Are you addicted to therapy?
As a drugs worker, I spent many years visiting people in prison who were addicted to heroin and crack cocaine, in order to help them get treatment. Unless they were in treatment, the chances were that as soon as they would get out of prison they would reoffend, to get money (usually through theft), and then re-use and sometimes overdose. The magnetic programming and pull of decades of deeply-ingrained habit ends up being impossible to resist. The excitement, the anticipation and the elaborate rituals... it’s like being possessed, on auto-pilot. The addicted person is high even before they have taken anything, just thinking about what they are going to do. It was a never-ending, hopeless, predictable cycle which found tragic expression in the heavy orange case files filled with reams of notes and court reports.
But some people did decide to get help and transform their lives. Being sober and not offending is much harder than climbing mountain Everest, or running a marathon. It requires a totally new way of life, a complete full-on reinvention. That’s why it’s advisable to spend six months or longer in a residential treatment facility, with a non-stop programme of activities with other people trying to get sober. Or, if you are living in the community, you need to get to a meeting every day, or more than once a day. You can’t mix with people who use drugs, so you have to make new friends. If you’re not using drugs, you have a lot of time on your hands. You need to find ways to spend that time, but you probably don’t know who you are, because you have been totally involved with your addiction. You, therefore, need to find out about yourself, gently and slowly.
The psychotherapist Carl Jung was influential in helping found Alcoholics Anonymous. Roland H, one of the founders, came to see him for a consultation. Jung was very pessimistic. He felt that the case of the addict was pretty hopeless, unless they had some sort of spiritual or mystical experience. He believed that that addict needed to have a “numinous” experience in order to realise that there was more to life than the ego. In fact, he believed that an addict would need to experience a collapse of the ego so profound that they would be changed forever, and find a new way of living, a new centre of being. Such an experience would give them a religious or ethical perspective on life, an angle which had simply evaded them so far. They didn’t need to believe in God or be religious, but unless they experienced some dimension of life that was bigger than they were, they would simply relapse. The early members of Alcoholics Anonymous found that they were able to stay sober through sharing their experiences with one another and that this was, in fact, crucial to help their recovery and help them create a protective community. It also gave them an experience of life beyond their own “ego.” But some members, belonging to the Christian Oxford group, also tried to find short-cuts, and chased after “spiritual” experiences through experimenting with LSD.
Jung believed that as we mature we find meaning through living beyond the ego, from a place called the “self”, which reflects our much broader connection with each other, and the world around us. We are not director's of the "self" but caught in its flow. It's not fair or just, it's just life with all its ups and downs. The ego thinks it knows everything, and, of course, it is very important when you need to organise your life, pay your bills and earn a living, but Jung realised that there was much more beyond the ego, and a full life needed an appreciation of the breadth of life.
There may be areas of life where you have experienced addiction directly, be it a substance, or a process. Similarly, it’s possible that you will have experienced the effects of addiction due to your family or workplace experiences. These experiences are often secretive and hidden from view, even though they are very common. Even though they may not involve anyone going to an actual prison, they may serve to lock you into rigid and repetitive patterns of behaviour, either as the addicted person or the family member.
You may complain about being "addicted to therapy", but perhaps it's a beneficial addiction that allows you to process aspects of yourself and those around you. You may experience a profound loss when you give up an addicted way of life and being, and you may need a substitute or replacement to focus on whilst you get back on your feet. The therapist can act as a focus, or as the therapist Donald Winnicott might say, a "transitional object", which fills in until you find a new focus for your attention. Therapy, even though it costs, is cheaper than the cost of an addiction. Do the sums. On the upside, it can liberate you from a life sentence, and help you find genuine freedom.
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About Ajay Khandelwal
Ajay Khandelwal is the Clinical Director of Lambeth and Southwark Mind and a psychotherapist in Private Practice