Thursday, January 29, 2009


From "The Heart of Addiction" by Lance Dodes, M.D.:

I mentioned in chapter 1 that, despite all its terrible consequences, addictive behavior at its core has an element of emotional health. How can this be?

The answer is that acting against helplessness is, after all, a normal, and valuable, feature of life. A good example of the healthy nature of this kind of action can be seen in survivors of hostage situations or political prisons. When these imprisoned people found secret ways to express an aspect of their identity that was not controlled by their captors, they found they were able to preserve a sense of themselves. Sometimes they accomplished this by recalling events from their past, or just by keeping track in their own way of their history of imprisonment. But those who entirely gave up all sense of personal power tended to sink into a deep depression, or even died. The experience of these people underlies the fact that ACTING in some form when one is trapped and helpless is not only normal, it is psychologically essential. And attempting to act against powerful feelings of helplessness is just what lies at the heart of addiction.

Seeing things this way also points to another truth. Contrary to what you have heard, suffering with an addiction in itself does not make you fundamentally psychologically "sicker" or less mature than people with a wide variety of other difficulties, who generally are not so harshly judged. The feelings and conflicts that underlie addiction are easily understandable in human terms and do not set you apart from anyone else.

These are a couple of the most important ideas I came across in Dr. Dode's book. When I began having conflict within my family (before addiciton, at about age 11), not only did I have feelings of extreme isolation and loneliness; I had a sense of helplessness (aka powerlessness) and rage. Even at age 11, I tried to act in a direct way to the situation; actually I DID act in a direct way, but I did not receive cooperation and that's when the helplessness and rage became unmanageable. Then I discovered marijuana, and alcohol on a limited basis, and I could escape from these feelings and not feel helpless.

The problem I couldn't foresee at the time was that by turning to drugs and alcohol as a solution to the situation, I became even further estranged from the very things I needed. I became a "problem child" and unconsciously sunk deeply into the guilt of that. The fact that a large number of my peers were doing the same thing further fueled my revolt. My friends and I found comraderie in our illicit activities, providing me with the sense of community that I was so desperate for. This was the early '70's, the hippies were starting to get jobs and move into the mainstream but they left a wake of peace, love and happiness through drugs that my generation eagerly grabbed onto. I remain friends with a handful of these comrades, people that I love deeply. Every one of us has struggled, or continues to struggle, with addiction, emotional and societal problems. I feel the pain for all of us and I'm trying to work my way out of it for all of us.

Seeing the roots of my addiction in this way has given me a sense of personal power back. I acted in the only way possible to retain what small sense of self I had developed up until then. However, now, over 30 years later, I have, depsite my addiction problems, or maybe partially because of them, developed a core that is based on the very things I lacked at the time: trust in the people close to me, a strong sense of community, a belief in the goodness of the Universe and a belief in the goodness of myself. I don't always feel these things even though they are all around me and undeniable, but most of the time I'm able to act as if I do.

This also helps me understand why AA didn't work for me in the long run. If what I needed was a sense of personal power and to heal the underlying fracture that occurred in my psyche, then a program based on powerlessness, steeped in patriarchal language and ideas and with a good dose of punitive Christian morality thrown in for good measure was bound to fail. I'm afraid that for those of us who need a different model, AA can do much more harm than good. The field is changing, however, as is evidenced by all the new material available, the work of people like Dr. Dodes, Charlotte Kasl and many others and the insistence of people everywhere that they be given more choices.

This work is exhausting. I don't know when I've been so bone weary and fatigued. But it feels like I'm really getting to the core and I'm committed to stick with it - remaining interested, open and optimistic.


Sherri said...

Your statement about AA makes so much sense. For some, embracing powerlessness makes it worse.

Anybeth said...

I'm not sure if I ever asked you, but have you studied Women for Sobriety at all? their recovery model is about personal responsibility and changing your thinking, empowerment. When you go to a meeting instead of saying "I'm an alcoholic" you say "my name is ___ and I'm a competent woman".

Olivia said...

I appreciated what you wrote about helplessness. I am firmly convinced that we are never, ever helpless, and that believing we are is always detrimental, often in huge ways. That was one problem I experienced with the 12 steps. Although thinking this may be helpful for some people, I do not believe it at all, and it has never ultimately helped me. I appreciate your reflections here Angela. Keep on keeping on! Love, O

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Angela said...

Hi Sherry!

Anybeth, I did explore the Women for Sobriety program several years ago. But thanks for mentioning it.

Olivia, thanks!

Thanks, HN

Stephanie said...

Addiction is adaptive, at the time. It's your best attempt at surviving. That's why you do it. The hard work comes in unprying your fingers from their grasp on what no longer serves them.

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