If you have struggled with alcoholism or drug addiction, it’s likely that you have also struggled with feelings of self-loathing, self-contempt, and self-hatred. You probably found yourself doing things you wouldn’t normally do, and maybe even doing things you find abhorrent and believed you would never do. You may quickly go from looking at these behaviors to viewing yourself with moral condemnation. You might come to see yourself as worthless, bad, evil and unlovable. It all seems hopeless. With all your willpower, and all the self-hatred you feel for things you have done, you still can’t control your addiction. It seems the only way to make these unbearable feelings go away is to use again, but of course that only keeps the deadly cycle going. You want to stop but you feel you can’t stop. You feel trapped in your misery and self-hatred, with an increasing belief that things will never change.
These feelings of self-loathing are reinforced by society’s view of alcoholics and addicts, since people tend to see addiction as a personality flaw, a sign of weakness, or an example of immorality. People think nothing of going to an emergency room for a physical ailment, but if you (and others) think of addiction as sinful, and as your fault, of course the solution will be very different. Many people still believe that addicts need to be taught the “error of their ways” through punishment or religious indoctrination. This stigma can reinforce your negative view of yourself, and make it more difficult and frightening to ask for help or to get therapy.
The problem here has to do with how people conceive of drug and alcohol addiction.
Just what leads to addiction is a complex and highly-debated question. Some see addiction as a genetic or biochemical issue; others see it as a spiritual malady; some believe it is situational and reactive; and many see it as being due to historical psychological factors. In fact, addiction and alcoholism are multiply determined and include a number of interactive factors. The critical question in terms of helping people, at least early in their recovery, is not what caused it but what helps them change it. Once you take a substance into your body, it changes your biochemistry. At least from that point on, the addiction takes on a life of its own. One point of view is that the brain has been hijacked by the drug.
For most people, addiction involves feelings of overwhelming cravings, and a feeling of desperation that may be hard for you to comprehend if you are not addicted. The feelings can become so terrible that suicide can seem like an option, and it’s not uncommon for addicts either to actively or passively kill themselves. People often experience their craving as an intolerable state that will never end until they use, or die.
This experience can be so intense that addicts or alcoholics feel they can’t survive without using, while realizing that continuing to use can lead to death. This dilemma places much of their lives in the realm of survival, leading to an upended set of priorities that place the need for the substance above all other needs — more important than food or shelter, or connections to people they love. It is not that they become immoral, or now believe that doing bad things doesn’t matter; rather, the need for the drug or drink can supersede all other needs. This is why lying, cheating, and stealing often come with addiction. It is not that bad behaviors are not perceived as bad, but they become less important than stopping the intolerable feelings driven by the addiction.
Focusing on self-blame and self-condemnation doesn’t help; in fact, it can make matters worse and drive the addiction still more powerfully. This does not mean that you get a pass to indulge your addiction. You are still responsible for your actions, despite your addiction. However, it is important to understand why you behave the way you do – the addictive basis of your behavior – and not adopt a view of yourself as an inherently bad person beyond redemption, or without the ability to change.
Though part of the experience of addiction is a sense of despair and hopelessness, there are treatments that work. For people who feel lost and confused, it may be helpful to consult with a therapist who is familiar with the treatment of addiction. The best known and perhaps most effective group approaches are 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and there are a number of studies which point to their efficacy. Still, different people benefit from different approaches, and there are a number of non 12-step treatments and therapy for addiction which have also been shown to be effective.
While this article primarily refers to substance addictions like drugs and alcohol, there are other things people may respond to with addictive-type behaviors including food, sex, emotional dependency, gambling, shopping, etc. Though these addictive-type behaviors are not based on an external substance (with the exception of food), they can shift one’s physiological state and produce the experience of a rush, the experience of cravings, and the experience of withdrawal. For some people the cravings involved are as potent as the cravings for drugs and alcohol, and can lead to similar compulsive behaviors. Just as with alcoholics and addicts there may be shame around seeking therapy. For more information on other addictive issues see the following links: CoDA, codependency, sex and love addiction, Al-Anon, ACOA, and the Caron Foundation.