My mother became a social worker before I was born, so I grew up with the interface of her spirituality and her work. She always emphasized that the essence of all religions is the same. And as she preached that religions offer multiple paths to the divine, she constantly asserted that all people are subject to addictions, not just exceptional, dire cases (such as her clients).
In other words, anything can be compulsion. The DSM catalogues the addictive potential of a myriad of behaviors and substances, from obvious to obscure. Sometimes the same thing can bring either peace or distress, depending on the manifestation. Alcohol is an easy example—it can be a way to relax socially as well as a catalyst for disaster. Though Catholicism does not espouse my interpretation, I consider some of the seven deadly sins as overindulgences in (or addiction to) healthy qualities. Confidence is beneficial, though pride [in excess] can be hurtful. Desire is natural, though lust [in excess] can be destructive. Nowadays, compulsion permeates our culture so much so that addiction can be a cliché, like “sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.” And the glut (pun intended) of TV shows such as “The Biggest Loser” and “Celebrity Rehab” also underscores addiction’s omnipresent versatility.
In such examples, people often talk about addictive personalities, as though addiction is somehow deviant to the normal human condition. I have always disagreed, though I can only articulate why by referencing Buddhism, which teaches that all suffering is caused by ignorance and craving. So of course all people are vulnerable, by nature, to addiction: because the human condition is always subject to ignorance and craving. Addictive tendences are not equally obvious, but no one is exempt. In this light, addictions encompass more than their observable, compulsive behaviors. Rather, the behaviors—whether drugs, alcohol, gambling, sex, etc—function like physical symptoms—fever, rash, tumor, infection—as manifestations of deeper dis-ease.
More importantly, our compulsions have the potential to destroy our lives, though the damage and consequences take different forms. Sometimes compulsion functions like undetected cancer—no obvious signs, but still destructive. A functional life does not prove a lack of destructive behavior, but that the compulsions are well-managed. For example, a drug overdose is more obvious than a lack of confidence. That is, until the latter leads to abuse or even suicide. So what may be considered trivial can be just as toxic as narcotics. Notably, both scenarios could have the same cause, such as the desire for love. Again, actions are symptoms.
I lived my first few decades in incessant self-deprecation, never considering myself worthy of the blessings I now recognize that I deserve. The unending mental barrage of criticism damaged my life both professionally and personally. Though I recognized the preponderance of people in my life who didn’t value my intelligence or appreciate my talents—the arrogant bosses, disrespectful coworkers, and even inconsiderate friends—I never questioned their behavior. I could always rationalize others as well-intentioned and thus myself as overreactive. I believed the exceptions—the kind, loving people who believed those glimmers of my genuine self—were simply those crazy enough to value me in spite of my unworthiness, people generous enough to care for the sake of charity.
“Without the knowledge of [life’s natural cycles], a person is inclined…to extrovert the need for new and personal action into spending too much money, doing danger, roping reckless choices, taking a new lover. It is the dummling’s or fool’s way. It is the way of those who do not know.”
(emphasis added, from Women Who Run with the Wolves,
by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés)
I did not know, and accordingly I manifested my suffering in many ways. Some people have strong preferences for compulsion, one substance or activity that is far more effective than anything else. In contrast, I am nothing if not versatile—I have lived with plenty of compulsions: negative thoughts, food, dysfunctional relationships, overwork. When I occasionally attemped to change, my addiction found another outlet. For example, when I tried not to disparage myself so constantly, I started consuming too much comfort food. When I stopped eating so poorly, I started working all the time.
My pernicious thoughts governed my behavior, and my addiction to both maintained their existence. I didn’t want to feel vulnerable, and my intentions ensured that it was never required. I resisted connection by only meeting shallow people who didn’t inspire me, but I never tried to know anyone else. And whenever I felt frustrated at the lack of love in my life, the addictive thoughts provided unquestionable proof: that I didn’t deserve anything better.
The real addictions, of course, were my ignorance and craving. Ignorance that my fears were normal, and my desperate craving for genuine love. But the addictions provided the perfect “get out of [emotion] free” card. I never had to take responsibility for not interacting with my fears, insecurities, and voids. My compulsions skillfully and incessantly deflected and avoided any and all risk of vulnerability. Not only did my compulsion perfectly justify (and thus disguise) itself, it felt absolutely appropriate. That twisted sort of security was truly intoxicating, giving a buzzy, druglike high. And intoxicating is the perfect word: “in” + “toxic,” the latter coming from the Latin word for poison.
In my case, a complete emotional breakdown had to occur before I fully recognized the damage of my addictions. What I had always believed—that I didn’t deserve supportive people encouraging me to live as I wanted—came true as nearly everyone I trusted at that time betrayed me. I don’t mean to victimize—I certainly enabled what happened. But I still felt attacked, and this time the familiar intoxication didn’t justify anything. For the first time, my emotions and logic aligned in the opposite way, and I encountered a part of mySelf that didn’t subscribe to my addictions. The irony of what I believed true proving to be the opposite shaped my understanding of where the truth lies. (Deliberately phrased that way.)
I understood that my ability to keep my life functional actualy hindered any confrontation with my compulsions. A few years later, I was struck by John O’Donahue’s first lines in “For an Addict” (emphasis added):
“May you crash hard and soon
Onto real ground again”
Then I noticed his beautiful compassion—that the crash is a painful end, but it yields the potential for recovery. Life falling apart certainly hurts in the present, but often blesses the future.
In my crash, I learned that I was willing to confront my addictions when they became more painful, toxic, dangerous, and miserable than the discouragement, frustration, hopelessness, disheartenment, pessimism, intimidation, demoralization, and fear of reconditioning my thoughts and behaviors. I resolved to confront my addictions every day, no matter my lack of hope, confidence, and optimism. I try (still) to surrender to times when I feel helpless and unable to handle what happens in my life.
Facing addiction is never wasted effort, but often it stops at the symptoms and ceases when the addiction is no longer manifested in the same actions. However, cessation of compulsive behavior is not equivalent to full healing—just the healing process has commenced. Just because the fire is out doesn’t mean that a burn has healed. Confronting addiction often fixates on manifestation more than source. So the compulsion often finds a new outlet, such as people in rehab who start smoking. Without confrontation with their causes, addictions morph.
Given how much my mother’s work addresses addiction, she is not surprisingly a proponent of 12-step programs. And over the millenia, many spiritual traditions have recognized sources of compulsion. That knowledge has founded many codes of living—ten commandments, five pillars, eight limbs. Many of these principles overlap, such as non-covetousness. Rather than a specific addiction, this principle confronts a source of addiction. Whether praying five times a day or eating certain foods, spiritual practices are often counterpoints to compulsions—a deeper dialogue with how we live.
The urge to slap a vein in preparation for a needle, the willingness to accept abuse, the desire to purge a gluttonous amount of food (after eating too much in the first place) all spring from the same source. Addictive behavior is merely a symptom of something deeper that only mindfulness can heal. We can all be addicts, so we can all be in recovery. Although I am not active in any particular religion or 12-step program, my spiritual practice sustains confrontation with my own addictions. I work to reinforce constructive compulsions, such as loving unconditionally. The inner life holds potential yet unmanifested. And when the inner life moves outward, the world changes.
∞ Tremendous thanks to my mother, who in my childhood emphasized the transcendence of spirituality and the universality of addiction.
∞ Deep gratitude to my Anonymous friend, who in my adulthood lent me his dog-eared, marked-up copy of the Big Book and freely shares his own path and convictions. I am humbled by such a compelling and inspiring friend and teacher.
SK © 2012