To get the full picture on addiction we have to look, not only at the ways in which it is bad for us, but also the way that substances provide something that is lacking in our lives. Something that family or society has been unable to provide, for whatever reasons.
We can consider addiction as the act of constantly seeking something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment. The aching emptiness is perpetual because the substances, objects or pursuits we hope will soothe it are not what we really need, although they did work for a while and gave temporary relief.
Addiction is a dysfunctional way of attempting to escape from disconnection and an overwhelming feeling of fear and despair. Manifesting in a variety of shapes and forms, shopaholics, workaholics, gambling, internet, all are to a lesser or greater degree on the same continuum of dysfunctional lifestyles and an attempt to soothe something that is inside with something from the outside. It’s a form of self-harming and a failed attempt at taking back control, not dissimilar to the way an anorexic believes that the only thing they have control over in their life is the food that they ingest.
Some people are prepared to risk their lives for a brief moment of fulfilled life and a sense of connection to something.
The basis of all addiction lies in the central nervous system and neurochemicals known as neurotransmitters and their corresponding receptors. Although the Central nervous system and neurotransmitters exist, they do not exist in isolation and it’s essential for any real, in-depth understanding of addiction that we take into account the person in their entirety, that is to say in a holistic manner. The physiology of someone’s brain does not develop in isolation of an emotional and social context. On the contrary, it is very much influenced by and influences on the social and the emotional.
The false promise that substance or behaviour will make all the planets line up and everything will somehow fall into place makes them the false prophet of a distress free life. It would be wrong to label addictive behaviours as just a bad habit or a lack of willpower and falls short of understanding that all addiction is functional.
All addiction has its origins in emotional pain, whether conscious or unconscious. Powerful narcotics such as Heroin and Cocaine are anaesthetics and are extremely good at relieving pain.
A high percentage of people who engage in addictive behaviours have suffered trauma in childhood, although not all. Trauma is not a requirement for engaging in destructive behaviours, but in my clinical experience, there has been hurt, be it through a particular parenting style that cannot be called abuse, or through a deep-rooted feeling of disconnection with loved ones or the world. One thing that advances in neuropsychology show us is that stress through adversity in childhood has an enormous effect on the physiology of the central nervous system.
But its not just childhood trauma that creates an aching hole in our soul. The way society is constructed in a Neo-liberal market is enough to make my Conservative grandfather turn in his grave.
Modern market culture promotes a feeling of emptiness as we all strive to be the best we can. The fabricated Facebook shopfront of other people’s lives and successes can leave us reflecting on our own failures. We all feel emptiness; dissatisfaction and frustration in an ever-globalizing world, but many of us have found tactics for keeping them at bay through distraction, be it through professional success, riches, sex, substances or addictive behaviour. But I know through personal experience that the moment this distraction stops, a void of emptiness can open up before us producing a continual white noise of anxiety buzzing away in the background that gets louder and louder as the years go by.
Drugs can offer relief to the lost and you only have to look at the way indigenous communities have dealt with the destruction of their way of life. When the glue of society’s fabric fails, substances are always there to step up the challenge.
It is not a coincidence that drug abuse is on the rise. In 2016, 20 million Americans suffered from a substance disorder, with 2 million addicted to opiates. The social fabric that held societies together is being ripped apart. The Market demands that we are a mobile, fluid workforce, uprooted and disconnected from society and from any ideology that may interfere with the globalised market forces, such as a sense of community, patriotism or religion. Certainty in the job market no longer exists making planning for the future a source of anxiety and worry.
Modern day addiction is neither a disease or a moral failure, it is a maladaptive means of survival. One where the drug user tries to buffer himself from a feeling of complete disconnection from society. It is a form of adaption that is never going to work and one can never feel whole through drug use, which will not only affect the health of the drug user, but also leave them feeling hollow, empty and craving for more.
Traditional drug care has always been based on the individual, but without a caring, inclusive and egalitarian society, recovery will always be against the odds.