The Addict in Each of Us

By Maggie Milligan, Intern Social Worker

Addict is such an ugly-sounding word. It suggests weak-willed, bad people and can convey an immitigable sense of shame. We tend to think of addicts in a more traditional sense—people struggling with alcoholism or serious drug addictions. But there are also behavioral addictions, which can be a bit more subtle and difficult to recognize. There are addictions to video games, shopping, gambling, even sex and love. And in truth, we all have an addict somewhere inside of us—we live in an addicted society where maladaptive coping mechanisms are the widely accepted behavioral norm. So if we are able to look past the stigma of the label “addict,” we may be able to adapt a clearer and less shaming understanding of addiction.

Addiction is not about a particular substance or behavior—those are merely symptoms of an underlying issue—it’s about a maladaptive pattern of coping and an aversion to being authentic and vulnerable. This is partially why “dry drunks” and other addicts who equate abstinence with recovery tend to have such a high risk of relapse—abstaining from a problem substance or behavior does not get to the root cause of the addiction. Anne Wilson Schaef uses the context of sex and love addiction to explain it in her 1989 book, Escape From Intimacy:

It is of utmost importance to be aware that this underlying addictive process is culturally based and learned. It functions under rules of its own, rules that could be compared to flowing water finding its own course. We all know that when a stream is blocked, it will find its own way (frequently into our basements!). It is not that the water goes away when its path is changed; it just finds another, sometimes less convenient, way to express itself. The addictive process is much the same. If one path for its expression is cut off, it finds another…addictions rarely, if ever, exist in isolation (p. 1).

More often than not, what lurks in the heart of addiction is a fear of intimacy. This fear is fueled and sustained by shame—the demon that tells us that at our very core we are not worthy of love and intimacy. So we build walls, we don masks, and we make every effort we can to escape from and conceal the unfavorable parts of ourselves. We become keepers of secrets and masters of manipulation—and so often we completely lose sight of who we really are.  

Of course, understanding our own addictions is only part of the process. Schaef explains,

Unfortunately, no one was ever cured of an addiction just by understanding it. In fact, the very process of “understanding” may be a way to “protect one’s supply.” I know that many people have been helped and relieved by that “Aha” experience of “So that’s what’s wrong with me,” “That’s my story,” or “I see myself on every page.” Yet that experience is only the beginning (p. 7).

The bulk of the recovery process is sitting in pain and actively confronting the ugliest, most carefully guarded and hidden parts of ourselves—being willing to acknowledge oneself as an addict is only the first step. Facing addiction and living in recovery is a continuous, life-long process, and it takes enormous courage to find and express our most authentic selves. But truly, what could be more rewarding?

Therapy can be a great first step in the process of confronting your inner addict. A good therapist who has experience working with addiction can help you untangle the web of defenses and unhealthy habits that surround your authentic self and support you in a move toward recovery.  

A twelve-step program can also be a fantastic support network. Even though facing one’s inner addict is a very intimate and individualized process, addiction is also a very social disease. Twelve-step programs are strong communities offering support and understanding through the recovery process.

It will not be an easy journey, but can be life changing, and ultimately rewarding, with the right resources and support, and the motivation to take the first step. 

Some twelve-step resources include:

-       AA (Alcoholics Anonymous)

-       Al-Anon (for friends and family of alcoholics or other addicts) 

-       Alateen (for teens with friends or family members who are addicts)

-       ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics) 

-       NA (Narcotics Anonymous)

-       MA (Marijuana Anonymous) 

-       SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous) 

-       SAA (Sex Addicts Anonymous) 

-       OA (Overeaters Anonymous) 

-       EDA (Eating Disorders Anonymous) 

-       GA (Gamblers Anonymous) 

-       DA (Debtors Anonymous) 

-       CODA (Codependent Anonymous) 

Maggie Milligan, MSW Student, is an Intern Social Worker at Mindful Therapy Group, working under the supervision of Derek Crain, MSW, LICSW. She provides low cost counseling to those in need, and has had a large body of training and experiences around addiction work during her internship year.