There’s No Such Thing As An “Addictive Personality”
“Addiction arises as a perceived coping strategy to remove ourselves from painful conscious experience. It’s not only the result of drawing the short genetic straw.”
Recently I was having a discussion about the rather contentious topic of “Psychedelics Drugs”. Some of the people I was talking with were for them, claiming they had the power to “wipe the ego clean” and “help us transcend our belief systems”. Other were against it, although they didn’t explicitly state their opinions. One of them however, gave anecdotal reasons as to why she’d prefer not to dabble with the bong, mushroom or joint. She claimed to have an “addictive personality”. It was at that point in time that I went silent, thinking about this notion of having an addictive personality, as though there are merely some out there who do and some who don’t. To be honest, the idea of having an “addictive personality” is as outdated, in my opinion, as the now widely debunked myth of the “chemical imbalance” for those suffering from depression. The evidence against those reductive positions is simply far too conclusive.
We have all evolved with the same minds. We all have the potential to develop addictions. There are not simply “addictive personalities” just as there aren’t certain brains born with “chemical imbalances”, especially given the research from the field of Epigenetics. It is unfortunate that these sorts of belief systems prevent us from breaking through the ceiling of our own perceived limitations but it is my hope that as individuals and organisations continue to study the brain and mind (because they are, of course, two separate entities), the knowledge will get passed down to us civilians who can they apply it to the betterment of our lives. So, here’s what we know about addiction…
Addiction is not a mental illness; it’s a coping strategy and in order to get to the root-cause of addiction, we must firstly seek to understand what the addiction is doing — what its purpose is. Gabor Maté, the Hungarian-born Canadian physician states, “It is impossible to understand addiction without asking what relief the addict finds, or hopes to find, in the drug or the addictive behaviour.” Despite our efforts to forget or distract ourselves from the past, the addiction or dependency upon the person, substance or behaviour ironically keeps us attached to it. What we’d rather forget and wish didn’t happen is validated and charged as addictions bloom and fester. Deep down we know, too. We can’t run, and we can’t hide from the past. To move on, we have to own it entirely; we must own ourselves, our identity. We must grow to love ourselves completely, and every aspect that makes us who we are; past included. An addiction binds us to the past. Although the past is illusory, it exists in the present as a negative emotional attachment stored within the body, influencing the mind to think and do all sorts of terrible things. The past haunts us, knocks on our doors. The stronger the addiction, the closer the past, like a hungry lion stalking its prey.
Addiction affects us all. We have evolved to chase rewards, to run from pain and towards pleasure. The dopaminergic system incentivises rewards, flooding our brains and bodies with positive emotion: that’s the feeling you get on your way to a first date, a promotional interview at work or when you’re about to buy a Subway cookie or sausage roll. We, too, can choose what to get addicted to — what we should devote ourselves, our lives, to — attaching greater meaning to intrinsically rewarding goals. My mum, for example, finds excel spreadsheets incredibly rewarding! For me, playing around on excel is like listening to a young child play the violin for the first time — good thing we’re all different! However, what happens when our lives, our sense of self and belonging, our goals are ripped apart and torn, our bodies abused or when someone we know and love dies? What happens when who we are or what we thought we knew ceases to exist? What happens when positive emotion completely runs-out, along with our capacity to derive any positivity from — as far as we can tell — anything, anyone, anywhere? When life loses all sense of meaning and nothing is left but pain (sometimes chronic, physical pain), a dependency upon exogenous positive emotion becomes plausible. We have discussed the ways in which traumatic experiences manifest themselves in the present through addictive tendencies. But addiction is a spectrum. We’re all chasing positive reward, all of us, all the time. For some of us and with some things, that reward comes from within. Others use crutches to lean on. But we’re all the same.
There are heroin addicts out there. There are sex addicts too, and individuals addicted to eating food. In fact, “one analysis of 57,000 women found that those who experienced physical or sexual abuse as children were twice as likely to be addicted to food.” There are also those of us addicted to the stories we tell ourselves. We are addicted to the oppressive linguistic aristocrats eating grapes and drinking wine, sitting on thrones in castles far away. They live in our minds and they tell us what we should do and say; what we’ve done and said before. We’re alive, so the habits get stronger, and repeat themselves. We become slaves to our own mode of being. We are all addicts in one way or another. Addiction is a spectrum, and a sliding scale depending on the need to mitigate ‘pain’. But we’re all in pain, when we’re not deriving a sense of pleasure. So we try to find it, in a cookie, a coffee, a website or a person. We, too, justify our ‘addictions’, telling ourselves we’re not addicted: “It’s just a cookie, it’s not like I’m a heroin junkie!” We say things like this all the time, or at least, we think them. Why? We’ve read enough self-help books and listened to more than enough gurus preaching that enlightenment is attained from within without external means. We know that blaming others, and justifying our actions only diminishes our ability to change; responsibility gone with the wind. We know negativity and happiness are mindsets. We know what we should do; what fulfils us — and the discipline it takes to bring our visions for our lives to fruition — but the comfy pillow tightens its cuffs and we’re pulled back into bed. At work: Donut or apple? “Mmm… Maybe I’ll do what the dentist told me to tomorrow. Come to think of it, tomorrow’s gearing up to be a busy day. Best take the day off.” These addictions, after a while, arise from not only a desperate attempt to feel something, but as a way to disguise and mask the truth. Is the truth painful? Are we truly addicted to our habits? Who would we be without them?
Human beings can become addicted to anything provided the substance, thought, action, behaviour, compulsion or person serves as an effective coping strategy for pain. If there is no pain, there is no coping strategy, therefore, no addiction. The coping strategy is the addiction — and we are addicted to our habits. The addiction is the symptom, the outlet; the addiction is what the coping strategy needs, essentially, to cope, and to survive. Individuals cannot live in a reactive environment for long. That is why addiction is so far-reaching — anything to get through the day!
Addiction mediates pain. ‘Pain’ can be an acute psychological or physical trauma i.e. getting punched in the face, experiencing the death of a loved one or falling down the stairs. ‘Pain’ can also be a trigger — a manifestation of negative emotion, often leading to bad habits, arising from present circumstances layered with similar associations from the past. Addicts lack wholeness because the coping strategy validates their lack of self worth — who they were, and had to be, in response to traumatic experience; in response to someone or something that changed their self-perception. They lack self-worth because who they were, once, wasn’t enough; did not prevent the manifestation of traumatic experience. Thus, who they are is suppressed to make way for this fake self needed — a defence mechanism — to cope with the unbearable world. The coping strategy, the behavioural response represents the root-cause. The root-cause — the experience — manifested itself and the traumatised individual reacted. To get to, and rehabilitate the problems emanating from the root-cause, therapists must observe and rejuvenate who someone had to be to ‘survive’. Therapists must draw that individual out from hiding, back into the world, where they can be free to grow and express themselves. Part of root-cause therapy is in addressing the manifestation of malevolence that initially triggered the behaviour. Addressing the traumatic experience, in the present, comes with rationalising and gaining alternative perspectives. Individuals come to learn why and how traumatic experiences occur — and did occur — as well as appropriate prevention strategies to reduce the likelihood of them happening again. Trauma, as we have discussed, attacks from both sides. Individuals live in the past — in a state of perpetual shock, behaving as though the trauma never ended. They live in the future too, worrying constantly, incessantly that what happened to them might happen again. Life goes on: the eternal present, a heavenly state; trauma sufferers never get to experience it.
Addiction affects us all. We are all, in some way or another, addicted to something, some idea, someone, some behaviour, thought or action. We act compulsively because the addiction gives us what we want: a nice feeling. Writers wouldn’t write their books without being addicted to the feelings that come from writing, and we each extract feel-good emotions from our chosen fields and endeavours; our passions and hobbies. This addiction to rewarding behaviour produces a personality. The personality must be intrinsically derived, must be authentic, in so far as the compulsive behaviour is productive, socially integrated and inherently meaningful. Otherwise, the behaviour constructs a mask. We all lack perfection, purity and wholeness because we are human beings — perfectly imperfect. Our ‘perfection’ is in our yearning for perfection; our striving to be better than who we were yesterday. For most of us, the fact that addiction is inevitable isn’t a problem. A lack of wholeness — no one is perfect — isn’t a problem because our weaknesses and faults don’t emanate from painful experiences.
Addiction arises as a perceived coping strategy to remove ourselves from painful conscious experience. It’s not only the result of drawing the short genetic straw. It’s not a “personality” and its proclivity for manifestation appears to have helped the mammalian organism for thousands of generations — as a kind of get while the getting’s good, advantageous strategy. Now we live in a world where we must switch the addiction circuits off or at least turn them down, but that’s for another write-up. For now let us all rest assured that we are one and the same: organisms prone to addictive tendencies because that is simply how we have evolved.
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