©Glowimages - model for illustrative purposes only
Addiction is like a chasm opening up before you and enticing you to keep walking despite the dire consequences ahead.
Not that you are likely to realise the dangers at the time. My addiction 'of choice' was gambling. It was a roller-coaster ride of thrilling highs and crushing lows yet it never occurred to me that I could resist the hypnotic call to indulge just one more time.
According to NHS Choices, today 'there may be as many as 450,000 problem gamblers in Great Britain' - and I'm so grateful not to be numbered among them any longer. I was pulled back from the edge of the precipice just in time. What followed was a sense of freedom ably described by TV presenter Carrie Armstrong as the ability to 'live back in the world again. Joyfully.'
Writing in the Huffington Post she spoke fondly of her recovery from alcoholism, disability and 'years of isolation'.
'I wait for the sun to come up and show me the miracles the next day will bring,' she said.
An addict is looking for miracles, too, of course - but they are at best fleeting and inevitably self-deceiving bursts of pleasure. During endless hours in the company of poker players and one-armed bandits I won as well as lost. But even when the addict occasionally wins he is always taking another step closer to that chasm.
Today's addictions, however, are far broader than simply the gambling, drinking or 'doing drugs' that have traditionally grabbed the headlines. In fact one of the largest groups of addicts begin their slide into the abyss of addiction with a simple visit to the doctor's surgery. The problem has become so severe that well over a million Britons have been claimed to be hooked on prescription medications while the World Health Organizationreports that 15.3 million people worldwide suffer from drug-use disorders.
Perhaps surprisingly, when drugs become the problem, more drugs are often offered as the answer. An expert on drug-use disorders, Cambridge University professor Barry Everitt, disagrees with this approach. He said: 'Non-drug interventions would be an enormous step forward in drug abuse treatment, which currently relies on replacing one drug with another and has an extremely high rate of relapse.'
Consequently, doctors are now being 'urged to consider alternatives such as counselling for depression and insomnia, and physiotherapy for pain, before starting patients off on drugs'.
There are, of course, different approaches to non-drug remedies for addiction, but perhaps the best known is the 12-step programme that started out as Alcoholics Anonymous but now supports many types of addicts in their efforts to stay sober. One website on 'drug and alcohol treatment centers' said such programmes 'allow participants to find the strength they need to conquer addiction through belief in a higher power, the peer support of others, the mentor support of a sponsor, and the active search for peace".
The 12-step programme can certainly help the individual addict to get a different take on their identity and has helped many people find a way to stay sober. In the meantime, though, participants are taught to accept they will always be addicts, even if addicts-in-abeyance.
Does that mean the addicted have to resign themselves to always living on the brink, or could there be some way to bridge the gulf between addiction and freedom once and for all?
Perhaps having a different perspective of the chasm could help - seeing it as a spiritual vacuum leading to addictive behaviour rather than a material gulf resulting from it. Referring to that higher power, the Bible says we're all made in its 'image and likeness', suggesting there's a way of seeing ourselves in which there is no separation between us and our sacred source. Yet all too often we still feel separated from spiritual goodness, from divine love. If we were to understand and accept no such division is really possible, could that have an effect on the wisdom of our choices?
It certainly had a huge impact on mine. It was just such spiritual self-identification that pulled me back from the brink. I came to know what Christian healer Mary Baker Eddy called 'the real essence' of my individuality. As a result I found a more satisfying fulfilment that slowly but surely displaced the addiction. Not only did the outward habit change, but I have remained completely free from any desire to gamble for 30 years.
Solid ground remains where the chasm once seemed to be.