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Rethinking Addiction

By Mariana Naldi

Addiction is infuriation with excitement, guilt with release, denial with absorption, confusion with importance, emptiness with ecstasy. It is all around us so much that we typically trudge down the same old pathway of thought when confronted by it. But, what if we didn’t. What if we broke free of that pathway to try out a new, less traveled road?

In the TED talk by Johann Hari, we are encouraged to rethink addiction. In, “Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong,” he takes us through not only his own journey as a member of a family of several addicts, but through his scientific inquiry about the causes. His talk discusses the current social and political “treatments” for addiction including criminalizing drug use and social stigmatization. With our lack of successful treatment rates with this illness, his question, “is there a better way out there instead?” is something it makes sense for us all to be asking.

Hari’s discussion allows us to see addiction through a different lens. Instead of as an active hedonistic choice, we try on the perspective that addiction is actually an adaptation to a lack of available emotional bonds. According to the attachment theory in psychology, all humans need to bond with another living being from birth for survival (preferably their biological mother figure, but others can suffice in her absence). When emotional bonds are not available or created, it can cause significant psychological problems which may look like emotional pain and suffering or, as Hari puts it, “not being able to bare to be present in your life.”

He points out that there is both an individual recovery element as well as a social recovery element that needs to evolve within our communities. Some incredibly useful advice is also offered in how to better handle the addicts in our own lives; no small task with someone you love.

Another perspective on addiction comes from one of my favorite current podcasts, Shrink Rap Radio (in the interest of full disclosure, I also contribute some monthly thoughts as a guest blogger to that show) episode #359, “Addiction in the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” with Gabor Mate, M.D. In this interview, Dr. Mate reveals several of his own theories regarding addiction, based in his lifelong work in this and various other areas of mental health. Dr. Mate shares a perspective that those with addictions seek fulfillment from an “unbearable emptiness.” He advocates for an intensely compassionate view that mirrors that of Hari’s, with an emphasis not only on compassion for these people as individual humans, but compassion for them in a social respect. Dr. Mate incorporates not only the idea of a lack of emotional attachments, but of the impact of neurobiology, traumatic experiences, and environmental influences, to name a few. This holistic perspective gives us many new viewpoints from which to see things just a little bit differently.

Lastly, while there are many television and movie examples of how a life can be impacted by addiction (Requiem for a Dream, Trainspotting, The Basketball Diaries, Ray), not many have veered from the path of illegal drugs and alcohol. But, if you are like me and enjoy scanning the various rows of Netflix possibilities, you may have come across one called Thanks for Sharing. Although it is not a documentary, it feels like one as you are very intimately invited into the lives of three main characters who are trying to live in our modern world (in a big city, no less), with an addiction to sex.

In an attempt to demonstrate the difficulty of navigating an intimate relationship with this specific type of addiction, the movie demonstrates three separate age groups of males in both dating and married circumstances. Something I really appreciate about this movie, is the exemplary job it does in demonstrating the permeation of addiction throughout all facets of the characters’ lives. Not only is the difficulty in attaining and maintaining a meaningful intimate relationship explored with each character, but the manner in which their jobs, friendships, family life, and overall self-concepts are changed is clearly depicted. This movie also shows a families’ struggle with addiction in a multi-generational context.

While this is entertaining with well-established actors like Gwyneth Paltrow, Mark Ruffalo, and Tim Robbins, it also provides something much more important for the viewer. It provides some insight into the uncontrollable realm of addiction, highlighting not only the many people who are impacted, but also the literal day-to-day and moment-to-moment efforts that are required to manage a healthy and functional life. Be warned that due to the nature of this topic this movie is rated “R” and is not appropriate for younger viewers. Some potentially disturbing elements of addiction are demonstrated in this movie in fairly graphic ways.

Of note, is that while we do not have an official diagnosis of “sex addiction” in our clinical world, this is commonly defined in the popular media as someone who has an addiction to sexual activity in the same way that someone might have an addiction to alcohol or nicotine (seeking out unhealthy amounts that impact daily life in multiple areas of functioning). This hypersexual urge (and/or accompanying unhealthy sexual behaviors) however has actually been reconsidered among mental health professionals over the last ten years to be more representative of a compulsive-type behavior than an addiction-type behavior. You can check out the American Psychological Association’s website (apa.org) for more information.

It can be difficult to see an old problem in a new way. But, if we are willing to expose ourselves to new ideas, unbelievable options, and harebrained theories, we just may come across something we haven’t yet discovered.