(THE BOOK) Chapter 26: The addicted

Everyone I see in therapy is addicted.

So is everyone I know.

When I first became a therapist I distinguished between addicts and nonaddicts.  That distinction no longer makes sense to me.

Now I think we’re all addicted to something.  It’s just that some addictions are more obvious than others.

As I said (see Chapter 12), addicts are people who can’t deal with feelings, and so feel compelled to find something that makes feelings going away.   This may be a substance (alcohol, drugs, food) or a behavior (work, sex, tv, shopping, video games, etc.).  Anything that alters your mood can be turned into an addiction.  That includes behaviors not inherently unhealthy, like exercise or meditation or volunteering.

The variations may be infinite, but they share the same root: the need to alter or control how one feels. 

My own addictions came in both flavors, substances and behaviors.

Sugar was always my drug of choice.  In grade school I ate it by the spoonful.  I also drank maple syrup.  In grad school I smoked a pipe until cumulus clouds formed in my office and my tongue morphed into hamburger.

My compulsive behaviors included watching television (an alternate reality where I spent most of ages twelve through eighteen), reading books (the alternate reality I still find preferable much of the time), and writing (in my thirties and forties I carried a spiral notebook everywhere with me, compulsively filling page after page whenever I felt confused or stressed out or scared.  There are thirty-one dusty spirals stacked in a corner of my garage).

And I’m still addicted to work.  But I can’t write intelligently about that here, since I remain in denial.

These were the main paths I followed into what I call the Garden of Numb.

You know that place.  It’s where your focus narrows, and the world goes away, and anxiety recedes, and tension and worry slough off like dirt in the shower.

Great place to visit.  Necessary, even.  We all need vacations.  The world can be a frightening and painful place, and living a human life is no picnic.

The problem comes when you find you can’t live outside the Garden.

Each of my addictions eventually took on lives of their own.  Each stopped being something I was doing and became something that was doing me.   I lost control of my need for control.

So now, whenever I meet a new client, I look for two things:

(1) What they do, repeatedly and compulsively, to get themselves into the Garden,

and

(2) How impaired this controlling behavior leaves them.

The signs of (2) are pretty predictable:

~ Bad feelings.  Since they have no way but numbness to manage feelings, and since nobody can stay numb constantly, addicts are emotionally uncomfortable much of the time.

~ Bad choices.  Since their unconscious priority is feeling-management, addicts tend to follow the path that is least threatening emotionally, and their decision-making reflects this — instead of, say, an awareness of reality, determination to solve problems, or concern for the needs and feelings of others.

~ Bad relationships.  Addicts struggle with relationships simply because addicts aren’t all there: their feelings are missing.  So they can’t be fully honest and authentic, can’t tolerate honesty and authenticity in others, and can’t communicate in a way that promotes real connection and mutual understanding.

See yourself in this?

Don’t feel too bad.

We’re all control addicts.

If you’re human and breathing there’s no avoiding it.

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2 responses to “(THE BOOK) Chapter 26: The addicted

  • Al

    A brilliant post that sums up so much of my experience…
    It especially hits home when you share your own experiences to which I can’t relate somewhat..
    It helps me feel more comfortable, less scared, with my addictive state and gives hope that as I get to know my feelings, stop avoiding, I begin to feel more balanced…and less like I’m going to drown 😄

    Al

  • Lisa

    Another great chapter Steve! In our world of let’s self-diagnose and slap a label on ourselves and everyone else, which many times leads to misjudgments, I love the idea that addiction is part of the natural human condition and the only way to “channel” it, (ok, yes we are talking about control here again) is to acknowledge and be aware of it. I also really like the term and visualization I get with “the garden of numb”. Keep educating all of us monkeys!

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