When it comes to defining, understanding, and addressing the problem of addiction, there is much debate and everyone’s got an opinion.
Some say that all addiction is rooted in childhood trauma. Others claim that it is simply a learning disorder and that regardless of origins, it’s no more than a neurochemical process gone awry. Many experts believe that addiction has its roots in adolescence and that engaging in substance use at this formative time leaves one susceptible to the cage of addiction. We’ve got the ongoing debate of is it a disease or is it simply a choice? Ultimately, regardless of what the research says (which points to all of the aforementioned being valid ideas), the debate lingers on because addiction is multifaceted and complex, as are individuals.
Given the ambiguous nature of this subject, there is not a conclusive definition that is agreed upon by all. I too have wrestled with the idea of what string of words fully encapsulates what I believe addiction to be. As of now, the definition that most resonates with me is a compilation of multiple definitions.
My opinion is that regardless of whether or not is a disease, a learning disorder, or a choice, ultimately addiction is that state of constantly seeking something outside of oneself to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment, despite negative consequences. None of us are immune to the hold of addiction, and we all fall somewhere on the continuum.
I love what Christine Caldwell has to say on the topic. She states, “If we add up the drug and alcohol addicts, the food addicts, and the process addicts (love, gambling, sex, etc.) we have an alarming percentage of the population. If we expand our definition of addiction to include anything we do that repeats, doesn’t change, doesn’t satisfy, doesn’t complete, and irritates our loved ones, have we left anyone out? Addiction in this sense is less a disease than a human condition.” I agree with Caldwell and I love thinking about it in these terms—that it is something that affects us all on some level and that none of us are immune to its effects.
There are many influences that shape addiction: our biology, our psychological reality, our emotional state, and our social situation. There are cultural influences, as well as political and economic factors—all of which impact the development of and treatment of addiction. In my intensive research into the topic, I’ve also come to agree with Caldwell, that addiction is just part of the human condition, a longing for fulfillment and relief, that affects us all on some level.
If we are all addicted or have been addicted in some form or another what that means is that recovery is for all of us. This idea is important because if we can think of it as something for all of us, we can begin to reduce the stigma that still exists around the terms addiction and recovery.
What is more important is to understand is that ALL addictions are life-limiting (regardless of whether they are mild or severe) and the process of recovery is about stepping away from the things that limit our lives while we step into that which brings us fulfillment, meaning, and joy. It is about reclaiming and recovering the lost pieces of ourselves, and about recovering our innate, intuitive wisdom to fulfill our deepest longing—in a way that doesn’t harm. Recovery is about deepening into our experience and embracing our full potential while we feed our longing with time and space in a way that nurtures our mind, body, heart, and soul.
Like addiction, recovery is also a hotly debated term when it comes to a clear and agreed upon definition. I believe, like Dan Bigg, a harm reduction pioneer, that recovery is “any positive change.” This may seem like a simplistic definition, but often times when dealing with complex issues, the most simplistic possibility is often the best the possibility. Life is full of paradox. My conclusion is that any positive change in the direction of healing is a step in the right direction, a step towards recovery and healing, a step towards leaving behind that which limits us.
Incidentally, it took me four years of recovering myself before I was able to give up alcohol once and for all. Even though I was still drinking, in hindsight and knowing what I know now, I believe that I was on the recovery path for those four years prior to my complete abstinence. I was on the path of healing, and had I not done the preliminary recovery work, I probably would not have found sobriety at the point that I did.
The path looks different for each one of us, as does the definition of addiction and recovery. Only YOU know if you struggle with addiction and only YOU get to decide if you are in recovery. People around you will all day long try to force their definitions and beliefs upon you telling you what you are or are not, but at the end of the day, it is you who decides what these terms mean for you and how they apply to your life. Recovery is about reclaiming our power.
When I first began to bring mindful awareness to my process of addiction, specifically to the process of craving and indulging in the craving, it became clear to me that my addiction to alcohol and later, when I fell back into my addiction to nicotine, what I found was a hungry ghost that could never be satisfied. More was never enough. This “more is never enough” phenomenon is what leads some professionals define addiction as a process that rests purely in the brain. However, through inquiring deeply into my experience and studying the experience of others, I can see that it is so much more.
Underneath (or perhaps beside and within) this neurochemical process of craving, there lies the body, heart, and soul—there lies our longing, which is ultimately what we are trying to feed with our addictions. Just as our mind, body, heart, and soul are involved in the process of becoming addicted in the first place, their wisdom is also our ticket to the way out, they are our ticket to freedom.
While it is true that we do need to address the brain in our recovery process, I still maintain that it’s not the end-all-be-all. Addiction is in part a learning disorder, a neurochemical process gone awry, and knowing this, and understanding how the craving brain functions can be incredibly powerful information to have on hand. Personally, knowledge of the brain’s functions in addiction helped my addictive thoughts to loosen their grip as I began to apply brain-based recovery tools such as the RAIN method, a mindfulness based tool.
Also, in studying the work of Byron Katie, and beginning to follow the work of neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, I came to believe that so much of what goes on in our brains is largely out of our control, which helped me to release some of the shame I felt around my own addictions.
In his book Free Will, Sam Harris says, “you are not in control of your mind—because you, as a conscious agent, are only part of your mind, living at the mercy of other parts.” Most of these other parts that we are at the mercy of are things that are completely out of our control—where we were born, our genetics, our history, our experiences, our learning, etc. Understanding and knowing (and believing!) that so much of what arises in my brain is largely beyond my control feels paradoxically COMPLETELY FREEING.
It takes away the shame that I once had when I believed that somehow I could control my mind if only I had more willpower.
This understanding taught me that my power lies only in deciding how to RESPOND to the thoughts that arise instead of react. It is in this response that we create AGENCY—this is where we begin to find the power to unwind the neural pathways that perpetuate our addiction by taking action. It is here in this response that we are enabled to initiate the power of choice, when we are ready.
I find it curious that the body is so neglected when it comes to our discussion on addiction. Our bodies are involved in the addiction and recovery process just as much, if not more so, than the brain, because it is through our bodies that we become addicted in the first place!
In fact, the brain is an organ within the body (Captain Obvious speaking here!), and given that we are one system whose parts cannot function in isolation, it is ridiculous that the body is as neglected as it is in the addiction and recovery discussion. Caldwell confirms this sentiment and states that, “other than knowing the physiological processes and results of addiction, no one seems to know or care that addiction is housed in and carried out in a body and that recovery must occur within it.”
YES—recovery must occur within it, and in fact, recovery cannot happen without it; it is essential. It is through the body that we take action. We can’t just visualize ourselves recovered, or attend a million meetings and just listen (although both do help), rather, Caldwell explains that “we must act, for it is in action that our bodies can physically change their old patterns of behavior.”
Some recovery paradigms address the health of the body and discuss the impact that nutrition and exercise have on our mental and emotional health. I agree with them–these are important aspects of recovery. But we can’t stop there. We must also attend to the body’s subtle energy system, and delve into how our history and past trauma, affect us on the body-level. Trauma creates energetic blockages that must be released from the bodymind for healing to occur—which is where somatic work comes into play.
Further, we can come to know and understand our subtle energy by attuning to the sensations and messages our body is sending on a moment to moment basis. The body is infinitely wise and holds the answers we seek, if we’re willing to listen. The body often knows what the mind does not yet know. If you foster the relationship, you will find a life-long partner that won’t lead you astray. We must rekindle our long lost relationship with our body, so that we can utilize it as a reference point, rather than looking outside of ourselves for answers. YOU intuitively (on a body-level) know which path you need to walk; you don’t need anyone to tell you the path you must follow.
The heart is perhaps our most powerful organ. McCraty, Bradley, and Tomasino say that, “compared to the electromagnetic field produced by the brain, the electrical component of the heart’s field is about 60 times greater in amplitude.” Further, research in neurocardiology is showing that the heart, like the brain, receives and processes information and also it makes functional decisions independent of the brain. Crazy! Right?!
Well, maybe not so much when you actually think about your experience and how you sometimes make decisions. Ever heard the phrases “follow your heart?” or “let your heart guide you.” We often call on the heart as our guide, and often it unconsciously guides us as well. When I speak of the heart, I am also speaking about emotion. Attention to the emotions is vital in the recovery process, particularly for women.
Just like the body, our emotions are messengers that provide us with constant real-time feedback. When you think about your addiction, how much of it is based in emotion? Prior to using or engaging in your addictive behavior, what are you feeling? Initially after using, what are you feeling? Most of the time we engage in our addiction in response to emotion, namely, an emotion we don’t want to feel. We try to avoid pain through our addictions, although paradoxically, they end up being the very thing that causes us more pain.
Bringing emotional awareness and skills for emotional navigation to the recovery process is vital for women. Why? Because women are MUCH more likely to have suffered from trauma, AND we are also much more likely than men to self-medicate in response to our trauma and in response to stress and anxiety.
Anxiety is four times more common in women than in men, with a lot of women reporting that they seek relief from anxiety in substances such as alcohol. We’ve got a public health crisis on our hands and substance abuse amongst women is on the rise. Perhaps this can partially be attributed to the fact that women are now more stressed out than ever—trying to keep up in a man’s world often working full time while still being the primary caregiver of both the children and the household.
Not to mention the fact that our society glamorizes escape and glamorizes alcohol in particular, we are left with a losing proposition. Yes, it’s a bio-psycho-emotional-social-cultural-political-economic process, BUT the role of the heart, the role of emotions is an integral component of the recovery process.
Marion Woodman, a prominent depth psychologist, says that “self-destruction is soul-destruction,” and what is addiction? Depending on where you stand on the continuum you could probably safely call it self-destruction. Not only do we have the debate on addiction, but there is also the debate on what the heck is SOUL? We often hear the God/Spirit debate in addiction circles, and that addiction is a spiritual malady—I’m not going to go there in this piece, but I do believe that our soul is deeply involved in our healing.
For me, the soul is that energy within us that is interested in our highest growth. It’s the soft small voice that whispers to us, you could call it intuition as well. Soul often speaks to us through the body and through our dreams. It is in the soul where our source of longing resides. That longing we are trying to fulfill and satisfy through our addictions. It is the need to fulfill this longing that often leads us into addiction in the first place.
Given that our soul is interested in our growth, it is often the voice we hear that whispers “you need to leave this behind.” It’s that voice we try to shove down with our minds. While our soul whispers our mind often screams, “NOOOOOO it will be too hard! I will die/explode/be miserable/whatever if I can’t have my (fill in the blank!)” We need to quiet the voice of the mind, and listen to the soul if we are to step into our healing, and step into recovery.
When I was drinking I always felt as though a small piece of me lay dying. As my addiction progressed, the voice of the soul became louder and louder until I could no longer deny that I KNEW what I needed to do. It was my soul that continued to call out to me to heal, to change, to grow. To move out of the stagnancy that is addiction and into the river of life.
In short, addiction is a complex and dynamic force that affects each individual differently. As such, a one-size-fits-all approach will work for everyone. Particularly a one-size-fits-all approach that neglects any aspect of the mind, body, heart, and soul. We are meant to be whole. The parts that compose our system cannot operate in isolation, and because of this our recovery process must be integrative and holistic.
Addiction originates as a result of the interactions of the mind, body, heart, and soul and this is also the place where our recovery lies. We must tune into and listen to the wisdom of these different aspects of self. We must gather the fragmented pieces of our lives and bring them together so that we can heal. In this collecting of the pieces, we can discover that we are, in fact, already whole. When we find this integration of mind, body, heart, and soul, we find our power and we are then able to live life to its fullest.