addiction feels unmanageable

“I am constantly filled with a lurking loneliness, a yearning, clinging to the notion that something outside of me will fix me. But I had had all that the outside had to offer!”

Matthew Perry, from Friends, Lovers and The Big Terrible Thing

Matthew Perry (or affectionately, Chandler from Friends to us) described it best – the loneliness that comes with addiction and addictive processes. We are all a little bit lonely these days. Those who were single and living alone during the pandemic can attest, perhaps some people are more then a little bit lonely.

I can agree with Matthew on a lot of points in his book. Loneliness does go hand and hand with addiction. In fact, addiction is the best attempt to cure loneliness, and is also the consequence of being in addiction. When we are lonely, we drink, and when we drink, we are lonely.

Although I agree with this fact, I’m afraid I have to disagree with one central point in Matthew’s book. Addiction IS NOT a disease. The notion that it is a disease was introduced by Bill Wilson from Alcoholics Anonymous in the 1930s. This was how Bill explained to himself that despite losing everything, despite the enormous cost of his drinking, he would still drink. The wisdom in the 1930s was that those that drank alcoholically like Bill did you suffer from a character flaw. Those that couldn’t stop drinking were weak men, with weak constitutions and were blamed for this affliction.

In creating Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill found a solution that involved primarily – community, and a spiritual connection. He concluded that he wasn’t weak, but instead suffered from the disease of addiction. There are lots of sayings in Alcoholics Anonymous, many of which come from Bill W’s book, The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. One of these sayings is: ‘one is too many, and a thousand never enough’. This is the notion that once you have a single drink, you have lost any power to say no to the many that come after that first one.

The notion of addiction as a disease is so prominent now, most high-profile rehabilitation centers subscribe to it. Many medical professionals agree – addiction is some terrible combination of genes, they even call it ‘Alcohol Use Disorder’. Most of these rehabs and professionals, cashing in on the biggest health crisis of our generation, offer only Alcoholics Anonymous as an option for people suffering from addiction. You have a disease, you will always have this disease, and your only option to live a better life is to go to Alcoholics Anonymous. You may never fully recover. As Matthew Perry puts it “my addiction is doing pushups outside the meeting”. You will always be an alcoholic, and you must always be on the lookout for a relapse. “But for the grace of God, there go I”

Addiction is an attachment disorder

Here is the thing though – we have come a long way in research and understanding of the human psyche, brain, neurobiology and attachment theory since then. A LONG WAY! For example, we now have evidence that an infant’s brain development is directly and significantly impacted by a lack of maternal nurturance and care. When infants don’t experience proper and healthy attachment with their caregivers, their brain development is compromised. Infants and children who experience abandonment or abuse will have brains that are less resilient to stress, their distress tolerance is lowered and their emotional responses high-jacked. These become the precursor to addiction later in life.

Take a look at Bill Wilson’s early life story:

Both of Bill’s parents abandoned him soon after he and his sister were born – his father never returned from a purported business trip, and his mother left Vermont to study osteopathic medicine.

Wikipedia exerpt on Bill W.

Bill had an early experience of maternal abandonment. Right after he was born, his father abandoned him and his mother left to study medicine. He was raised by his grandmother. This early experience of abandonment absolutely explains his propensity to alcoholic behaviour later in his life. In fact, I have never met a single addict who didn’t have a story of loss, abandonment, or trauma early in their life. What is probably most fascinating about Bill Wilson is that he took a dose of Psychadelics, and this spiritual awakening is what changed his view on addiction, and its how he got sober. The spirituality of AA originally came from a psychedelic experience.

Addiction is not hereditary

Here is another myth of addiction – that it is encoded in your genetic code and hereditary. Well, my Dad was an alcoholic, so that is why I am one. I have the alcoholic gene, it was inevitable. This is simply not true, addiction is not a result of your genetics. In fact, they have searched the human genome and haven’t found genes directly connected to any mental health disorders. Addiction runs in families because young children copy their parent’s coping strategies for difficult emotions. In an alcoholic family, a young child is learning from their parents “this is how you drink alcohol to manage your feelings”.

Growing up with an addicted parent or caregiver is one of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) that have a direct correlation to emotional, mental and physical problems later in life. Addicted parents are unable to be emotionally responsive to their children because they are drunk. When a kid doesn’t have an emotionally available parent to help them manage their own feelings, they need to find other ways to manage those feelings. Most kids from alcoholic homes will talk about ways they managed their overwhelm. A lot of them turned to food, fantasy, or surrogate mothers like stuffed animals, video games, or other adults in their life. Later in life, they found alcohol, drugs, sex, work, love, or gambling to manage these same feelings of emptiness and loss.

Addiction begins with abuse and neglect and ends with adult loneliness

The emotional blueprint for addiction and addictive behaviours begins with early attachment loss, abuse and neglect, and ends with a gnawing sense of loneliness. There is an emptiness that exists within every addict – it is loneliness, but it is deeper than just being lonely for the company of others. It is a longing for unconditional love and nurturing from a mother they never had. It is a yearning of the soul to be truly seen and accepted wholeheartedly for who they are. No amount of alcohol, gambling, sex, power, drugs, or food will ever be sufficient to fill this emptiness.

I believe the reason Alcoholics Anonymous is successful for some people is they seek to fill those empty places with a spiritual connection with something greater than themselves, and with the community and the soothing balm of connection with others. I believe these two elements are indeed necessary to recover from addiction. Building a community of like-minded individuals who share a commonality is a powerful tool. And spirituality, or a sense of awe and wonder at something bigger than yourself has been proven to be helpful in regulating one’s autonomic nervous system. More than that, it fills the void with a sense of purpose beyond suffering.

However, I would like to add a few more necessary ingredients for healing from addiction:

  • Grieving the early attachment loss – this is a long and difficult process and is best done in individual or group therapy. For most addicts this process takes years of therapy with a trusted and attached therapist. The loss is very deep, and so must the grieving be. I am constantly looking for shortcuts – but generally have only seen effective recovery after many years of intervention. Effective therapy is creating an attachment relationship that re-wires the person’s brain. That takes time, trust, and a whole lot of courage.
  • Developing a deep and abiding connection to self – this means turning towards yourself, loving and caring for yourself in the way you most wanted from another early in life. Most addicts are so riddled with shame and guilt from their years of addiction, this process is also long and hard. Recovering a felt sense of okayness, or value worth and dignity takes time and it takes being sober to accomplish this.
  • Releasing the early trauma of neglect and abuse – I find energy psychology the best option here. Equine-assisted therapy, EMDR, AIT or other approaches that remove the energetic imprint of trauma in the body are useful. I believe the emerging field of Psychedelic Psychotherapy will quicken this process for many. Psychedelics allow you to access early feelings – so they can be felt and released with ease and support.
  • Learning to regulate emotions – human brains are designed to co-regulate. When I get overly upset, if you stay calm and I have an attachment relationship with you, I will calm down in your presence. That is how co-regulation works. As an adult, learning to co-regulate with a trusted other (a therapist, spouse, or friend) can help to wire your brain so you can regulate your emotions more easily when you are alone. This is what was missing for most people with addiction in their early life.

Please don’t misunderstand me – Alcoholics Anonymous has an important role to play in our healing from addiction. It is a free and available place where people can create community, and develop a sense of self and purpose and a spiritual connection. This is marvellous – many need this kind of support. I would like to suggest that we expand our understanding of alcoholism and addiction.

Let’s stop saying addiction is a disease and instead see it as the individual’s best attempt at managing feelings that felt unmanageable. Then we can start to ask ourselves and each other – what else can we do to connect and to heal?