Addiction as an Ally: Part Two

Goodbye Forever?)

Yesterday I discussed how our addict self is trying to do something useful: help us through our great sorrows in life, but it does it in an unhealthy way. This means we should unequivocally reject its suggestions, but that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the fact that it was trying to solve a real problem.

And for as much as we might like to say goodbye to the addict-self forever, it isn’t going to just pack up and leave. Even when we are solid in our sobriety, the addiction will still be there, putting thoughts and ideas in our heads that we don’t want. We may be able to maintain some boundaries with it, but we won’t be able to block it out entirely.

At some point or another we’re going to have to figure out what our long-term relationship with our addiction is going to be. How are we going to deal with its continual calls for our attention? Is it really healthiest to pretend that a real and constant part of ourselves just doesn’t exist for the rest of our lives?

The Inner Roles)

The therapist over my addiction recovery group taught us about Internal Family Systems, which is a process where we identify the different parts that live inside of us. There is the part that is a wounded child, the part that is the protector, the part that wants to make sure you’re having a good time, and even a part that tries to manage and regulate all the others! Also, there is the addict self, the part that tries to cope with stress in the easiest, most readily available way.

In our group work, we would try to identify and distinguish these different parts and see how they each tended to get out of bounds. The manager was being a cruel taskmaster, or the protector was being abrasive to everyone nearby, or the wounded child was establishing unhealthy relationships with others in a needy search for love. And, of course, the addict was trying to get the body to do things that the other parts found deeply offensive.

Having recognized how these parts were over-stepping their bounds, it was now our job to have a little chat with them, to hear their concerns and guide them back to their proper function. And we were to do this with all of the parts, yes, even including the addict.

Listening to the addict helped me to better understand his plight. So much of his misbehavior was motivated by pure fear. He was terrified of us being abandoned and alone, he felt like it would kill us if we stayed in the lonely and depressed places that we so often found ourselves in. He saw how our negative feelings caused real pain, and he really wanted those to be taken care of. Understanding that, I realized that my addict-self still has a role to play in my well-being. To be clear, I don’t mean that acting out on my addict’s impulses has a role to play in my well-being but responding to his concerns does.

So, I gave my addict-self a new job. I told him that I was going to take the reins from now on, but I needed him to let me know when things in life were getting out of hand. He was to be the lifeguard, watching for danger in the water. When he saw a danger, he was to raise the alarm. He might have ideas about how to deal with the problem, but he doesn’t get to carry those plans out anymore. He just lets me know about the problem, and I make an intentional and healthy action to address it. As I consistently and quickly respond to the issues, he starts to learn that he can trust me in the driver’s seat.

In Practical Life)

I’ve been using a lot of metaphor, but what do I actually mean in practical life? What I mean is that some days I suddenly notice a sharp increase in the number and intensity of lustful temptations that I face. Things were pretty calm beforehand, with me only needing to check the occasional stray thought or gaze, but suddenly it seems that my triggers have been turned into overdrive!

And as I have observed myself, these sudden spikes in temptation are typically not random. They tend to occur when I am feeling rejected, or lonely, or scared, or any other powerfully negative emotion. They come when I feel like the world is starting to slip out of control, like things might take a turn that I don’t want, that I may end up in places that I don’t want to be.

These spikes in temptation might occur when the bank account is too low and I worry whether we can make ends meet. They might happen when my wife and I have a fight and I think we won’t be able to patch things together this time. They show up when I get passed up for promotion and work and believe that my efforts will never be appreciated.

This sudden increase of temptation is my addict-self sounding the alarm. Him suddenly trying to look for an escape tells me that the pressure is getting too high inside. I need to address the situation or I will drown in anxiety.

I just don’t deal with it by acting out anymore. I deal with it by poring over the financial data and coming up with a budget I can believe in, and by having the hard conversations with my wife, and by deciding whether I need to find a new job where my skills are appreciated. I don’t let the issue remain hanging over me, because my addict-self has warned me that it is too much.

And then, when I take the decisive action, the temptations fade away. Yes, the addict-self wanted to deal with the stress in a particular way, but he will quiet down as long as it was taken care of in some way.

Apply to Self)

If you’ve gained some sobriety in life and have decent stability, but you keep being aggravated by random spikes of temptation, maybe it’s worth considering whether this same pattern exists in you as well. Maybe your addict-self is trying to tell you that something in life is off, that a basic need of yours isn’t being met, that you’re pushing yourself too hard. And if so, you only ignore him at your own peril.

Certainly, I would never say that you should give in to your addiction, but there is a wisdom in becoming curious about what is behind the things the addiction is saying. I’ve developed a sort of annoyed-but-attentive relationship to my own addict-self. It’s complicated, but honestly, I think I’ve found a way that he and I can work together for my better future. Hopefully you can with yours as well.