Lenten Reflection – Addiction as Flight from Distress

This bit of writing is taken from Gabor Mate’s book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction.  As you reflect on these words, consider your own addictions or addictive tendencies and the addictions of our culture as well as the more commonly thought of addictions to substances.

“Far more than a quest for pleasure, chronic substance use is the addict’s attempt to escape distress.  From a medical point of view, addicts are self-medicating conditions like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, or even attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

“Addictions always originate in pain, whether felt openly or hidden in the unconscious.  They are emotional anesthetics.  Heroin and cocaine, both powerful physical painkillers, also ease psychological discomfort.  Infant animals separated from their mothers can be soothed readily by low doses of narcotics, just as if it were actual physical pain they were enduring…

“Not all addictions are rooted in abuse or trauma, but I do believe they can all be traced to painful experience.  A hurt is at the center of all addictive behaviors.  It is present in the gambler, the Internet addict, the compulsive shopper, and the workaholic.  The would may not be as deep and the ache not as excruciating, and it may even be entirely hidden – but it’s there…

“A sense of deficient emptiness pervades our entire culture.  The drug addict is more painfully conscious of this void than most people and has limited means of escaping it.  The rest of us find other ways of suppressing our fear of emptiness or of distracting ourselves from it.  When we have nothing to occupy our minds, bad memories, troubling anxieties, unease, or the nagging mental stupor we call boredom can arise.  At all costs, drug addicts want to escape spending ‘alone time’ with their minds.  To a lesser degree, behavioral addictions are also responses to this terror of the void” (pages 35-39).

“I have come to see addiction not as a discrete, solid entity – a case of ‘Either you got it or you don’t got it’ – but as a subtle and extensive continuum.  Its central, defining qualities are active in all addicts, from the honored workaholic at the apex of society to the impoverished and criminalized crack fiend who haunts skid row.  Somewhere along that continuum I locate myself” (page 110).