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Why Do We Become Addicted?

November 8, 2012

A client of mine this week talked about having the sensation of emptiness in his body.  He knew it was related to feelings of rejection, disrespect, loss of connection with his loved ones.  How uncomfortable that was for him.  “Give me a drink” he said “or let me smoke a joint.  It scares me.  It leads to panic.  Emptiness is scary.”

Buddhists follow certain guidelines for ethical living called precepts.  One of the precepts is stated as Do Not Be Ignorant.  Other ways of expressing it are Do Not Use Intoxicants, Do Not Delude Yourself, Stay Aware and Conscious, Cultivate a Mind That Sees Clearly, Stay Awake.

I think that if we each look at our lives we will find many experiences past and present of consuming from an unconscious, mindless place where we are more asleep than awake.  Our senses are numbed, dulled.  We are not feeling something, what is it we don’t want to feel or are afraid to feel?  What are we each addicted to?  Can we look at it?  Sometimes it is not substances.  It is shopping, or needing attention or love from a certain kind of person. Sometimes, it is the compulsive use of sex or pornography or shopping or workaholism, nonstop electronics use, gambling and on and on.

Gabor Mate (In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts) says “Absolutely anything can become an addiction.  It’s not the external behaviors, it’s our relationship to it.”

We are afraid to feel our pain, our grief, our hurt, our emptiness.  Being still, feeling lost, experiencing emptiness is scary. Going deeper into ourselves or into relationships with others can be scary.  The loss of connection to our selves, or finding it difficult to know who we are is scary.

Addictions are the way that we cope with feelings of loss and emptiness, of not knowing who we are and not knowing how to find ourselves, of feeling bad about ourselves, of feeling hurt and pain, from abuse, trauma and loss, of not knowing what to do with the anger we feel, of feeling deep intergenerational grief for losses of parents and ancestors.  There is often so much fear of feeling these things.  Most of us grow up not being comfortable with strong feelings.

We can all ask ourselves “why am I doing this thing”, “what am I afraid to look at or deal with or feel?”

We are afraid to feel our pain, our grief, our hurt, our emptiness.  Being still, feeling lost, experiencing emptiness is scary. Going deeper into ourselves or into relationships with others can be scary.  The loss of connection to our selves, or finding it difficult to know who we are is scary.

I have found through my work with clients that the more trauma a person has experienced the more addictions they have.  Or the more serious their addictions are.

Gabor Mate says “addiction is nothing more than an attempt to self-medicate emotional pain.”  In the Ace Study, the major study done by Kaiser of San Diego, the researchers found that there was a direct correlation between the amount of trauma a person experienced as a child and the number of physical illnesses and emotional conditions and addictions they had as an adult.

When we face our addictions, we have the possibility of healing.  But we have to feel our discomfort, face our pain and hurt and fear.   When we suffer with addiction, it holds the opportunity to wake us up.  It can force us to deal with experiences and feelings we have avoided.  When we explore the meaning in the addiction, what it is that is numbed or avoided we learn a lot about our inner selves.  When we look at how our lives are impacted by the addictive behavior it can open our eyes.  We can recognize the necessity of getting to know ourselves.  Addiction can give us an opportunity to heal, to learn and to grow up.

If we can look at our addictions with compassion, if we can be curious and interested but not punishing we can make headway on our life journeys.  We have to get underneath the shame that accompanies addiction.

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