One of the things that non addicts find hard to understand about addicts is that the thing the addicts are using; drink, drugs, money, sex, food, self-harm is not really the problem.
This is because from the outside, it very much looks like the problem. If someone ends up in hospital with pancreatitis because they drank too much, or on suicide watch because their self harming became a little too harmful, or losing their house because they are in so much debt they can’t afford to pay their mortgage, this is a problem.
It is absolutely A problem, but it isn’t THE problem.
The drink, the drugs, the starving, the bingeing, the cutting, the spending. These are all solutions to THE problem. The big problem, or the series of interconnected little problems that make up one, complex mass that seems absolutely overwhelming and extraordinarily heavy and painful and shameful and unsolvable that sits underneath all this extreme behaviour.
And the behaviour? Well at first it probably wasn’t that extreme. It was probably the noticing that the terrible, terrible problem seemed a little less terrible after a drink. It was probably noticing that the unbearable anxiety sitting in your chest or between your shoulder blades loosened up just a little that time you hurt yourself and all you had to focus on was the pain of the wound and not the pain of the wound that can’t be located but which hurts you all the time anyway. It was probably noticing that when you were hungry, all you could think about was the hunger and that was actually much easier than thinking about all the things you can’t solve but can’t turn off that keep you awake night after night.
The root problems are usually to do with self love, or the lack thereof. The belief deep down that we are damaged, unloveable, unworthy, broken, evil or mad and that we need to hide those behaviours from everyone else and ‘pass’ as normal. The feeling that the more we engage in ‘normal’ life, the more ill suited we are for it, the more anxious it makes us and the more likely it is that someone will find us out and then we will be ostracised. We are lonely now, caught in the maze of our thoughts, so imagine what it will be like when we are a pariah? We can’t let that happen, so we eat a little less, or spend a little more, and it takes us over the next thing we can’t deal with.
So we learn deflection, numbing, coping and hiding in plain sight, all strategies to get by. Sometimes we isolate, and retreat into our head where our awful, self-loathing thoughts traipse round and round in the hamster wheel of our minds, uninterrupted. Sometimes we go out there into the world and brave the things we fear, but there is only so much bandwidth for that, so we medicate in the ways we know how, and we hate ourselves for it afterwards, because we forget that actually, in a twisted way we are trying to be kind to ourselves.
We are trying to save ourselves in situations where we are otherwise in permanent fear and being permanently afraid is exhausting in body and mind. We are self-soothing so that we don’t go mad, kill ourselves or kill everyone else and then kill ourselves.
Behaviours that look stupid or harmful nearly always have their roots in something, somewhere that we did or learned that helped us once or twice and which we decided would probably help us again when things got unmanageable. Because the nature of the addict is largely one of living with overwhelm and unmanageability most of the time, that one, small behaviour turns into a habit that eventually imprisons us where once it set us free. It becomes the thing that is overwhelming and unmanageable.
For me, I wrestle, on top of my mental health issues with two addictions, co-dependency (the desire to help others and ‘save’ them, over myself and my own needs) and spending. I spent a lot of time in a 12 step programme many, many years ago, when I lived with an addict, learning how to apply the 12 steps to my co-dependency so that I could take care of myself and not lose myself in someone else’s addiction. It’s been invaluable and has undoubtedly saved me from the loony bin on more than one occasion.
The spending addiction has been, and is, much harder to manage.
This summer both my addictions reared their ugly heads when my daughter became ill.
The difficulty with all of these addictive things is that they are common behaviours that most people manage just fine, so how do you know when a normal behaviour is becoming an abnormal behaviour?
It is good to care for people when you can. It is lovely to look after others and be generous with your time, for example. It is not so good when you are helping so many people that you are not taking care of yourself, when you are running on empty, when you are getting ill. It is not so good when you realise that your relationships with other people are not balanced, that you are attracting people who take and take and take and don’t give when you need it. It is not so good when you find yourself resenting the fact that nobody is doing for you what you are doing for them. Why would they, when you are not doing for yourself what you do for others? It is not good when you ‘need’ to help people so that they love you and like you because you can’t find it within you to love and like yourself. That’s when caring for others crosses the line.
That was me. Sometimes it still is me.
It’s when the behaviours you are using to cope with something become ritualised, habitual and out of all proportion to the way ‘normal’ people do them, whatever they are.
It’s when you stop doing them but they are constantly on your mind, and it’s like an itch you can’t scratch, and when you finally give in and do it, you feel a disproportionate sense of relief, and this is usually followed by a disproportionate sense of shame. And so the cycle continues. If the pain and anxiety and shame get worse once you stop taking your fix, then the fix was not the problem. It was literally the ‘fix’ for what is still broken inside you.
The other difficulty with these addictions is that life doesn’t let up while you try to fix what’s underneath them. If you’re going to put down a drink and not pick one up again and you are an addict, you need to address the root of the problem. You need to learn to love yourself, care for yourself, find pride in yourself. You need to be able to make peace with yourself and learn to live without your medication/anaesthetic, and that is not easy, because life is not easy.
So this summer, when my daughter got sick, and she needed me I knew that there was a reasonable chance that my co-dependency would kick in. It’s not that I suddenly decided I could ‘save’ her. I have been around the block enough times to know that’s a fool’s errand. It’s that with the people who you love and who depend on you, it’s very, very hard to say ‘no,’ to them. It’s hard enough when you live with a partner who drinks or drugs but who is an adult. It’s virtually impossible when you live with a child. How do you say, ‘I know you can’t sleep and you’re constantly wrestling your demons and being alone scares you, but I’m really tired and I need some personal space, so could we come back to this when I’m feeling a bit more able to cope?’
And there are times, in extremis, when no matter what the cost to you personally is, you step up, in the full knowledge that what you are about to do is almost certainly going to harm you, because sometimes you sacrifice for the greater good.
That’s what happened to me. I’m not saying I deliberately flung myself in harm’s way, of course I didn’t. I did the best I could with what I had. I kept picking up my 12 step practices, and when I failed, I picked them up again. I asked for help where and when I could and I tried to make sure that I was practicing some self care.
The problem is that it requires energy to do this. The habits; the drinking, the cutting, the drug taking, the spending are easy. We’ve done them a thousand times. They’re comfortable and safe, where doing things differently is hard and frightening and risky. When we practice our addictions we are always sure of what the outcome will be. When we practice living without an anaesthetic, we cannot be sure. In the long term I can tell you from experience that life is better, but in the short term there are squalls that can knock you off your feet and they are hard to weather sober when you know the thing that could take the pain away is a gift you can give yourself.
My daughter’s illness was one of these squalls. It took every ounce of energy to care for her, care for everyone else so that they didn’t feel left out and to give myself what was left. Often there wasn’t much left and every day when there was less and less energy the requirement to keep on the path of sobriety was harder. Every day the temptation to give in to my addiction was stronger, because I was already walking the path of co-dependency sobriety and having to walk the path of sobriety with money was just too much.
So one day I didn’t. One day, when it all got too much, when I had had enough and when I knew that there was nothing left within me to fix myself with, I took myself shopping. I took an hour out of my hideous, unmanageable, painful life and I went shopping and it was wonderful. It was easy and simple, and perfectly selfish and mindless and it allowed me to run away from my life for just enough time to make it ok when I had to pick it up again.
And I coded it as ‘self care’, so that it would be ok. So that I didn’t have to beat myself up about something else I had failed at, like noticing my daughter was so sick, like knowing I couldn’t fix her even though I wanted to, like failing as a parent. Even though I knew those things were not really true. They felt true and they felt unbearable, and shopping didn’t and that was good enough.
And so it went on. And you see, it was self care, in a way. What I have to acknowledge is that right then, in that moment it was self care. It gave me respite. It gave me pleasure. It gave me comfort and a feeling of self worth I didn’t have at that time, and it made it possible for me to go and do the impossible for a bit longer. And that was ok.
What was not ok was doing it again and again and again, and feeding the addiction and ignoring the root causes because it was too hard and I was too tired and I didn’t want to. That was not ok, because in the last few weeks I have been forced to acknowledge that the key I gave myself to get out of temporary chokey has put me back in a prison I once walked free from, and now I need to do the work all over again.
The good thing is that I want to and I know I can, and that in itself is a miracle.
I will leave you with the other big thing about addicts that non addicts don’t understand. You cannot apply the normal rules to the mind of an addict.
The mind of an addict is coded in a different language, and trying to rationalise with us about our addiction, whatever it might be, doesn’t work because it simply doesn’t translate.
Addiction is an illness. It is a profound dis-ease with the world. It’s not that we don’t understand that if we keep doing this thing our lives will be worse. Of course we do. We live it. We’re not stupid.
We’re in the grip of a disease.
Only the cure has to come from the desire to be well, and in order to have that desire we have to have within us that tiny hope that things can be better, that we can be better if we do this, and that’s a big ask for people who spend a great deal of their time in a state of self loathing, harbouring constant feelings of failure.
It might seem simple to you, but try to explain the colour orange to someone who has never seen an orange before and you’ll begin to have a tiny glimmer of understanding of what I’m talking about.
Stepping out from the grip of an addiction requires a phenomenal act of faith and a willingness to believe that things can be better than they are right now. Given the state of the world we live in at the moment, even non-addicts can perhaps grasp how tricky that is. And it isn’t enough to do it once, you have to commit to it every day, all the time, whilst battling the voices that tell you that you’re going to fuck this up, inside and out.
It’s a tough gig. Particularly at this time of year, when we’re all supposed to be over indulging to time table and at the same time being jolly and practically perfect in every way.
So if you’re in the grip of an addiction yourself, I send you my love and care. If you’re in recovery, I send you my respect and love. You’re fucking nails. xx