Escape From The Pain – What Is Addiction?
Why would any reasonable person willingly devastate their health, destroy their finances, completely obliterate their reputation, burn their bridges with family and friends, and annihilate their dreams of a productive future. It’s a baffling and difficult concept to wrap your head around. It makes no sense, whatsoever, until you understand the mechanisms driving addiction. Is addiction, merely, an escape from the pain? In this post, I’ll be addressing the question: “What is addiction?”
Drug and alcohol abuse in the United States costs more than 740 billion dollars a year. That number is nothing short of staggering. Crime, decreased productivity at work, and health-care costs are all part of the financial equation, and that’s not taking into account the cost in terms of human suffering.
A disease of the soul, addiction is an attempt to escape feelings of inadequacy, rejection, unworthiness, abandonment, and betrayal that torment the addict to the degree they seek relief in the form of substance abuse or other addictive behaviors. If the compelling force driving addiction is pain, the question that first needs addressing is: “Why the pain?” Why is someone willing to distort their perception of reality to avoid the pain they feel? Why does life frighten addicts?
Addiction happens when a person’s favorite coping mechanism turns destructive, and even deadly, following years of devastation. Overtime, the addict loses the ability to choose, held captive by a prison of their own making.
What Exactly Is Addiction?
Addiction is complicated, and doesn’t stem from one single cause, but is generally seen as an escape mechanism, allowing the addict to disassociate from the feelings originating from emotional abuse, and trauma; perhaps, from things that should have happened in their childhood and didn’t or events that did take place and shouldn’t have. Is this concept of escape too simple? These are valid questions and not easily answered.
The following quote from Pema Chodron, taken from her book? When Things Fall Apart,” illustrates how addictions begin: “We use all kinds of ways to escape – all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.”
That begs the question, is it what actually happened that was responsible for the wounding or was it the meaning that was attributed to what happened? Could perceived perception be involved, or the degree of sensitivity the child possesses be a factor? Whichever the case, childhood trauma affects how the victim responds to stress throughout their lifetime, making them more reactive to anything that triggers negative feelings, while also diminishing their resiliency.
Most experts agree addiction is a compulsive, chronic and progressive disease stemming from a combination of genetic, biochemical and environmental factors, mental illness, and childhood trauma and abuse. All of these factors are influential in the development of addiction.
Here are two great books on addiction. The first one is “In The Realm of The Hungry Ghost,” by Gabor Mate, MD. Dr. Mate specializes in the study and treatment of addiction, and has worked extensively with addicts in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He believes that all addiction can be traced back to painful childhood experiences, whether they are remembered or not. In his opinion, the problem is not the drugs themselves, but rather “the hurt that is at the center of all addictive behaviors.”
And “Addiction and Grace: Love and Spirituality in the Healing of Addictions,” by Gerald G May, MD. A psychiatrist, Dr. May, in his eye-opening book, examines the process of attachment and how it leads to addiction. “Addiction, he says, “represents an attempt to assert complete control over our lives.” He also explores the relationship between addiction and spiritual awareness, emphasizing that freedom can be found through spiritual contemplation.
A Deficit In Dopamine
Other experts posit that addiction is a primary condition, originating in the brain, genetically predisposing a person to addictive behavior. This innate inability to feel pleasure, or derive meaning from life, in the same way non addicts do, fuels addictive tendencies. Normal levels of dopamine in the brain enable one to feel pleasure, a sense of belonging, motivation, and purpose. Genetic mutations in the dopamine receptors, in the brains of addicts, may be to blame for this inability to feel pleasure.
Addicts compensate for this deficit by seeking dopamine stimulation from outside sources. They do this because the need for meaning and purpose are hardwired into all of us, and this need is so prevailing, it begs to be met. Increased dopamine levels allow the addict to feel “normal.” This ability to feel normal, while also numbing their feelings of lack, can be obtained from a variety of external sources, including street drugs, prescriptions drugs, alcohol, nicotine, sex, status, power, or even, love and romance.
Addiction powerfully influences the brain by causing intense cravings for the addictive substance or behavior, while rendering the addict unable to control these cravings despite the terrible consequences they incur. When addiction reaches this point, the mere anticipation of procuring their drug of choice is enough to boost dopamine levels. These levels can increase up to ten times what they would normally be, reinforcing the addict’s reliance on drugs to sustain the level of these feel-good chemicals.
The superstar of neurotransmitters, dopamine is also the chemical of reinforcement, sending powerful signals to the brain to remember the pleasurable feelings caused by _______ fill in the blank, with the preferred substance or behavior. When hard street drugs like meth are used, dopamine absorption is blocked. This, in turn, increases the availability of dopamine, multiplying pleasure signals to the brain a thousand fold. What goes up, must come down, and this increase comes at a cost. Overtime, the brain develops a sensitivity to dopamine, leading to its rapid release with each subsequent use. This is how addiction begins.
Trauma Or Neurotransmitters?
Each addict has their own flavor of what lack looks and feels like, and it may have nothing to do with trauma or abuse, but may be a genetic deficiency in their neurotransmitter system. This biochemical condition is a setup for addiction. Resisting harmful substances, and breaking the dependency cycle, is far more difficult when brain chemistry is involved.
The three dominant brain systems in all addictions—the opioid attachment-reward system, the dopamine-based incentive-motivation apparatus and the self-regulation areas of the prefrontal cortex—are all exquisitely fine-tuned by the environment. To various degrees, in all addicted persons these systems are not functioning properly
There are three systems in the brain that are associated with addiction:
- The opioid attachment reward system
- The dopamine-based, incentive-motivation apparatus
- The self-regulation areas of the prefrontal cortex.
Each of these systems is influenced by the environment, and are not functioning optimally in those who are addicted.
Whether it’s childhood trauma, environmental factors, genetic defects in the dopamine centers, mental illness, or a combination of these factors, the underlying theme of addiction is the compulsion to self-medicate. And it works in the beginning, causing the addict to return again and again to their drug of choice, in order to feel, what others feel naturally. Malfunctions in the reward center in the brain compel the addict to find relief, which they do, and the cycle continues
A loss of self occurs when an addict’s reliance on their primary coping method becomes chronic, and their ability to stop their destructive behavior, impossible. This reliance stunts the addict’s emotional and spiritual growth, the very skills they so desperately need to overcome their addiction, making the situation even more dire. “Addiction” means “to enslave,” and it lives up to its name.
Treating Drug Addiction
If an escape from pain is the underlying mechanism initiating and sustaining addiction, it makes sense that the antidote would be connection, validation, compassion, love, and empathy, with an emphasis on self-acceptance and forgiveness. Emotions are an integral part of life, and dealing with them appropriately is necessary to eliminate the need for addictive substances to mask the pain.
I believe addiction rates would fall dramatically if children were taught, early on, the skills that foster emotional maturity and self-awareness. Skills that encourage the identification and expression of feelings on a regular basis. This openness requires a supportive, nurturing environment, with trustworthy caretakers, who show unconditional love and acceptance, regardless of any emotion the child is feeling in the moment. Self-regulation is vital in choosing appropriate coping mechanisms, and to be able to self-soothe in non-destructive ways. If addiction is about pain, then expressing what hurts is a necessary element to counteract it.
Altering the way one feels, through substance abuse, is a red flag that deeper emotions are being suppressed. This is never healthy, whether addiction is part of the equation or not. This lack of authenticity is soul-crushing. Authenticity promotes true healing, and should be fostered from a young age.
Overcoming Conflict Avoidance
Conflict avoidance, whether within oneself, or with others, is another factor preceding addiction. Conflict involves uncomfortable feelings that cause many people to avoid it altogether. This avoidance may work short term, but most often, does not play out favorably. Conflict is part of life. We are wired to deal with conflict, and come up with creative solutions to overcome it. Running from trouble rarely eliminates the problem, but rather, intensifies it.
It is normal and healthy to feel a spectrum of emotions. That’s what makes us human. To be okay with whatever your emotional state is at the time, not only develops emotional intelligence, but empathy, and the ability to see others’ pain. Embracing, accepting, and being with the pain, instead of escaping it, is a critical key to recovery.
Fleeing from pain, creates even more pain, leading to a vicious cycle that is difficult to break. Addiction is the ultimate avoidance strategy. Only a surrender to brokenness can heal and sustain.
Faith And Trust In God
The instant gratification and distraction inherent in our society doesn’t help matters. We aren’t taught how to be with ourselves, immediate relief is much easier than the painstaking work of introspection and self-reflection. The world would be a far friendlier place if we learned how to acknowledge and embrace all of our emotions, both good and bad.
And not only acknowledgment of these painful feelings, but respect for them, as part of who we are. Sharing our vulnerabilities with supportive people, who can compassionately validate, is vital. Belief and reliance on a higher power is paramount for complete recovery. This reliance, along with a loving supportive team, will fill the emptiness, addicts have so desperately, and ineffectively, sought to fill through addiction.
Willpower will never be strong enough to combat the insatiable urges addiction drives. It’s not about will power; will power will fail 100 percent of the time. Faith in God and a reliance on his power is critical to restoring the addict’s shattered faith in both God and man. This shattered faith is a common underlying component of addiction.
Carl Jung stated: “Addiction is really a misguided search for God.” Addicts are looking for comfort, strength, and validation in all the wrong places. If addiction is, indeed, a spiritual disease, then a spiritual cure is needed to loosen its grip. Belief in a higher power is necessary to cast down the strongholds so prevalent in addiction. Only an abiding faith in God and his sovereignity can break the bonds of these incorrect thinking patterns responsible for keeping a person firmly entrenched in their destructive behaviors.
An enlivening sense of purpose and meaning, derived from a newfound faith in God, fuels recovery from addiction. Spirituality, faith, trust, and reliance on God are the most time-tested tools to successfully treat those suffering from this enslaving disease.
Denial And Recovery
To deny or distort what is really happening is to be in a state of denial. Those enmeshed in this distortion ignore their problems entirely or discount the severity of those problems. They commonly blame others for their own destructive behaviors, or at the very least, minimize the loving concern of those closet to them. Denial, as a coping mechanism, makes sense: If your life is in a whirlwind of devastation, why not avoid reality altogether by refusing to face it or painting it in a more flattering light?
Those in denial are masters of rationalization and self-deception. Rationalization feeds off the entitlement so common in addiction. “I’m stressed and deserve to be rewarded so I’ll feel better.” It’s all about the feeling. The addict rationalizes that the situation they’re in is not as bad as it appears, although, their lives are in extreme jeopardy, their rational mind held captive by their distorted thought processes.
Denial is an integral part of addiction, making the chains of addiction impossible to break; no problem, no solution. Not until denial is relinquished, along with a strong sense of entitlement, is recovery possible. Unfortunately, denial typically remains firmly intact for many years. When the addict is finally ready to accept the stark truth of their own reality, will the arduous journey to wholeness begin.
Willingness and surrender must replace willfulness and pride, and the soul given the acceptance, care, and compassion it craves: humility, accountability, transparency, nurture, and a safe environment are all critical components of recovery. This re-connection to one’s soul initiates the long road to physical healing and emotional health.
What Is Your Addiction?
Addiction has many faces. What coping mechanisms do you use to forget the stressors of life, and fill the empty void? Here are some common escape routes, outside of drug and alcohol abuse, that people use to anesthetize their emotions.
- Sex addiction
These compulsive coping strategies trigger reward centers in the brain, releasing chemicals that lead to feelings of contentment. This euphoric state mimics the same feelings that are evoked from a sense of belonging and connection. Could the endless searching for self end if we all felt loved, connected, a sense of purpose, and an overwhelming sense that we belonged?
Let’s Wrap It Up
As Eckhart Tolle states: “Addiction begins with pain, and ends with pain. Preventing and treating addiction will always involve the skills of self-regulation, emotional maturity, and making peace with one’s pain, rather than attempting to obliterate it. An abiding faith in God leads to the contentment and peace all addicts long for. If, we as a society, embraced these principles, the wreckage caused by addiction could be mitigated.
Has addiction touched your life? What were its effects? Please take the time to leave a comment or suggestion below. It helps all those reading this post.
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