The ideas represented on this website are somewhat out of the mainstream. Or, perhaps better put, out of either of the two main currents of thought on the subject. The “industry standard,” as it were, is a notion of addiction as a disease. The other prominent line of thought is to the effect that addiction is a learned behavior that can be unlearned; an internal program that can be reprogrammed. Below you can read an introductory overview of the distinctive perspective on addiction you will find here. But first, we need to know what, in the venue of this website, we’re talking about when we say “addiction” — we need to answer this question:
While there are hundreds or even thousands of possible addictions, they can all be sorted into two forms, only one of which is my primary focus on this website. Here I will call them physical, and existential. (Some other writings on the website use the term “profound” to refer to the existential form.) Both are widespread, and inflict terrible damage on individuals, families, communities, and entire societies. The physical form of addiction refers to a physiological dependency, while the existential form involves a devastatingly intimate psychological and spiritual entanglement. The physical version grabs us by the throat and, if we are deprived of the substance upon which we have become dependent, provokes physical discomforts ranging from mild to agonizing. The existential form, however, takes our very sense of self hostage, inflicting dreadful emotional and psychological torment, and ultimately commandeering our very ability to choose.
These two forms are often tangled together, and this makes things more confusing,1 but they are nonetheless quite distinct from one another. The physical form of addiction can be readily understood and effectively addressed through the use of common sense, will power and, if called for, medical attention. The existential form, on the other hand, by its very nature violates common sense, and is seemingly impervious to the exertions of will. Such addicts routinely speak of feelings of powerlessness; of feeling at the mercy of “another voice” within themselves that overrules the voice of their own resolute good intentions.
A particularly vivid instance of this distinction emerged following the Vietnam War, when many American veterans came home physically addicted to heroin. The great majority of these, around 80%, discontinued their heroin use once they were back home, removed from the physical risks and emotional traumas of the battlefield, and thus relieved of the pressing imperative to anaesthetize themselves. They suffered the formidable discomfort of withdrawal, but once they were detoxed, they were not drawn to resume using.
But as we know, and as the other 20% of junk-addicted returning Vietnam Vets discovered, not every addict finds it to be this simple. Millions of addicts “kick the habit” — go through withdrawal — only to find that there is still a voice that calls to them; a craving that resides not in their physical system, but in the core of their being. This is the existential version of addiction — the form of addiction that is the principal focus of our discussion on this website. For it is that version of addiction which is most perplexing; which wreaks the greatest havoc on our personal and civic lives; and which, according to the point of view advanced here, plays an eminent role in the most urgent questions confronting our civilization and, indeed, our species.
An Honest Mistake
As noted above, the writings in this website describe a way of understanding addiction that departs from the disease label — the disease vocabulary — which, particularly in this country, is so prominent in discussions of addiction. While there is no doubt that addiction leads to diseased states, so does poverty — so does getting lost in the wilderness. In a very literal sense, addiction is both a kind of getting lost, and a kind of impoverishment. You set out on a journey that seems to promise enrichment, only to find that your goal becomes ever more remote and elusive, your rewards gravely diminished, and your hunger unappeasable. Meanwhile, during the course of your meandering, your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being deteriorate: you become diseased. Disease is, then, an outcome of addiction — not an explanation for its presence in our lives.
I once heard that addiction is “acute and chronic human nature” — human nature played out in high contrast. Along those lines, I frequently offer the following two-sentence summation of addiction and sobriety in my trainings:
- Addiction is all about moving from fulfillment of longings, to pain.
- Sobriety is all about moving through pain, to fulfillment of longings.
Quite simply, from my perspective addiction is an honest mistake; a likely outcome of the intersection of human nature and technology — using the term technology in its broad sense to refer to any systematic method of manipulation. Thus, for example, alcohol would be a technology for an alcoholic; heroin a technology for a junkie; poker a technology for the gambling addict; masturbation a technology for the sex addict — etc. The “honest mistake” is to believe the promises that the technology originally makes: That you can transform yourself on command; that you can become more adequate and viable, both within yourself and out in the world, through the use of some control agency. It is hardly surprising that we so often believe these promises, for the transformative powers of these technologies are immense.
Of course, as we know, over time the technologies go bankrupt. But by then our simple honest mistake has evolved into a deeper and darker kind of an error; into what Gregory Bateson called a “flawed epistemology” — a profoundly misguided way of knowing ourselves, and our relationship with our world. This way of knowing is an unconscious internal belief system organized around the conviction that control is the optimal — indeed, the necessary — path to existential adequacy. So when our original technology goes bankrupt, rather than reconsider the underlying belief that control is the answer, we seek another technology, another control modality. In the classical phrase, we strive to remedy our predicament by “changing seats on the Titanic,” because the notion that we might abandon the underlying strategy of control has become, quite literally, unthinkable.
More Simple; More Complex
If these ideas make a kind of intuitive sense to you, or pique your interest, then I encourage you to delve into this site. I expect you will find that the viewpoint on addiction developed here is both more simple, and more complex, than the ways of thinking about addiction with which you may be familiar. How can it be both more simple and more complex? Because we will identify the few basic elements that determine how addiction happens in human lives (simple) — and at the same time see how these key elements can intermingle and manifest in limitless variations (complex).
By way of analogy, consider our genetic code, the original blueprint that determines the makeup of each and every one of us. This code is inscribed in DNA, which is composed of just six constituent chemicals. Variously arranged, these six chemicals make up the genetic instructions not merely for humans, but for every living thing that is or ever has been on earth — from earthworms to orangutans, from dandelions to dinosaurs, from bacteria to Barry Manilow. This is an instance of virtually limitless complexity emerging out of a few simple parts.
The basic elements that underlie the myriad forms of addiction are even fewer than the six chemicals of DNA, and they all derive from attributes of human nature.
- We humans have, compared to other living creatures, a highly developed sense of “self.”
- We are full of longings.
- Our strivings to fulfill these longings profoundly shape our experience of self.
- We are, like any reasonable creature, inclined to take shortcuts when we can find them.
- We are singularly adept at devising shortcuts.
The equation for the onset of addiction looks something like this, then: A technology — some control methodology — serves as a shortcut to the experience of transformative fulfillment; of existential enhancement. Addiction then devolves (“progresses”) over time — the shortcut(s) become less effective, and the integrity of life becomes compromised and diminished. This process plays out not merely in individual human lives, but throughout our contemporary global culture.
Sleight of Hand
If we were to imagine addiction to be a conscious entity growing in our midst that is trying to keep us from realizing how ubiquitous it really is, then we could say that this entity is very skilled indeed at sleight of hand. It is successfully using the magician’s ruse of directing our attention away from where the action really is. We tend to be mesmerized by one particular category of technologies: the handful of chemical addictions — the “drug” addictions. These dominate the headlines, and absorb uncountable trillions of dollars spent worldwide by those trying to produce, market and acquire the drugs, those caught up in the “war on drugs,” and those trying to clean up the mess. While they make a very big mess, the chemical addictions are merely the tip of a much larger iceberg of addiction that permeates and shapes our society. And, contrary to the fate of real icebergs rapidly melting in the waters of our warming planet, the iceberg of addiction is growing, at an astonishing rate. Indeed, speaking of global warming, as you can see in the Prologue of my book project, I see addiction as being principally implicated in the environmental crises we face today — and other major social, cultural, political and economic crises and degradations as well.
A friend of mine, Dorion Sagan, rightly reminds me of the axiom that “a theory that explains everything, explains nothing.” The point is well taken, and a fitting cautionary whenever we set forth models that seem to account for a wide range of phenomena. But there are some theories that do turn out to be richly woven throughout many levels of the reality we experience — gravity, for example. The theory of gravity certainly doesn’t explain everything, but it informs and qualifies a great many aspects of our experience. My observations and reflections over the last several decades as a sober addict, professional in the field of addictions, and concerned citizen of the world, leave me convinced that, as regards human experience, behavior, and our effects on the world we inhabit, addiction is similarly encompassing in its explanatory scope.
In some of the older writings in this site, you will find the familiar term “recovery” used to refer to sobriety. That word, with its origins in the disease construct, was never very satisfactory for me, suggesting as it does getting back something you had before. (If you recover from an illness, you get back the state of health you had before getting sick.) Speaking for myself, I certainly don’t want things to return to the way they were before I began drinking. As a sober alcoholic friend of mine puts it, “Why do you think I started drinking?!” So you will see in more recent writings that I talk about resolving the dilemma (rather than “recovering from the disease”) of addiction. Or, more casually, I simply use the word “sobriety” itself. What do I mean by sobriety? Writings on this site elaborate on this description, of course, but in essence sobriety is about striving to surrender control, accept responsibility, and practice compassion. If I were required to use just one word to evoke the essence of sobriety, that word would be humility.
Like addiction, sobriety is both simple and complex. The underlying principles mentioned just above are simple, but the realization of these principles on the personal level is endlessly novel. The work of sobriety is brilliantly informed by a searching inquiry into what the addictive solution was like — at its best. Every addiction contains within itself the blueprint for its resolution.
But in a sense, we could say fingerprint, for addiction resembles fingerprints in that all fingerprints look a great deal like one another — and yet we find that, for all six-billion-plus of us here on earth, no two fingerprints are the same. Similarly, you and I may have the same addiction — alcoholism, say. My alcoholism will resemble yours in fundamental ways, just as my fingerprints will resemble yours. But the particular array of existential enhancements that seduced us into our addictions is unique for each of us, just as our fingerprints are unique. A thoughtful study of what alcohol did for us when it was working fabulously gives us a precisely tailored agenda describing the work we need to do on behalf of sobriety. And just how do we set out to accomplish that work? Well, many folks, including an estimated two million sober alcoholics worldwide, would recommend that we join —
The fellowship of AA provokes impassioned claims and counter-claims. Why does it work, when it works? Why doesn’t it work, when it doesn’t? AA’s “successes” and “failures” emerge out of its own particular, and quite extraordinary, social/psychological/spiritual ecology. Feelings regarding AA run strong, and every which way. In my experience AA is a resource, a phenomenon, which can be spectacularly useful — and spectacularly injurious. Regarding the question, Am I myself a member of AA? — I respectfully draw attention to the second “A” — the principle of anonymity which is more than a mere protective cloak, but a fundamental spiritual stance within that fellowship. I am happy to report, though, that I number a great many AA members as friends, and owe them an inestimable debt of gratitude.
Professionally, I encourage clients who are grappling with addiction to explore the resources of the twelve-step community. A great many have found these avenues enormously helpful, but not all. In the trainings I do with helping professionals I urge them to develop what I call “twelve-step literacy” — not merely through reading or attending trainings, but through visiting no fewer than six meetings, at different locales. The “program" has great potential for use and for misuse, and clients deserve knowledgeable providers who can help steer them through the unfamiliar terrain of this organization that is not an organization; this spiritual fellowship that handily accommodates atheists and agnostics.
When I encourage someone to check out AA, I bring two ideas to the forefront. Firstly I tell them that, before they go to a meeting, they should know about the rules. They look at me expectantly, and I say, “There are none.” Secondly, I share with them what I consider to be one of the single most illuminating features of the famous “steps”; that in the twelve steps of AA — of Alcoholics Anonymous — the word “alcohol” is mentioned exactly once; in the first half of the first step. After that the steps are not talking about alcohol at all — not talking about drinking, or not drinking. They are talking about transformation. Here is a telling clue to the efficacy of AA when used well and wisely: since we enter our addictions through gateways of transformation of the experience of self, the only truly adequate resolution of our addictions will be through investing in authentic transformation of self. This is what AA facilitates and supports, at its best.
Broadly speaking, there are only two kinds of error that we can make with respect to the endeavor of sobriety: One is to neglect to do it (and you can attend AA meetings and/or therapy sessions religiously, and still be neglecting the work). The other is to imagine that sobriety is about following the right set of rules. This, too, is an honest mistake, but a costly one. There are guidelines and principles that inform the work of sobriety, but the moment we start to turn these guidelines into a set of rules, we are back in the world of control — the very mindset that got us into trouble in the first place. By now you’ve no doubt noticed that I’m fond of punchy little summary axioms. Along those lines I offer this koan regarding sobriety:
I need to find
of letting go
of needing things
If you’ve read this far, you’re evidently intrigued enough so that you might as well go ahead and browse around the website a bit. I’ll wrap up this overview by speaking briefly to a question that has been foreshadowed in earlier remarks: how might we curb the escalating addiction-driven momentum that has us racing toward extinction as a species?
To put it bluntly, I view addiction as an evolutionary hurdle for humankind. We will, as a species, either learn the lessons addiction has to teach us and adapt (embrace sobriety), or fail to learn and become non-viable (extinct). This is a theme that runs through many of the writings you will find here; in particular Self-Will Run Riot: The Earth as an Alcoholic, and Beginning With Fire. Though not published until 2003, the “Alcoholic Earth ” paper, which is what I call it in shorthand, had its first incarnation back in the mid-1980s. The handwriting was already on the wall then, but in the last quarter-century the convergence of population growth, globalization of industry and commerce, spiraling environmental deterioration and nuclear proliferation has made our prospects as a species very chancy indeed. Addiction — the irrational drive to continue behaviors even when they are clearly destructive to oneself — can be seen to play an integral and dynamic role in all of these trends. This is, in a sense, good news — because we do have models of sobriety to learn from. However, to borrow a quote from the last lines of the Chapter Sketches for the book project:
“Sobriety” and “utopia” are not synonyms. Even in a best-case scenario, we have a rocky road ahead of us. Sobriety is about the qualities of character and spiritual well-being we bring to the journey; it is assuredly not about some guaranteed trouble-free happy ending.
1. The term “addiction” is in fact subject to many confusions other than the “physical/existential” distinction I make here. This linguistic morass is a measure of how deeply perplexing the subject is. In the Other Writings section of this website there is a sub-section called the “Differentiation Project,” where you will find materials that speak to these issues.