Whether it is the recent controversy surrounding the discovery of fentanyl in Prince's home or media coverage of a former British sports star slowly dying of substance misuse, the subject of "addiction" is increasingly being drawn to the attention of the general public and viewed as an illness rather than a shameful lack of "self control". Secretary Hillary Clinton referred to this during her brutal battle in the Democratic Party presidential primaries 2016 when alluding to the heroin epidemic in New Hampshire (USA) in the following way: "Plain and simple, drug and alcohol addiction is a disease, not a moral failing--and we must treat it as such." In the United Kingdom the Duchess of Cambridge became a patron of the charity Action on Addiction and many people with a high profile in popular culture have openly shared their experience of overcoming one form or another of addictive behaviour.
Many drug and alcohol residential rehabilitation centres now market themselves as "addiction" hubs instead of using pre 1980s words such as "alcoholism" or "para-alcoholism" rehabs. Today, addiction therapists and counsellors readily accept that addictive behaviour takes many forms and can manifest as substance misuse, sex and love addiction, shopping addiction, pornography addiction and self-harm to name but a few.
A high percentage of alcoholics who get physically dry every year in the United Kingdom and start practising some sort of total abstinence recovery-based program will swap their alcohol/drug addiction for another destructive addictive behaviour within a very short period of time and according to Dr Claudia Black, 70% of chemically dependent people will relapse after attempting to get to clean (there are similar studies to that effect in twelve-step fellowships). If real recovery is truly going to permeate our society, an expanded dialogue of the meaning of "addiction" would be helpful.
Cross-addictive-patterns of behaviour reveal that "addictiveness" rather than "addiction" to one particular substance or behaviour is the primary problem. I have observed this pattern for over ten years whilst facilitating mindfulness addiction workshops at residential rehabilitation treatment centres across England. Unless the understanding of "addictiveness" becomes part of the recovery conversation, addictive behaviours will prevail.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that addictiveness is so often passed down through generations. Addictive behaviour such as grave alcohol or drug abuse brings so much toxic shame into a family home that many families consciously avoid acknowledging or addressing the problem and therefore the downward spiral remains uninterrupted.
When an addict recognises that addressing an addictive behaviour (although crucial) is only the beginning of the process of recovery, he/she can start to get to the core of their addictiveness. Various theories suggest that suppressed grief, unresolved childhood trauma and isolation often lie at the root of addictiveness and I would fully subscribe to this. Addictiveness is usually a manifestation of unrest and internal emotional suffering that has not been healed. The following steps have been recognised as crucial in starting the process of healing from addictiveness:
- An addict (of any sort) must recognise that they have a problem and then reach out for help. This is extremely hard for most addicts to accept. To acknowledge the problem will cause a lot of discomfort and to ask for help brings a sense of vulnerability due to the historic stigma attached to all forms of addiction. For addicts who have been ostracised socially or suffered any form of neglect or abuse during their upbringing, this is a massive hurdle and those who do ask for help usually take this course of action as a last resort having hit some form of "rock bottom".
- A human being suffering from addictiveness can heal from the effects of isolation by attending regular support groups. There are excellent therapy groups and twelve-step fellowships which can breathe new life into a pained existence. Addicts need non-shaming fellowship with people who understand what it's like to be utterly addicted to a destructive behaviour. Belonging and fellowship is crucial for their social, emotional and spiritual wellbeing.
- Uncovering the underlying causes of addictiveness can be very disturbing and therefore most addicts minimise their emotional suffering and deny their suppressed grief. While denial can be a helpful shock absorber or coping mechanism after a traumatic event, it no longer serves an addict when they start their recovery programme. And so, when disturbing memories and painful emotions rise to the surface, it is crucial that this process takes place alongside non-shaming counselling or therapy. It is dangerous to address addictiveness by oneself.
The key thing to remember is that recovery from addictiveness is a slow painstaking process but with gentle daily efforts to heal, huge improvements will manifest. After all, life improves when we improve.
Christopher Dines' new book, The Kindness Habit: Transforming our Relationship to Addictive Behaviours, co-authored with Dr Barbara Mariposa is out now.