decided that what they’re doing is wrong or unhealthy.

The definition of addiction that makes the most sense to me is one I adopted from Dr. Gabor Mate. He describes addiction as a behavior that we crave, provides relief or pleasure and has negative consequences and that we have trouble giving up. Looking at addiction through this lens changed the way that I work with people. It changed the idea of addiction from being a disease (something to be treated) to being a way to deal with pain and suffering (something that requires a very different approach).

As soon as we forget the true intention behind addiction – disconnecting from our bodies and minds through the use of substances or behaviors – it’s easy to succumb to the illusion that someone is weak or doesn’t care about anyone but themselves (things that are often said about individuals engaged in addictive behaviors). This shift in perspective encourages us to rethink the question of why someone has an addiction and understanding more profoundly the nature of the suffering that the person is experiencing.

We are not all perfectly attuned to our emotional mind and body. Many of us have trouble simply expressing how we feel. With all that is going on in our daily lives and with COVID fueling the fire of our collective suffering, it’s easy to see how so many things can distract us from our internal experiences. Now more than ever we may feel a strong pull towards pleasure seeking and emotional or physical pain relief. We don’t need to be judged or be criticized for that. Most people do that very well on their own. We do need to be supported in exploring what we really want to feel and how we really want to live.

The consequences of addictive behaviors can be devastating, which is what motivates me to help my clients find greater meaning in their lives. By engaging in stimulating dialogue and asking difficult questions, we start to examine old ways of thinking and identify what might no longer be helping us achieve the life we want. Identifying the underlying struggles and motivations is great place to start. It can open our eyes to the reality that many of us are ultimately seeking the same thing but have different ways of achieving it. We all want to create a feeling of being okay and in the world.

What I’ve come to realize in the past year is that many of the factors that set us apart (money, social status, race and culture) also influence how we treat one another. Yet when we break down the underlying causes of pain, none of those distinguishing factors matter anymore. That means that we can all benefit from a common understanding of how to relate differently to suffering.  

Despite the desire for a cure or a quick solution to stopping addictive behavior, there isn’t a magic fix. Given what we know and understand about the human experience, learning to live with and tolerate pain and emotional suffering in a manageable way is the best course of action to address the personal suffering that fuels addictive behavior.

There will always be internal and external turmoil in the journey of life. Change and unpredictability are baked into the matrix of our existence. When we build resilience in the face of this truth, we find more meaningful ways to connect with ourselves and the world around us. We create a center-point of meaning that anchors us even when we feel like things are beyond our control. 

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Written by
Derek De Braga