Freedom from the stigma and shame of addiction
In everyday language, the term addiction is usually applied to the 'need' to repeatedly take a drink or drug due to the physical or mental withdrawal we experience without it. However, for many sufferers, this dependency is only the surface layer; a barrier against more deep-rooted emotional or psychological difficulties. The good news is that with the help of experienced and understanding professionals, it is possible to lay a solid foundation of recovery and to continue to grow, in freedom and self-acceptance beyond the initial stages of managing the behaviour itself.
Addiction can be as baffling and confusing to the addict themselves as it is to those around them. How can it make sense to continually repeat a cycle of dangerous or damaging behaviour, despite our own best intentions? Why do we repeat these patterns in the face of the obvious harm and misery? For the addict, there is usually the misguided conviction that "next time this will give me what I want", despite all evidence to the contrary. Many people in recovery admit that in their experience, active addiction was a form of insanity and could likewise be defined as 'repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results'.
In the field of recovery, there is now a common understanding that many addicted clients also suffer underlying issues of unresolved anxiety, depression, or low self-esteem. In my own experience, including over 30 years in recovery and self-development as well as work in substance misuse facilities, I have found that it is rare to meet a person struggling with any form of addiction who does not admit to suffering a sense of difference or low self-worth that predates their dependency. Many recovering addicts and alcoholics have stated that when they started, they had, perhaps unconsciously, turned to their 'drug of choice' as a form of self-medication against their internal struggle. However, they soon found that, as tolerance grew, the drink, drug, or behaviour began to lose its effectiveness as an escape and intake became excessive and all-consuming. This loss of control, as well as a sense of alienation and social stigma, added to the sense of helplessness and shame which in turn led to a greater desire to escape. This is the vicious cycle of addiction.
It is important to acknowledge that problems with addiction are no longer confined to alcohol or substance misuse. It is widely accepted that many people fall into the cycle of addiction without the need to take a drink or drug. Activities from gambling through to shopping, eating, falling in love, or having sex release 'feel-good' hormones, and can become a ritualised escape. In short, anything that changes the way we feel can become compulsive. We may get a 'high' while engaged in the activity and, despite feeling guilty or overwhelmed by the consequences, find ourselves unable to stop repeating the behaviour. These problems, which are sometimes referred to as process addictions, can be as damaging to our relationships and well-being, as chemical dependency and sufferers are often unable to stop engaging in the behaviour for any length of time without help.
Clients voluntarily entering therapy with the specific goal of confronting their addiction have likely reached the stage where they have finally admitted the need for help. This is often due to having reached a point known as 'rock bottom', where the denial has broken down as the damage caused to their own and other people’s lives has become simply too painful and too obvious to deny.
The self-referring client will be much more likely to begin and stick to the process of recovery if they fully admit they have a problem but can see that there is hope for change. Here, some clients can find it very helpful to attend one of the wide variety of self-help groups such as SMART, or 12-step fellowships like Alcoholics Anonymous. At the same time, the therapist and client can work together to explore the underlying conscious or unconscious issues that the client is avoiding in their ritualised escape behaviours. An integral therapeutic approach with a person-centred foundation and a client-led exploration of past and present experiences can lay the foundations of honesty and self-acceptance that are vital for ongoing recovery.
It is vitally important that clients who are struggling with addiction, while sometimes challenged for their denial and justification, are treated with compassion and empathy. Therapists that have experience in working with and managing their addictive patterns are known to be open to and accepting of clients in this group. An implicit understanding of the experiences and deep feelings of shame around problems that can carry a great deal of stigma will be of great value in adding to the empathic aspect of the therapeutic relationship.
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