The Illusion Behind Addictive Behaviour

05/12/2013 13:59 GMT | Updated 03/02/2014 10:59 GMT

Nigella Lawson has admitted taking cocaine and cannabis, explaining "I found it made an intolerable situation tolerable. It's a false friend and not a good idea." Ms Lawson is not alone.

Addiction is not an illusion. However, a key driver of addictive behaviour is the illusion of emotional stabilisation and feeling better for it. How compellingly seductive this illusion can be is proven by the financial expense and health risks we are prepared to take, as well as the length to which we can go to deny to ourselves or others addictions to drugs, food, alcohol, cigarettes, exercise, sex, work, shopping, gambling, internet, pornography and so much more.

Often we start on the path of what might later turn into an addiction, with naivety, innocence and the belief that we can put on the breaks when we need to.

Explanations range from 'Only in company', 'I have deserved it after the day I have had', 'What else is there?', 'A little of what you fancy', 'Only on weekends', 'I need to switch off', 'Helps me go to sleep', 'Keeps my awake' and many more.

However, the real emotional need is that of containing emotions, which we believe we are unable to handle on our own. And from previous experiences we know that engaging in this behaviour may dull the emotional distress. The addictive behaviour effectively becomes the container of our distress. With it we can handle the situation better, or ignore it; we feel better, and we believe we can take on more.

However, this is an illusion. The addictive behaviour does not solve the underlying issue, and with time the level of addiction increases, eg smoking or drinking becomes more frequent, and more quantities are needed to put us in the 'right frame of mind', and for the numbing of the distress to work. Others have described this as filling a void or sense of inner emptiness when feeling lonely, frightened or bereft. Our answer to the scream for help and being comforted, when no-one else is there, and we do not know how else to help ourselves.

The longer we engage in this behaviour, the further we move away from our capacity to contain and work through emotionally distressing experiences ourselves. Not everybody has been modelled from an early age how to contain distressing or upsetting experiences. Not everyone has been given confidence in his or her own ability to be good at it. Some will have followed the example of others, who engaged in addictive behaviours, because they expected them to know better.

Often people are aware of their addictive behaviour and would like to stop or slow down. However, the illusion of the addiction can be so powerful that the fear of not being able to cope without it is overwhelming and can suffocate even the smallest attempt to take control of the situation and muster the confidence to change.

We will need to be ready to question the illusionary emotional container that addiction is, and be prepared to take control and trust that we will get through the sometimes rough ride of physical and emotional withdrawal. Emotional strength needs to be harnessed at the same time for confidence in our own coping ability to grow.

Counselling or psychotherapy can help at various stages, and specialist programmes like the AA's 12 Step Programme are available. Therapeutic support can also help to work towards the goal of getting ready to reduce or stop the addictive behaviour in gradually unmasking the illusionary benefit of addiction and build trust in our ability to survive and lead meaningful lives in more helpful ways.

Karin Sieger

MA (Couns.Psych.), Reg. MBACP (Accred)

(Based on an article first published by Counselling Directory, 07/08/2013)