In his book, "The Heart of Addiction", Lance Dodes, M. D. asks us to consider that addiction may be a behavior designed to reverse a sense of helplessness. Dr. Dodes gives many good examples of this in his book, but I don't have to think long about my own history to discover that my first addictive impulses were directly related to feelings of helplessness.
I was eleven or so when a situation occurred in my family which left me feeling very alone, helpless and angry. Unfortunately, I wasn't old enough at the time, nor emotionally mature enough, to find an effective way of dealing with this sense of powerlessness and rage. I lost my connection to the very things I needed most to sustain me through adolescence - that emotionally-fraught passage of life when everything is new and wonderful and scary as all hell! The most important thing I lost during this time was an ability to speak up for myself and feel that I would be backed up by those closest to me. Over the next couple of years I basically shut down in order to outwardly conform to what I thought family needed me to be.
I had to be quiet. I was told I had to be quiet, or else. I found that the most effective way to be quiet was to get quietly and totally fucked up as often as possible.
I've finally realized that I can explore these issues without assigning blame. I hold nothing but the greatest love in my heart for the family that raised me and continues to be a constant source of support and strength. I had some crazy idea that looking at the past was a betrayal, that being honest about my own experience would hurt those I love, but I've come to realize nothing could be further from the truth. It's a betrayal of myself to not look, to not examine, to not understand.
From the book:
The action of addictive behavior to reverse helplessness explains its purpose, but it is only one factor in the new way to understand addiction. The second factor is an explanation of the drive behind addiction. When anyone is trapped, physically or emotionally, he or she will sooner or later feel a great anger - a rage, really, at being helpless. It is this rage at helplessness that is the nearly irresistible force that drives addiction.
There is also a third, critical, aspect of the new way to understand alcoholism and other addictions. It arises from this fact: if the purpose and drive behind addictive behavior - an effort to preserve one's power and control against helplessness - make sense, and if an addictive act is merely a very unfortunate way to express this sensible function, then it follows that there must be a better way to achieve this sensible aim. That is, addictions must be substitutes for some other, more useful actions to respond to the helplessness. Indeed, I have found that every addiction results from a redirection of energy to a substitute or displaced action (usually because another, more direct, action is not considered permissible.)
Put another way, knowing that every addiction is displacement means that there is always another, specific behavior that is being ignored or denied by the substitute behavior of the addictive act, and that this alternative can be found. This idea of looking for the specific alternative is very different from finding general "triggers" to addiction, such as walking into a bar or being with drinking friends. It also differs from the usual advice to distract yourself or keep busy when the urge is upon you. Those efforts often fail because they do not address the individualized issues that are driving the addiction.
A final word about displacement. The fact that all addictions are displacements, or substitutions, is of great importance because without this displacement, addictions would not exist! It is precisely the shifting of the effort to reverse helplessness to another activity, such as drinking, that creates the phenomenon that we call addiction. When actions are taken directly to deal with helplessness, there is no addiction.