Like so many other puzzling weaknesses in the design of humans – knees come to mind – addiction is a weakness we can all become susceptible to under the right (i.e., wrong) conditions. Addiction is ubiquitous: there are over thirty different twelve step programs, each addressing a different addiction – the original, of course – alcoholism; but also gambling, debting, narcotics, marijuana, sex, and many others. Just in terms of dollars and cents, government estimates of the total overall costs of substance abuse in the United States—including health and crime-related costs as well as losses in productivity—exceed half a trillion dollars annually. And that’s just addiction to substances – not shopping, food, or “love,” just to name a few others.
How do so many of us get into the addiction mess? Poverty, mental illness, childhood trauma – these are commonly recognized predictors of addiction. On the other hand, there are more than a few addicted millionaires, from what I’ve seen and heard. My own experience of working with addicted people is that in every case, no matter what the addiction, no matter what the demographic, an addicted person is someone who has great difficulty with healthy needs – knowing what they are, knowing how they can be met, and believing that they can be met.
For example, Marty is a successful high level executive, handsome and healthy, a church going man who loves his wife and kids very much. When his wife discovered a trail of internet porn sites on his computer, she was horrified and he agreed to give up his habit and go to therapy. She didn’t understand why, when they were sexually active, Marty was still looking elsewhere.
I soon learned that when he was in high school and his older brother died in a drug-induced accident, Marty started drinking heavily until he too almost had a fatal car accident. His parents were hard working people who weren’t talkers, especially where feelings were concerned. Once his brother was buried, no one really talked any more about him. Marty straightened out after his own brush with death, did well in school, and worked his way up.
Marty got very good at pleasing others, his bosses and clients, and he’s a good provider, a good husband and father. His own needs and feelings are the last things he thinks about, if at all. So at night, when he was done being terrific at work, and his wife and kids were in bed, he would feel restless, exhausted and hyper at the same time, and the lonely, guilty pleasure of viewing porn would help him end the day and get to bed.
Porn was a quick substitute for meeting needs that he couldn’t identify, let alone articulate. It had just gotten easier, more reliable, to get a quick fix that didn’t involve having to give anything, or making actual connection with anyone. It didn’t occur to him that his real needs - the underlying needs all humans have, for intimate connection, for affirmation and support, for recognition and encouragement from the ones we are closest to – could be acknowledged, verbalized, and met – and not by his computer. The marital therapy work Marty and his wife eventually did helped consolidate his understanding, and helped his wife feel closer, too.
Addictions are tough to kick, and sometimes medical solutions, such as detox and rehab for alcohol and drug dependence, are necessary. But for most addicts, once the habit is kicked, the hard part really begins. Many recovered addicts can get good at meeting the needs of others – and some may stay sober by trying to deny their own needs altogether. The harder part is learning to acknowledge your own needs, letting people get close, and letting people love you. As a member of the human race, you’re allowed to have needs, and not be held down by shame. Feeling worthy enough, being able to be vulnerable enough to invite others to meet your needs is a big part of recovering from addiction – and recovering the capacity to love and be loved.