Addiction: Why can’t they “just stop?”

You might be surprised by how often I hear people ask why an addict can’t “just stop.” Usually, though I hate to say it, people ask the question not as a real question but more as judgment — with disdain and disgust in their voices. The internal dialogue (and often, sadly, external dialogue!) sounding something like this:

I don’t do that. How hard can it be? They must be weak. It’s their own fault.

Imagine someone saying those things about a person who has cancer.

Why don’t they just get better? It’s not that hard. They must be weak. It’s their own fault.

Never in a million years do we hear that, right? Yet people with addiction (though addiction is considered a disease by medical and psychological professionals) are often stigmatized.  There is this “thing” about placing blame on addicts. They are seen as merely “unable to control themselves” without an understanding as to why that is! This blog is to address the people who may struggle with understanding the “why.”

Let’s start with the basics: One definition of “illness” is “poor health resulting from disease of body or mind.”  (Webster’s). This is the first, simple piece of information that many people seem incapable of taking in: that the mind, just like the body, can be ill and it does not make the illness the person’s “fault.” In addition, when something is termed a “disease,” that term does not just attach itself to a word without a whole bunch of really motivated, intelligent people (say doctors or psychologists) having looked into the subject in some sort of extensive way; say, for example, a few thousand dissertations, research papers and laboratory studies.  In fact, in order to call something a “disease,” certain criteria need to be met. Now, I don’t know a whole lot about how that works in the medical profession, but in the psychological world, there is a book called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Inside it, there are criteria (i.e. a checklist of sorts) that an individual would have to meet in order to be considered having a specific disorder or diagnosis. It is the same with Addiction; it is called a disease because there are symptoms that all addicts have, the main symptom being an inability to stop the behavior despite a desire to stop  and numerous attempts. So when people who do not understand addiction or how it can be a disease, and mistakenly connect addiction to willpower or lack thereof, they are very much contributing to the horrific self-blame, self-hate and shame that are the very things keeping an addict stuck in perpetuating the cycle.

That leads me to pose the questions: Who would choose to be an addict? And, along those lines, who would choose cancer?

I can only speak from personal experience when I say that I am an addict (food, my main drug of choice) and also big on personal responsibility. People who misunderstand the disease often can’t hold that both of these facts can be true. I made this mistake for 15 years. It HAD to be “my fault,” “my choice.” How could I not have control of what I was doing, when I functioned fine in other aspects of life? I made a private vow that I would never “play the victim.” I vowed to take responsibility for my binging and purging: I was choosing this. The problem? I wasn’t. I spent 15 years of my life trying to fix the very thing my brain had gotten me into! Imagine that: trusting in a brain that led me to the coping mechanism of bulimia. That’s part of what makes addiction so dicey — “But, wait! I can trust my brain to finish this paper…to drive me to my friend’s house…to speak in a fairly cohesive way!” But I can’t trust it when it comes to my drug of choice. That split is enough to drive a person mad. And because I was convinced I had the power to stop the cycle myself, I spent many years in it — attempting desperately to prove that I could.  I came to realize that there are greater forces than willpower — forces like nature, illness, unconsciousness, even emotions like fear or love. As they say in 12-step programs, I came to see I was powerless and therefore needed a power greater than myself to restore me to sanity. That power, for me, wound up being a belief in yes, a Higher Power (although I find it important to mention that one need not believe in “God” to recover from an eating disorder or addiction — even community or a support group can be a “power greater than (your)self.”) It also meant a whole lot of personal work. In other words, I treated my illness. A person with cancer generally does not get better without chemotherapy or some form of treatment; a person with diabetes must inject insulin and a person with addiction must do the emotional and mental work it takes to get better (which for an addict may be a myriad of things — such as step-work, therapy, awareness work, medication, and of course living without a once very effective coping mechanism). Is a disease of the mind or spirit still a disease? My bias would be “yes.”

If you are not an addict, and you have trouble comprehending it, I would ask you to think of a personality trait or habit you have that you have had since you were very small. I know a woman who is a crazy-multi-tasker; she quite literally cannot do one thing at a time. I asked her to imagine that for the rest of her life, she could ONLY do one thing at a time. She could not even conceptualize this. This is the task of an addict — to transform the ingrained.

In the end, and I know I’ve said a lot, I wonder most about why we make it about semantics. Is it an actual “disease?” Is it not? Is it more a disorder, less a disease? Since the person initially moves toward it, can it be a disease since there is the element of choice there? (Although, with myself, I cannot remember the first time I threw up or why — so how is that a conscious choice?). But really, I find my heart screaming: WHO CARES? Call it whatever you like. For me, it winds up being just one thing: the sound of human suffering.

A New Look at Depression

Depression is a word that gets tossed around a lot and I wonder if that somehow makes it seem less destructive than it is? We know Depression means feeling worse than just “sad.” We have great descriptions about it — debilitating, flattening; that  it steals away motivation, interests, love of life and replaces those things with pure apathy – pure unfeeling. Could there be anything worse?  It would seem not. It would seem like Depression takes away one of the main things that make us human — our ability to FEEL. Yet, I have to ask: Perhaps OWNING OUR PAIN is worse? I know for me, owning my pain seemed worse because, I reasoned, “What the hell am I supposed to DO with it? HOW do I own my pain? It’s too much pain to own. Where would I put it?”

So, how do we own our pain? Well, first, we must feel it. If we have become so flattened — so Depressed that we are unable to FEEL — it seems highly unlikely we will move through those feelings.  We can. It is not easy, but we can.

Let me back up. I heard once that if we follow our Depression and trace it back, we can often find that it began when we betrayed ourselves. So, if you are Depressed, try and follow it back to a time when you may have betrayed yourself. Betraying yourself often involves not having solid boundaries (“I told myself I would only let aunt Annie stay here for a weekend, and now it’s been 2 weeks!”) or not holding a value you have deemed important. For example, when I was in my bulimia, I was often Depressed. This may have been, in part, because the values in my heart (to be loving, healthy, and honest) were constantly being betrayed. Every time I binged and purged, I betrayed my Self. This is NOT to place blame on me or on anyone with an addiction — I need that to be clear — but rather, to show how the Depression can show up.

A friend of mine told me he felt Depressed. I asked what was going on in his life and where the Depression showed up the most. He traced it to the mornings after a sexual encounter, which was often. He said, “In my 20’s, I was fine with it, but last year I told myself I wanted something more meaningful.” Yet, he had not changed his behavior to be in alignment with his value system; thus, he went into self-hate and Depression. “Every time I do it,” he said, “I am pissed off at myself for doing it.”

Another important piece about Depression that often gets ignored is that Depression can often be a cover for RAGE. Again, there is nothing wrong with the feeling of Rage; it is all in how we choose to deal (or not deal) with it. Rage has been deemed one of those “socially unacceptable” feelings. Anger has become something to be feared. Why? Well, because anger has been suppressed and shunned by society, it often erupts in scary ways: a person gets beat up; shoots up (rage turned in on the self); drives insanely, etc. What if we accepted rage simply as a human emotion that DESERVES A SPACE? Could we outlet it in a more productive way? I think so. Myself, I have screamed aloud in my car (and then burst out giggling, feeling ridiculous — but hey, it worked — the rage dissipated); I have drawn my feelings on paper in black and red (and no, I’m not an artist and that’s not the point); I have gone on a run; taken a kick-boxing class; even done the more-calming practice of yoga); etc.  In other words, find an outlet. Explore what might work for you.

Granted, when you are in the vortex of Depression, it can often be difficult to have the motivation to do anything, let alone the work of tracing back where it began; exploring new outlets; and simply allowing yourself to FEEL it. You may need some help, a nudge to get out of the horrible, destructive place that is Depression. If this is true for you, I urge you to call on anyone in your support system or try these free hotline numbers: 1-800-784-2433 or 1-800-273-8255.  For support groups, call 1-800-826-3632.

And of course, I am here for you, too. (818) 640-6811. Or (818) 848-3155.

Fight Back,

Katie, CEO Aria Phoenix Life Coaching

“Irrational Feelings” — and what to do with them

Have you ever felt a certain way, and then had the thought, “I shouldn’t be feeling that”? Maybe you’re angry at your friend for cancelling plans last-minute (yet again) or envious of the confident-looking woman stepping out of the Porsche? Maybe you’re childhood pal is telling you a story about his latest heartbreak and you feel judgmental instead of compassionate. What tends to happen with many of us is this: Instead of looking for the meaning in the feelings, we instead feel guilty for having them or we listen to that inner critic we all know so well who tells us, “See? You must be a bad person for feeling that way. You should be supporting your friend, not judging him…” etc., etc., etc.

Irrational feelings are never irrational — we just THINK them so. Feelings are natural, bodily reactions that arise in us to indicate something going on; to teach us something if we are open to listening! The usual problem I run into with both myself and my clients is that we allow our minds to dominate our natural feelings and push them away. In other words, we don’t like what we are feeling, so we suppress what we are feeling.  Unfortunately, suppression is never a technique that works, because the feelings need to be released or they will continue to come up in us again and again. And, again and again, we will become annoyed and frustrated with ourselves until we both acknowledge the (generally yucky) feelings and make an attempt to understand them.

Let’s take the first example of being angry at a friend for cancelling last-minute. What is the anger telling us and how can we allow it expression? First of all, the anger makes sense. Who wants to be cancelled on last-minute all the time? However, when we brush the anger aside, we never address the problem and often-times it comes up in passive- aggressive ways, such as finding yourself making a rude remark to that very friend next time you hang out “for no reason.” Perhaps the real anger you are feeling is merely asking you to set better boundaries with this friend? Telling the person, “I feel unvalued when you break plans with me last-minute. If it happens again, I may need to re-think our friendship. Do you have a sense of why this keeps happening?” Perhaps the anger is saying, “You know, this is truly a deal-breaker for me, and I want out of the friendship.” In other words, the anger is a beautiful sign, trying to get you in touch with YOU!  Try listening to it.

In the second example, the envy may indicate to you your own goals that you have not yet achieved. What is it, specifically, that you envy? The way the woman looks? (Perhaps you’ve been meaning to kick up the work-outs but haven’t committed to it yet). The money it takes to buy a Porsche? (Maybe you need to look at ways to manage your money more responsibly? Or, even simpler, perhaps your envy just indicates a desire to treat yourself a bit more lavishly — and let’s be real — an awesome bubble bath with a glass of wine or tea and some nice music is a great way to be lavish on a budget!). So here again, envy and jealousy are not “bad,” they are indicators that get you in touch with your own desires.

In the last example, there are feelings of judgment instead of compassion. Could it be that you have allowed yourself to listen to your friend victimize himself in relationships to the point where it feels like you are being “false” with your friend by not letting him (gently) know what you see happening? Could it be he is triggering your own relationship issues that you dislike acknowledging? Perhaps you are judgmental with him because you are also judgmental with yourself. Is the judgment perhaps asking you to find ways to be kinder and more compassionate? Or is it asking you to share your voice?  I encourage my clients to ask themselves what the feeling may be trying to tell them.

Remember, feelings are not good or bad. They just are.

In the feeling, there is Wisdom. We must seek to understand it in order to gain that wisdom; otherwise, we just keep taking those feelings we’d rather not have and like a beach ball being pushed under the water, they pop out again — smacking us in the face. Until we listen.  Until we listen. Then, we can move forward.

Be Inspired,

Katie, CEO Aria Phoenix Life Coaching