Just One More: Handling Addictive Behaviours,
An article by David Cornfield
I have good news and bad news. The good news is that every one of us has the potential to live a life that is intense, passionate, and meaningful. The bad news is that intensity can be agonizing, passion is frequently experienced in its original sense of suffering, and meaning derives at least in part from having a role to play in this universe, which in its turn implies surrender and obligation.
To be fully in our aliveness means saying yes to all of it, embracing the pain with the pleasure, the sorrow with the joy, the failure with the success. It takes courage and trust. When our courage fails us, when our lives feel too intense, too risky, too invasive, too demanding, too painful to endure, we find ways to escape. It is these ways to escape that amount to addictive behaviours, and there is always a price to pay for indulging in them.
The easiest way to escape being fully alive is to anaesthetize ourselves by choking off our breath and tensing our muscles. Oxygen is essential to fire the vital processes of our bodies. When I breathe less, I lower the oxygen levels in my blood stream, my body gets sluggish and I don't feel as much. When I keep my muscles contracted, the functioning of my nerve cells is impaired and, again, I don't feel as much. The impairment of feeling is both physical and emotional. The price? While it makes me more able to ignore pain, it makes me less able to feel pleasure. I cannot selectively eliminate the hard parts about being alive and still hang onto the good things.
All of us use shallow breathing and muscle tension to moderate the ups and downs in the roller coaster of life. Anyone, even a baby, can do it. No one is excluded by reason of inability to pay. At times however, these ways of going dead are inadequate to the task. We have cut our breathing down to a minimum, our muscles are practically in spasm, and life still feels overwhelming. We then turn to other addictive behaviours to escape the intensity of our lives.
My own addiction is to work. When I don't want to deal with my life, I distract myself by getting busy. In this culture, an addiction to work is seen as relatively benign and even desirable, but it is still an addiction. Just ask my wife how it affects our family when I use work to escape life. I am not always working addictively, but when I am, my work takes on a compulsive quality. It feels somehow off to be doing what I am doing, but I do it anyway. I end up feel dissatisfied because at some level I know I have used my busyness as an excuse to ignore what I should have been doing. I haven't filled the real need, so I don't feel gratified.
You can be addicted to almost anything. People are addicted to food, to sex, to pornography, to pain, to gambling, to misery, to worry, to self righteousness, to hysteria, to shopping. In every case, the root of the addiction is a desire to avoid the intensity of being fully in the here and now of your life. The addiction has a grip on you because you lack other strategies for dealing with something that feels overwhelming. When the alternative looks like being swept away, and you are terrified of losing control, you'll do almost anything to feel better, even if it means numbing out, denying reality, going dead.
Addictive behaviours are a big NO to life, strategies of avoidance that lead to boredom, numbness, weariness, hopelessness, illness and lack of meaning. If you are frequently bored or fatigued, if you feel compulsive, if your life feels meaningless, look for addictive behaviour.
Boredom, fatigue, compulsiveness, and meaninglessness are not natural. When you allow yourself to stay fully engaged with your life, you feel energy, enthusiasm, and purpose. It takes hard work to deaden yourself to the point where you feel bored. You expend a lot of energy, for example, to keep your muscles tensed in a permanent state of contraction. And you expend this energy for a reason. Your addictive behaviour allows you to turn away from something you don't want to face up to.
Here we come to the crux of the matter. Stopping addictive behaviour is not a simple exercise in will power. You don't give up your addiction because you recognize that it is bad for you. Smokers know that smoking is killing them, and they still smoke. Alcoholics are painfully aware that drinking is ruining their lives, and they still drink. Why? Because everyone who is addicted is running away from something, and until they deal with that something, they will feel compelled to keep on running.
For example, when I am feeling needy I sometimes find myself at the refrigerator looking for a snack. I am not hungry, I am needy. I don't want to feel my neediness because it means depending on somebody to nurture me. Eating is within my control. If all I want is a snack, I don't have to reveal my need or ask anybody for anything. So I substitute eating for nurturing. Since what I really need in this moment is not food but physical contact and emotional support, eating does not satisfy my need. I eat more and it still doesn't do the trick. To stop overeating, I have to allow myself to feel my real need and reach out to someone who can fill it.
Recently one of my clients, a man with a drinking problem, dreamt he was running away from shapeless slimy monsters who rise up out of a lake and chase after him. I suggested to him that, before going to bed, he tell himself to turn around and face his monsters. He laughed. "What could I possibly gain from confronting a bunch of ugly monsters who just want to kill me? Much smarter to run away." I pointed out that drinking was his way of running away, and that the only way to stop drinking was to take the monsters on. He might, through force of will, give up his addiction for a while, but, without dealing with what he is running from, he is doomed to either falling off the wagon or finding a new (hopefully less harmful) addiction to replace the old one.
An addiction is a reverse sign post, pointing away from something you are afraid of. Give up the addictive behaviour for even a short time, and you will find that your personal monsters, the things you are most afraid of, are looming into view. In that moment you will know the reason you ran away, and you will feel a compelling urge to run again, regardless of the price you pay for running. The trouble is, there is no end to paying. It's like paying the interest on a loan, but never paying down the capital. The monsters are always there and you always have to run.
Giving up your addictive behaviour and turning to face the monsters is likely to be one of the hardest things you have ever done in your life. It calls on you to confront your worst terrors. To persevere without backsliding demands courage, commitment and a lot of support. There are no guarantees of success. But the rewards, if you are successful, are of the highest order. As you tackle the monsters, they become less scary. You feel less compelled to run, more able to cut back on addictive behaviours. Ultimately you will feel more energy, more passion, more sense of the meaningfulness of your existence. I know of no better incentives.
first published in Eye for the Future, June 1997
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