Addiction Management Blog

Archive for June, 2012

Siddhartha’s path out of addiction

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

I’m not sure how I missed reading Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha (Hilda Rosner translation) in high school, but I did. It’s one of those enchanting books I wish I would have read earlier! If you are unfamiliar with the story, I encourage you to read it and soak in its many wonderful messages about life. I have no intention of recapping the story here, but instead want to use parts of the story to illustrate one path out of addiction.

Siddhartha is a man on a mission, on a journey to the center of Self, to a place where Self is merged into unity, or the All. On his way to enlightenment he has many interesting adventures, including a period of time where he hangs out with the beautiful Mistress, Kamala. “She played with him, conquered him, rejoiced at her mastery, until he was overcome and lay exhausted at her side.” She enticed him into the world of the ordinary, a life of attachment. “The world had caught him; pleasure, covetousness, idleness, and finally also that vice that he had always despised and scorned as the most foolish – acquisitiveness. Property, possessions and riches had also finally trapped him. They were no longer a game and a toy; they had become a chain and a burden.

I find it interesting that as Siddhartha descends deeper into his attachments, Hesse beautifully describes addiction. “He played the game as a result of a heartfelt need. He derived a passionate pleasure through gambling away and squandering of wretched money….He won thousands, he threw thousands away, lost money, lost jewels, lost a country house, won again, lost again. He loved the anxiety, that terrible and oppressive anxiety which he experienced during the game of dice, during the suspense of high stakes. He loved this feeling and continually sought to renew it, to increase it, to stimulate it, for in the feeling alone did he experience some kind of happiness, some kind of excitement, some heightened living in the midst of his satiated, tepid, insipid existence.

And like so many who suffer from addiction and relapse to numb the pain and despair of an insipid existence, Siddhartha too experiences the consequences of his actions. “And whenever he awakened from this hateful spell, when he saw his face reflected in the mirror on the wall of his bedroom, grown older and uglier, whenever shame and nausea overtook him, he fled again, fled to a new game of chance, fled in confusion to passion, to wine, and from there back again to the urge for acquiring and hoarding wealth. He wore himself out in this senseless cycle, became old and sick.

For those who struggle with addiction, and their family and friends forced to endure a life on the edge, there is an insightful lesson in the story of Siddhartha.

I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. But it was right that it should be so; my eyes and heart acclaim it. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace, to hear Om again, to sleep deeply again and to awaken refreshed again. I had to become a fool again in order to find Atman in myself. I had to sin in order to live again.

For someone who reaches enlightenment, it’s strange imagining Siddhartha sitting by a river thinking about suicide. But he does. And in the pain of the moment, “he understood it and realized that the inward voice had been right, that no teacher could have brought him salvation. That was why he had to go into the world, to lose himself in power, women and money; that was why he had to be a merchant, a dice player, a drinker and a man of property, until the priest and Samana in him were dead. That was why he had to undergo those horrible years, suffer nausea, learn the lesson of the madness of an empty, futile life till the end, till he reached bitter despair, so that Siddhartha the pleasure-monger and Siddhartha the man of property could die. He had died and a new Siddhartha had awakened from his sleep. He also would grow old and die. Siddhartha was transitory, all forms were transitory, but today he was young, he was a child – the new Siddhartha – and he was happy.”

So often when addiction is the problem we believe heading off to treatment is the answer. No doubt treatment can be helpful and at times life-saving. But this story is a powerful lesson in how change, even the most challenging of changes, are possible when we access what is already inside us. Atman. The All. “To much knowledge had hindered him; too many holy verses, too many sacrificial rites, too much mortification of the flesh, too  much doing and striving.” Too much treatment, too many self-help meetings, too much reliance on evidence-based practices and medications. Too much action. Sometimes, the path of no-action, the path of contemplation – of sitting, listening, and just being is the path out of addiction.

 

Addiction is about three relationships

Friday, June 29th, 2012

There has been a push to understand and define addiction in our society as a brain disease, primarily because of the strong evidence from neuroimaging studies that have identified clear changes in the brain for those who struggle with addiction. At the same time, others have provided evidence that addiction is an adaptive response to underlying, unresolved, adverse childhood experiences (i.e., the ACE Study). We know the truth is that both are right. Roughly 80 percent of those who go down the path of addiction begin  prior to the age of 15. So early life experiences are critical to understanding this problem. Although the ACE study provides significant insight into the roots of addiction, we must also factor in to the equation a wide range of risk and protective factors, as well as genetic vulnerability. While I support incorporating all of these perspectives into our understanding of addiction, I believe how we understand this challenging problem should link directly with how we treat it. For me, this has led to a reconceptualization of how I understand and define this problem, one that I want to share with you.

Addiction is about three relationships with Self, Others, and the All. Let me explain.

The relationship with Self is best characterized by shame. Early adverse childhood experiences (and other risk factors) set-up a belief system that something is wrong with Self, and addictive behavior over time becomes a powerful way to manage the trance of feeling unworthy. To add fuel to the fire, when attempts to stop addictive behavior fail (due to changes in the brain), shame and feelings of unworthiness deepen even more, creating a destructive cycle that results in great pain for the Self and those around the person struggling. The relationship with Others is best characterized by isolation. I have written about this particular relationship in past posts. Isolation occurs because the developmental capacities necessary to initiate, form, and maintain healthy relationships with others become constricted over time, due to spending considerable time with objects of addiction (e.g., alcohol, drugs, porn, food) instead of people. In essence, adults who struggle with addiction are childlike in their ability to be in relationship with others. This makes it hard to hold jobs, parent kids, remain in committed, intimate relationships, and build community. It also helps explain why about 80 percent of those behind bars struggle with addiction, as well as many who return home from war and feel isolated and disconnected from those who have not had similar war experiences. The third relationship is that with the All (e.g., God, Atman, the One, Yahweh, Brahman, Allah), or what 12-step programs call higher power. It is a relationship I have devoted little time to on this blog, but one that I intend to give far more attention to in the future. It is best characterized by Truth and Love. The truth comes from experiencing all that addiction is – both its pleasures and pains. It is no coincidence that at the moment of orgasm, the instant the body feels the sensations from a drug, or the second one realizes they have had a Big Win on the craps table, the words “Oh God” come forth. Going deep into addiction is a search for the All, for truth, and ultimately for love.

These three relationships require attention and healing if we are to be successful at helping those who struggle with addiction. Our interventions should target all three relationships, which I should add, are hardly independent, but linked together in a seamless system. Work on one relationship impacts the others. There are two broad paths or categories of interventions: 1) the path of action, and 2) the path of non-action or contemplation. The first path is what we are accustomed to associating with typical interventions and treatments. The path of action happens in our waking states, when we “do” things. I believe there are five broad actions that are important on this path: motivate, evaluate, manage, resolve and create.  The path of non-action or contemplation is equally important, and involves using meditation practices to detach from objects of addiction and embrace our spiritual nature. If you consider meditation an action, then I guess you could make an argument that perhaps there is only one path. But doing contemplative work in essence is about “just being” which takes us back to a path of non-action. If it sounds a bit confusing, it is to me too. And to round out this discussion, both paths meet in consciousness. More about this to come.

As a parting thought on this topic, engaging all three relationships allows us to incorporate all we know about addiction. We can incorporate insights from neuroscience, medications, and healthy living into our treatments and interventions. And, we can evaluate outcomes more holistically when we consider how our interventions impact and change the three relationships.