One of the most pervasive misunderstandings of addiction by the general public is that the causes of addiction (or addiction behavior or however you’d like to say it) boil down to people not wanting to give up something that feels good. I think this is because this is something everyone can wrap their brains around.
We all know what it’s like to have a substance or behavior in our lives that isn’t good for us, but we like it, so we keep using it. We like double cheeseburgers, so we eat them and gain weight. We like video games, so we stay up too late playing them. We like not flossing, so we keep on not flossing and our visit to the dentist feels like someone running barbed wire across our gums.
Because we can all relate to that, many people think of addiction as basically being the same sort of thing, just to a higher degree. People like a certain substance or behavior and just go overboard with it, maybe even to the point of compulsion, but at core, the common belief is that the dynamic is really no different from me eating ice cream when I’m supposed to be cutting calories.
This Creates a Big Problem
The problem here is, not only is this analysis wrong, but it actually is a huge obstacle to addiction recovery. The general public feels the issue is basically one of willpower – you need to give up something that you like in order to stop the negative consequences, and even though you might really like whatever it is, you use your willpower to give it up. This is a decision countless people make all the time about all kinds of things.
But addiction is not a matter of willpower, nor is it a matter of enjoyment of whatever it is the person is addicted to. Addiction is actually not at all like a non-addict choosing to give up something enjoyable to be healthier or avoid negative consequences or conform to their moral system.
For the non-addict, the pull of a substance or a behavior is that they enjoy it. That’s what makes it hard to give up. Ice cream tastes good, broccoli not so much. So, if you want to stop eating ice cream, you engage your willpower. This is difficult because you enjoy the taste of ice cream, but as you engage your willpower and focus on the things you want even more than ice cream (e.g. a flatter stomach, better health, etc.) you can decide not to have ice cream.
For an addict, the enjoyability of the substance or the behavior has very little to do with why they’re addicted to it. This can be very misleading for non-addicts and for addicts, themselves. Because of the way we fail to identify addiction in ourselves and others, and because of social stigma, even addicts will often think of their addiction as just really, really liking something and the problem is that they don’t have enough willpower to turn away something they really like.
As a result, many people who may be addicts are encouraged to fight their addiction in this way – stronger willpower, focusing on the benefits of doing away with it – the same way a non-addict would get rid of something enjoyable. They find, however, that they cannot. This usually leads to the addict (or the people that know the addict or society in general) blaming the addict for their problem. They just don’t have any willpower or self-discipline, or they just don’t care about the damage of the negative consequences, or they’re lazy, or they love alcohol more than they love their family, or whatever.
This approach increases the shame an addict feels, and this only strengthens the pull of the addiction. This is the great irony of approaching an addiction the way we’d approach any other instance of someone trying to get rid of something they enjoy – all the things that work for people in Non-Addict World actually make the rope tighter in Addict World.
Let me say that again, because it bears repeating:
For a non-addict, focusing on stronger willpower and the benefits of giving up the unhealthy thing generally work. For an addict, that same approach makes the addiction stronger.
The reason is that the underlying causes of addictive behavior have virtually nothing to do with how much someone “likes” what they’re addicted to compared to how much they might “like” not having it in their lives.
I mean, do you really think that every heroin addict out there prefers being a heroin addict to not?
Addiction Is About Escaping the Present
There is no one, single cause that brings everyone to addiction behaviors. If there were, addiction recovery would be a relatively straightforward thing. I’ll talk about underlying causes in a minute, but keep in mind that, for most addicts, the cause of their addiction is less like a single pillar and more like an interconnected web. This is why talking with trained professionals at some point can be so helpful – we need someone to help us find all the strands, navigate them to their points of origin, and finally untangle them without bringing the whole thing crashing down around our ears.
But the reason addiction has the pull – the thing that makes it hard to quit – is that the addict can use their addiction to escape their present. It’s not so much that the thing itself is enjoyable or feels good – it’s that the thing will take the addict away from the present.
Granted, it’s generally enjoyable things that do this, right? There’s a reason there are lots of alcohol addicts and not a lot of paying-your-water-bill addicts. But it’s not simply that alcohol tastes good or makes you feel good that lends itself so well to being an addictive substance. It’s the power of alcohol to remove you from the present.
As we do a quick scan over the things that people become addicted to, we can see this feature unites them all. Alcohol, gambling binges, video games, sex, pornography, overeating, cell phones – all these things have the potential to take someone out of their day to day lives and into a little bubble world of their own, shielding the person from their present reality.
Even work can become an addiction in this way. It may be hard for some of us to understand how someone could use work to get away from their present reality, but for some people, that’s exactly what it is. They throw themselves into the flow and activity of their work, and they can forget all about the outside world they have to enter once they walk out of the office door. You might know people who experience a terrible trauma, for example, who jump right back into work ASAP. Why do they do this? Being embroiled in the work takes them away from their present reality.
This raises the question: why do addicts want to escape their present reality?
The specific answer varies greatly from individual to individual, but the general answer is this: the present reality is painful and my resilience is low.
Um, Your Present Reality is “Painful?”
There have been a handful of times in my life when I have been sunburned really badly. I remember this one time, I kayaked down the Hiawassee in a river kayak that was open, and my legs got torched. For the next few days, anything that involved my legs besides wearing shorts and propping them up on the couch was excruciatingly painful. Putting on socks hurt, and I thought I’d pass out one morning when I was putting on slacks for church. The pain was very, very great.
Now, imagine if someone had come along and seen me propped up on the couch and said, “I can’t believe you’re lounging around on this couch wearing shorts! Get some real pants on and get out there! Everyone else managed to put on pants today and is going about their business just fine. What’s wrong with you? I got my pants on in no time this morning, got in the car, and drove all the way over here to yell at you, and if I can do it, you can do it.”
While everything that person said was technically accurate, we’d think they were being unreasonable given the circumstances. Or, I would, anyway. That little pep talk might motivate me to throw something at their head, but it sure wouldn’t motivate me to endure the pain of putting on jeans and going horseback riding. While everyone else could put their jeans on and think nothing of it, it would hurt when I did it. A lot! Even though under normal circumstances, I wore pants with no problem.
But the problem was that I had a condition that made me extremely sensitive to pain. Trivial, casual things that were just normal, daily life to everyone else were trials to me. And our expectation would be that, instead of the rest of the world expecting me to man up and get jeans on, people would realize that I was struggling with a certain condition, understand the pain I was in, and either help me with my recovery or at least be encouraging and supportive instead of demanding that I forget about my pain and just get back into the flow of things like everyone else.
When my legs were sunburned, my resilience was low. Very tiny pressures caused a large amount of pain. If my resilience had been normal, those same pressures would have been no trouble for me at all, but I had some condition that made my resilience to pain very low.
This is the reality for every addict. Their resistance to pain is very low for some reason (there are a variety of reasons for this), so things that you might consider just the regular ups and downs of everyday life have a much larger painful effect on the addict. Their addiction takes them away from that pain. The present is where the pain is.
In some ways, the opioid crisis in America is a physical representation of this. People are addicted to a drug that was literally created to stop pain. For the addict, whatever their addiction is, the value is that it takes them away from their pain – the pain of their daily life.
I mean, have you ever wondered why people who are famous and rich end up addicted to things? What’s so bad about their lives, right?
Well, one part of the answer is that their lives are harder than you think, but the other part of the answer is that, if someone’s resilience is low, even what you might consider little things can produce a large, painful effect on them.
What Causes Low Resilience to Pain?
As I said, the specific thing or combination of things that bring someone to this point are as different as the individuals. But there are certain categories of things that seem to be common with many addicts.
Ok, I know how cliche that sounds. “Tell me about your mother,” right?
Unfortunately, it’s a cliche for a reason. Our experiences as children have a big effect on how we see the world, ourselves, how we experience it, and what tools we have available to deal with it.
As children, we observe everything with no filters, but we also don’t have the knowledge and experience necessary to interpret what we see. So, for instance, if your father was at work all the time and spent very little time with you, it would be very easy to think that he didn’t like you, or that people in general didn’t like you, or that you were a burden, or that you weren’t worth spending time with, or that men were not to be trusted, or that you couldn’t depend on anyone for help. If any of that got planted in your heart as a child, it’s a wound that makes anything extra painful, especially if it comes into direct contact with your wounds.
Also, childhood is the time when we figure out what we need to do and who we need to be to navigate safely in our world. That usually begins with who we think we need to be to get by in our families, and this gradually extends to school, friends, etc. A good chunk of our personality is actually something we constructed over time. It’s the collection of tactics we chose to get through life.
In that process, we also put things away, and some things we put away are the very things that increase our resilience, like joy or healthy interdependence or even simply healthy relationships.
All these things can contribute to a child growing up with a very low level of resilience.
Lack of Exposure to Pain
This may sound counter to what I said, above. It’s much rarer, but it’s the opposite end of the scale. People who have been overly shielded from pain all their lives can be absolutely taken out the first time real life comes at them hard and fast. And real life absolutely comes at you hard and fast.
Many years ago, I worked at a college, and I remember one of the students getting a parking ticket. He was the son of a very well-to-do defense attorney and grew up with wealth and privilege. I don’t know exactly what his childhood was like, but when he got this parking ticket, he went ballistic. He drove his car onto the lawn to park it in front of the chapel, then broke doorknobs on his way to the office (where I was sitting) to slam the ticket down and yell at the top of his lungs that he didn’t deserve that ticket, etc. etc. I think the ticket was for $15.
Students got tickets all the time, and nobody reacted with the rage and destruction this kid did. There was something about his upbringing that made that event amazingly painful for him. Could have been a lot of reasons for that, but I suspect that he grew up very shielded from adversity with a strong belief that nothing was ever his fault.
I am a parent, myself, and I understand wanting to protect children from pain, and we absolutely should do that, especially when they are very little. But we can also overprotect our children, shielding them from the consequences of their actions, keeping them from any situation that could be risky, creating an artificial bubble well into their adolescence that leaves them without the tools for coping with negative situations.
This is one of the reasons kids who grow up in sheltered or pampered lives can become deeply addicted. They simply have never had to deal with pain in healthy, manageable ways.
If someone poked you in the shoulder every ten seconds, eventually, your shoulder is going to hurt. Any individual poke probably wouldn’t hurt, but eventually that poking finger will feel like a knife.
We’ve all had days when this has played out. No big, terrible thing happens to you, but throughout the day, little things go wrong. And they keep going wrong. Each thing drains a little of your resilience until, at the end of the day, someone says something that’s just a little off or you spill a little of your water or your kid leaves a toy in the hall, and you just lose it. You react completely out of proportion to the specific situation. Anyone watching those five minutes on a video camera would think you were insane.
The problem isn’t that specific situation. If that’s all that had happened to you during the day, it would have been just fine. The problem is that you had been worn down throughout the day by a lot of little, negative experiences, until you were just so raw that the slightest pressure set you off. You died from a thousand paper cuts.
Imagine that day being every day. Imagine it extending to weeks, months, and years – a constant onslaught of things that hurt you.
People can be in environments where every day is like that. Every day is a day to be afraid, all day. Every day is a day to have your defenses up, all day. Every day is a day when you will get hurt, all day.
On rare occasions, these environments produce more resilience in people, but what is much more common is they produce people who can put on a tough front, but inside are just hurting all the time.
During the Vietnam War, a lot of American soldiers developed drug addictions. When the war was over and they came back home, many of the addictions mysteriously lost their appeal and the addicts recovered almost automatically. What made the difference?
False beliefs are like self-inflicted pain in a lot of ways. I don’t mean false beliefs like facts we get wrong; I mean false beliefs in the sense of the way we see ourselves, others, or God that actively wear down our resilience. Here are some examples:
- If people really knew me, they wouldn’t want anything to do with me.
- Nobody can help me but myself.
- God is constantly displeased with me.
- I am broken in a way nobody else is broken.
- Nobody has secrets as dark as mine.
- If people are kind to me, it’s only so they can take advantage of me.
Those are just a small sampling of the sort of thing I’m talking about. It’s very easy for us to have beliefs of this kind, and it’s very easy for us not to realize that we have them (once again, this is the value of getting someone else involved in our recovery).
What’s worse is, if these beliefs are wedged into our brain or heart, we often behave in ways to validate those beliefs. If I believe nobody really likes me, then I will keep people at arm’s length and isolate myself. This will make having a close friendship impossible. Since I have no real friends, that just proves my belief is true.
These false beliefs are active pain inducers. They are constantly wearing down our resilience and, at the same time, usually keep us from the very things that increase resilience (e.g. friendships, happiness, a support structure, etc.).
Nobody gets through life without some real bombshell moments exploding, and these are often easy to identify. Perhaps it’s a painful divorce or the death of someone close to you or a very serious injury. Obviously, for the moments following a trauma, our resilience is particularly low. If you’ve ever had a beloved pet die, for instance, you know how little things will make you very sad all day.
However, some traumatic moments will not just temporarily lower your resilience but will cripple it long-term, at least in areas related to your trauma. This is especially likely if there are other resilience-lowering factors in your life.
In addition, we can experience trauma and not recognize it as trauma. Most people don’t think of their childhood as traumatic; they think of it as normal. It can be hard to identify trauma that we experienced as a child because of this.
Some trauma comes up by way of common experience. If a boy finds his father’s stash of pornography, this usually traumatizes him, even though we might not think of it that way. That experience can profoundly change a person.
We can also be traumatized by what doesn’t happen. If you deprive a plant of sunlight and water, that will be pretty traumatic for that plant. In the same way, things that are missing from our lives can be traumatizing, but because we can’t tie them to a specific event, we don’t recognize the trauma.
Is There Hope?
That’s a lot of stuff up there that falls under the category of “underlying causes of addiction,” and it’s not even everything. It’s just enough to give you an idea of the common, high-level factors we see in most addicts. I can understand how looking at all that may seem overwhelming.
But you see, now, why recovering from an addiction is neither quick nor easy. Most of the work of recovery involves a process of discovery to see what your specific issues are, then taking the steps to work through them. This by necessity requires someone who is not you to help you through the woods.
But it can absolutely be done. I’m proof, and many other recovered addicts are proof. This overview should give you hope, because it is by knowing these things and facing them that freedom can actually happen! If you don’t know what’s really going on, you can’t get free.
This is why approaching addiction in basically the same way we approach losing weight or cutting back our spending simply won’t work. The issue isn’t that the addict is doing something enjoyable that’s bad for them; the issue is that they’re using something to escape the painful reality of their present. If you can’t address that, no change is possible. In fact, appeals to willpower, shame, etc. are likely to make the situation worse.
But resilience is something that absolutely can be improved. Trauma is absolutely something that can be recovered from. False beliefs are absolutely things that can be discarded and replaced. Have hope! The road is long, but it is well-mapped and you can walk it, too, and every step brings you closer to the freedom that you want.
As it turns out, your present may be where your pain is, but the present is also the only place where joy is.