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I’ve worked in this field for about ten years, mainly in the area of drug and alcohol addiction. I sometimes come across it when I see my private clients in West Brompton in West London for counselling. In some ways I think we live in a society that encourages addiction. The media often seems to encourage consumption as a route to happiness. Economists and politicians promote the idea that economic growth is necessary for the country’s well-being. This will increase our material wealth and therefore they argue lead to a higher standard of living. I agree that we need to continue to develop and deal with change as we grow as human beings. I believe the problems come when we equate growth with blind consumption and this fills the space needed for healthy growth. This consumption becomes a way of avoiding negative problems and issues.
There are many reasons why people start the consumption of substances that then becomes addictive or addictive behaviour. Sometimes in the case of drugs and alcohol it is simply the case that consumption is introduced through peers or family. Addictive patterns of behaviour can be modelled in families and communities. They are learned as ways of dealing with difficulties, or of creating positive feelings and sensations when healthier ways are not known or discouraged. In the case of addictions that have lasted a long time, or are described as chronic, the event that may have triggered the start of the addiction might be serious abuse or trauma. Addiction can sometimes be a symptom of a more serious issue that has triggered it.
The components of addiction include compulsion and the creation of a dependency. The dependency is usually psychological, but can sometimes be physical, as in the case of alcohol and opiates. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with dependency in itself. We cannot live our lives in complete self-sufficiency. However, we all need to learn what the good things are to depend on, as well as those things that can create an unhealthy dependency. Addicts can feel powerless to effect any change over their condition and can feel stuck and despairing. Addiction takes over an addict’s life. It takes up all the space leaving nothing left for anything else. It can become the priority over everything else, as if it were a god, including health, children, and family. If the substance was used to help them feel better about themselves, being addicted can lower an addict’s self-esteem even more. It is interesting that the 12-step movement that includes organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous talks about handing over one’s condition to a ‘Higher Power’, whatever that may be. It is a way of combating one’s sense of powerlessness by accessing a sense of a power greater than ourselves. Statistically, 12-step groups have the most success in treating addiction although not everyone finds this kind of spirituality helpful, with the disadvantage that it can become dogmatic.
There is a view that addiction is caused by a lack of a healthy attachment in early life. Addicts look to fill an unbearable gap in their lives. Treatment can involve learning to develop a healthier relationship with oneself and with others.
There is a debate over whether addiction can be classed as an illness or just as a particular form of behaviour. Even as an illness addicts can take responsibility for their treatment. As with other illnesses there are things they can do to make themselves better. Like all of us they need to be challenged to face the truth about themselves. However, I have also found that often addicts have turned to addiction because they don’t know other ways to soothe themselves. They often need to learn ways to be kind and compassionate to themselves. They will turn to addiction because they feel bad about themselves. The mind of an addict can play tricks on them to justify their behaviour. Afterwards they can feel guilty about their addictive behaviour and feel worse about themselves. They then use their addiction to deal with this, which creates a vicious cycle.
Addicts are well known for their manipulation, but all of us use manipulation to get what we need. Addicts simply learn to use this to a higher degree and often unfortunately for something that ultimately does not give them what they need. Addiction is subject to cultural attitudes as much as anything else. Some addictions are more respectable than others. For example, drug addicts are stigmatised in a way that internet addicts are not. The politics of class, race, and gender play a part in determining what is deemed acceptable in certain circumstances and what is not. Drug addicts with high income occupations get treated differently to those on low incomes. Certain drugs are associated with certain races of people, rightly or wrongly. Not so long ago alcoholism among women was considered to be less acceptable than among men. However, the stigma leads addicts to hide their addiction from others and often from themselves. This of course makes seeking and sustaining treatment more difficult. It is an ongoing struggle to develop a better understanding of the function of addiction in our individual lives as well as in society as a whole. We also need to continue to develop better ways of confronting and addressing our addictions; otherwise they could destroy all of us.