Addictions is a feelings disease
Current thinking points to the role of genetics, environment and brain chemistry amongst other factors, but one way of looking at causes of addiction is through the idea of it as a feelings disease.
I was recently working with a treatment group who were talking about when alcohol first became a part of their lives. This revealed a common experience of drinking to fit in at university, and to make it easier to feel part of social activities. What these people shared was an experience of anxiety they did not know how to manage and which threatened to overwhelm them. Having a drink seemed to take the anxiety away and give them more confidence, allowing them to socialise and function in social gatherings. Over time, the anxiety is hidden as long as alcohol is available and the individual therefore never has to manage or process the original difficult feeling. They do of course have to keep drinking to keep the anxiety at bay. University is, of course, the time at which we are managing the transition from childhood to adulthood, which is itself often associated with stress and heightened emotions. Not surprisingly, drug and alcohol use at this time is a key factor in the development of addiction.
How addiction takes over your life
It is not just anxiety, however; anything that feels intolerable can be blotted out with drugs or alcohol. Sometimes it is a memory of trauma or abuse that you cannot bear and you search for something to keep it pushed down. Often, a very early emotional injury can be outside of your known memory but at a very basic level, there is still a need to block out the possibility of this memory surfacing.
Whilst alcohol or drugs may initially represent a quick and effective way to get rid of the unbearable, a cycle is quickly established whereby there has to be a constant access to the drug of choice for you to feel that they can cope. The ability to manage feelings - to self-soothe - already compromised, ceases to exist altogether in the addict. After time, it becomes increasingly difficult to recognise or feel any emotion, other than the preoccupation and desire for the drug of choice. It is estimated that around 50% of alcoholics suffer from Alexithymia which is a clinically recognised state of emotional unawareness and a difficulty distinguishing between feelings and bodily sensations.
How addiction affects your life
People often think that recovery is about putting down the drugs or alcohol, when in fact, as the AA Big Book says, recovery:
"could have little permanent effect unless at once followed by a strenuous effort to face, and be rid of, the things in ourselves which have been blocking us".
Recovery from addiction, therefore, means reconnecting with a whole host of feelings and emotions, which can feel very intense once you are no longer drinking or using. If you think back to being a child and your earliest experiences of feeling happy or sad or scared, such feelings seemed to take over your whole being, until you learn to manage it, and this is much like being in early treatment. Alongside this, the partners and families of addicts often experience that whilst actively addicted their loved ones are selfish and self-centred, and difficult to talk to. Seeking recovery also then means re-learning how to navigate these relationships in a positive way.
So, whilst there are several contributing factors to addiction, and more and more is becoming known about the neuroscience of addiction; at a grass roots level, addiction is a feelings disease.
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About Johanna Sartori
I am a BACP accredited psychotherapist working both in private practice and at a private psychiatric hospital and treatment centre. My experience is in working with adults who are struggling in different ways (including addiction) to cope with the difficult experiences of their past. I work with both group and individual therapy.