I provide therapy for people with dependence issues. Commonly, they’re known as “addicts.” But I’ve got a real problem with that word. Not only does it categorize a person in terms of the addiction, but it takes away their agency. If someone’s actually addicted to something, then they can’t stop. Given my job is to help people gain freedom from a dependence, it would be hypocritical to say that my patients are addicts. In actual fact, they’re people suffering from a temporary dependence.
Does this point of view oppose the current accepted definition of “addict”? Yes. Are you going to be able to point to literature that says an addict is someone in a temporary state of dependence? Yes. But in my experience, the status quo doesn’t help a whole lot. What does help, is having people acknowledge that they feel dependant on something, getting to bottom of why they’ve developed this habit and having them feel like they are not reliant on it.
If I’m told by someone that they’re an addict, my response is to look at them sadly, tell them how sorry I am and then ask, “so if you’re completely addicted, what can I do?” Usually, they’re a bit surprised and say they want help to stop being an addict.
The thing is, if they’re coming to me for help, there’s a part of them that thinks they can stop being dependant on their drug of choice. My response is then to have them acknowledge that they believe that they can change their actions: they’re not completely dependent on anything – they’re just dependent-for-now.
And this isn’t just a word game. My argument is that once you enter a state of being completely dependent on something, then you can’t be free of it. But the case with 99% of people with substance dependence is that they can stop. This means that in actual fact, there was never an uncontrollable compulsion or dependence in the first place – that at some level, it’s a choice that’s being made making.
The central problem with believing you’re an addict is that the reasoning is circular.
“What’s the problem?”
“I’m addicted to _______.”
“How do you know you’re addicted?”
“Because I can’t stop.”
“Why can’t you stop?”
“Because… I’m addicted.”
This circularity betrays the fact that 99% of the time, “addiction” is a way we excuse ourselves from making another choice.
Why 99%? Because sometimes – very, very rarely – people are actually completely dependent on something – completely meaning that if they don’t get that thing and only that thing, they’ll die. For everyone else, there’s a very difficult choice that can be made.
Now, I certainly don’t want to minimize the experience of feeling addicted to something, or, that acknowledging you have a problem is critical. I know first-hand how hard it is to recognize that something is going on that’s out of your control and then to work at ways to find out how to make another choice (not engaging in the thing you feel a compulsion to do or dependence on). The fact that you feel addicted to something means something very serious is going on.
But I want to highlight that while this experience is at the forefront of your mind, in the background is the belief that it might be possible to make different choice. This is something very powerful to acknowledge and it’s related to the awareness that people can and do get help to overcome their temporary dependence. Yes, it seems impossible, but people try and people succeed.
Still clinging to the idea that addiction is common? I’m sure you are – it means you can ignore the fact that you’re responsible for your actions. Not only your actions right now, but your actions while you’ve been a slave to your dependence.
And that’s one of the sinkholes in this landscape.
Throughout your journey to this point, you’ve made decisions that have brought you here. Sometimes coming to accept the things you did while under the yolk of a compulsion/dependence can be harder than actually escaping your dependence. And that’s one of the reasons why regaining your freedom is so hard – you have to take ownership of the things you’ve done.
Looking forward though, it’s not just tough love. I know just how powerless you are in the face of a deeply rooted dependence. The fact is, whether you call it addiction or temporary dependence, you probably can’t overcome it by yourself. Why? Because your mind works against itself in order to try to make you feel better.
So if alcohol has made you feel better or meth has numbed you, then your mind will find a way to convince yourself to keep going back. By yourself, your mind will slowly destroy itself (via the chemicals you’re dependent on) instead of choosing to acknowledge the terrible pain it contains: the terrible pain that would be released if you were sober.
More often than not, you’ve probably convinced yourself that you’ve been taking or doing something out of choice. That you were free to stop. But freedom isn’t doing the same thing you’ve always done – that’s just your mind tricking you into not making another choice.
Choose to struggle or choose dependence.
I don’t presume to know which one of those choices is right for you – there are positives and negatives in both – but don’t convince yourself that you don’t have a choice. Don’t convince yourself you’re an addict.