Our brains are addiction magnets. It is the brain that harbors our thoughts and our emotions. When those thoughts and emotions are negative, we seek ways to quiet them; to remain calm; to cope with daily life and the internal struggles. We can become addicted to anything that triggers a sense of pleasure in our brain; drugs, alcohol, video games, pornography, sex, food, etc. For the purposes of this article, I will be referring only to addictions of drug and alcohol abuse.
Drugs and alcohol are a quick and readily available way to shut out those negative thoughts and emotions, at least in the short term. However, behind the scenes, these chemicals are actually building additional negative thoughts and emotions. As your body becomes more tolerant of these chemicals, it requires more of the drug to reach the desired numbing effect. So you use more of the drug. Eventually, you realize that the drug is not producing the numbing effect you desire, but your mind and body have become dependent on the presence of the chemical and the actual action of using the chemical. The negative thoughts and emotions that the use of the drug was producing the entire time become evident, but the messages you are receiving from your body tell you that you need that chemical. You are addicted. And you are far from alone.
According to the website of American Addiction Centers, 23.5 million Americans were addicted to either drugs or alcohol in 2019. The statistics for 2020 will, undoubtedly, far surpass that number due to the increased stress of the pandemic. And the New York Times reports a frightening 71,999 drug overdose deaths in the United States in 2019. That number is expected to nearly double in 2020.
Causes of Addiction
The formation of an addiction follows a common path regardless of the substance or the addict.
- A negative event creates a painful memory.
- The individual attempts to avoid feeling the pain of the event or memory by using a substance.
- A neural pathway is created linking the use of the substance with relief from the pain of the event or memory.
- The pathway gains strength through continued use.
- The brain begins to expect and depend on the substance.
- Use fulfills the dependence of the brain creating the addiction.
I am not a drug and alcohol counselor, nor am I a psychologist. It is not my job to blow smoke or to make up excuses for the behavior of individuals. I am, however, a former opiate addict and former alcoholic. I have done extensive research and spoken to a large number of experts in the field. In my opinion, the cause(s) of addiction can be all boiled down to one reason: a lack of hope.
Hope is defined as:
“…with expectation of obtainment or fulfillment.” Hope is not a blind wish. Hope is expecting fulfillment. That is what seems to be the common missing thread with addicts. Through one large, or more commonly a series of small, negative events in their lives, they no longer expect fulfillment. No matter what they do, they are going to screw it up and fail in some way. This terribly negative basis runs through them and affects every decision they make and every interaction they have. Perhaps a parent consistently belittled them and convinced them, consciously or subconsciously, that they were not good enough and would never succeed. Conversely, perhaps a parent consistently praised everything they ever did and gave them the impression that love was based on perfection – an unachievable and unsustainable goal. I use the example of a child’s mindset only because 90% of adults with substance addictions first used drugs or alcohol before the age of 18. So, whether we want to admit it or not, the role of the family unit on a developing mind cannot be overstated. The eventual addict has been taught that there is no hope for them. They are taught not to expect fulfillment. So it becomes somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy in their lives to fail; to suffer; to be in pain. The loss of hope leads to a life of substance abuse and addiction.
The Regaining of Hope
So is it possible to regain a sense of hope? Is it possible to implant that expectation of obtainment and fulfillment in your life? The good news is that YES you can! The bad news is that it is hard work and will most likely be mentally and physically painful. But it is also worth every moment of the struggle. Within the struggle is where we find the inner strength and perseverance that we may not have even known we possessed. It is inside of you. You DO have the strength to overcome your addiction. You DO have more to offer yourself and the world. You ARE worth more than you thought you were. Within the struggle, we find hope.
In my personal experience, I did not go to a recovery center. I did not attend a 12-step program. I realized that if I did not immediately stop using prescription opiates, I was going to die. The pills themselves and the emotional turmoil within me would take my life. My rock bottom was a, thankfully, failed suicide attempt. I went to sleep fully expecting not to ever wake up again. But when I did wake up, I vowed to myself that I would never again allow drugs or my unstable mental faculties to drag me back down to that level. I made a decision for myself and my family. And set my mind that there was no going back. I spent over a week detoxing in bed. I have never before or since been in so much physical pain. Every square inch of my body hurt constantly. My joints ached. My skin felt like it was on fire. My heart pounded like I was running a marathon at full speed. I begged, pleaded and prayed for relief from the pain. The human body and the mind can handle a surprising amount of physical pain without breaking. It was here that I found hope. I knew in my soul that I would overcome. I knew that I was not actually dying, even though it often felt as if I were. The pain was temporary and I could wait it out. The emotional anguish was far worse. All of the feelings that I had hidden or numbed throughout my life exploded at once.
I had kept my negative emotions and thoughts in check for most of my life by suppressing them and pretending they didn’t exist. I would literally picture in my mind a wooden door over a well where I would lock away the negativity. It was toward the end of withdrawal that the lock broke and all of my darkest monsters came out to be dealt with. It took nearly a full month of being lost in my own head to come out the other side. But through all of it, the hope remained. I expected that I would prevail and not be crushed under the weight of my own feelings and thoughts. I expected to come out the other side as a stronger and well rounded individual. I depended on my hope.
The Hard Work is After Withdrawal
It takes an immense amount of introspection to defeat our own demons. We must be willing to meet each and every one of them, accept them as existing and let them go. It sounds so simple when it is written down as three steps. But it is anything but easy. We have negative thoughts which are tied to negative emotions which are, in turn, tied to unhappy memories. The process of engaging the thought, feeling the emotion, following it to the associated memories, reliving those moments, accepting them and letting them go is a remarkable endeavor. However, it can be done. It must be done. It is the path to true acceptance of yourself and the first step in your journey toward joy and happiness, free of drugs and alcohol.
The physical pain of withdrawal is intense. However, once you have survived the physical, the real work begins. Introspection is a term that I use frequently to describe the process of digging to the root of your negative behavior and killing it from where it grew. The mental aspect of addiction is far more insidious and confusing than the physical. That is why addicts develop a ritual around their drug of choice. The preparation and the action of using the drug is just as important as the physical effect of the drug itself. The heroin addict begins to feel better once they start melting down their drug; the alcoholic feels better with the bottle in their hand; the opiate addict feels better as soon as the pill touches their tongue. It is a mental game and we are always on the losing end.
We must allow ourselves to feel the negative emotions and relive those negative memories. We must be willing to hurt. The drug of choice will kill you, but it is the emotions we fear. How crazy is that? When we run from our past, when we run from ourselves, when we run from our emotions – we are running straight toward our destruction.
How Do I Start?
Get into a quiet space. Close your eyes. You will not need to “search” for the emotions. They will feel overwhelming at first. Just pick one at a time and sit with it. Feel it. Follow it through all of the memories it is linked with, reliving each one with your new-found shield of hope, until you come to the earliest. That is the base of the emotion. Relive that moment, see it for what it truly was, duck down behind that shield of hope and let the memory spew all the fire it wants. You are safe and protected. When the memory is exhausted, let it go. That memory and the hellish emotions it spawned in you no longer have any control. You are in control of you. You have hope for the future and the confidence in yourself to see it come to fruition.
Now rest and get ready to fight just like that until you slay the last demon.
I realize it seems like a daunting task. And, in truth, it is. It will be easier with a support system. If you have family members or friends that you trust (and, importantly, do not have addiction issues themselves), then lean on them for support while you go through this process. Also, I absolutely suggest that you, as I did, seek out a therapist to help you. He/she can be an invaluable tool in providing support and helping to guide you to the roots of those negative emotions.
Be ready for some big emotions. You have been numbing every sensation and emotion, both positive and negative, for the entire duration of your addiction. When they come back following your withdrawal, they feel huge and stronger than you remember! You WILL cry. And that is absolutely normal. I was once told, “Tears are the sweat of the soul”. If you aren’t crying, you aren’t trying.
Also, please be aware that the physical effects of alcohol withdrawal are extremely serious. Depending on the duration of your addiction and the condition of your body, it can even be deadly. I suggest consulting with your doctor so they can monitor your health.
Above all, have faith in yourself. Never back down from your conviction to get through and defeat the addiction. If you fall, you did not fail. As long as you are alive, you did not fail. Just get back up and start again. You are in control. You are stronger than you think. Fight for your future. Hope will protect you. Failure is not an option! Make the decision and start living in hope right now.