Recovery Workshop: Lesson Sixteen

Understanding Addiction I

At this point in the workshop, you should be starting to pull together several concepts of a healthy recovery:

  • that the behavior you previously found to be "unmanageable" can actually be managed fairly easily through emotional management techniques (you won't have mastered these techniques yet, but the knowledge that you must learn them should be there)
  • that one of the most important keys to managing your life is values-based decision-making
  • that emotion-based decision-making is the main principle in immediate gratification
  • that immediate gratification is the main principle in compulsive behavior
  • that you are now faced with orchestrating a transition that will mark the end of your addiction and the beginning of the healthy phase of your life
  • that your compulsive behavior/addiction has served a useful purpose in your life, but that there are more efficient ways to satisfy that purpose

This last issue is what today's lesson is about: understanding the practical role that addiction has played in your life. Not the destructive presence it has had, but the positive role that addiction and/or compulsive behavior has played in helping you to manage your life. Yes, the positive role.

Consider the following scenario:

Two teenagers are confronted with the task of maintaining perfect grades in high school. Both value the respect they receive from their teachers, as well as their own feelings of accomplishment. On the final exam, both receive grades which drop their overall course grade to a "B". The first "B" of their lives. To most, such an event would seem trivial, but to each of these kids, a serious conflict occurred within their current system of values.

The healthy teen — the one whose values were balanced between family, friends, hobbies and school — became initially despondent, but quickly stabilized. She was able to rely on other values to keep her disappointment in perspective. She went for a walk, had a heart-to-heart talk with her mom, put some extra time in at work-she increased her reliance on other things she valued to comfort her. But what about the student who didn't have a strong foundation of values on which to rely? That's where addiction comes in.

This other student, between the ages of seven and nine, was routinely molested by her stepfather. Though he no longer maintained an active role in her life, his prior behavior caused a disruption in the development of several critical value areas. Areas like autonomy, trust and personal safety. The student's innate desire to alleviate the stress caused from the molestation, led to her dependence on two values that she could still control: food and school. For the next five years, while others continued to develop the social skills needed for a balanced life — skills which require the autonomy, trust and personal safety she was unable to master — she continued to find comfort in studying harder and eating more. Then came the "B".

So much of her balance was being maintained by her academic perfection that what should have been a trivial event, was now perceived as devastating. She had stood on only two legs (two values) for so long, that when one of those legs became injured (caused her stress), she didn't have the tools necessary to heal. To heal would have meant to lean on other values, but she had just one value left: eating. What initially should have been a scratch, now had to be amputated. This "all or nothing" principle is another common trait of an addictive personality. The only value she could now rely on to comfort herself, the only one she could still control, was food. From then on, nothing else mattered — not her grades, not her looks, not even her health. All uncomfortable feelings could now be comforted with four cheeseburgers and a shake.

In this example, eating was used for a reason: we all eat. Eating, in and of itself, is not wrong. Eating is a universal value which provides comfort to all of us in one way or another. In a healthy person, eating relieves the uncomfortable feeling of hunger. In the unhealthy person, that role is expanded to include eating as a way of relieving other emotional discomfort as well. The pleasure derived from eating could be from the amount, the taste, the can even be derived from NOT eating — choosing instead the value of self-control over the value of self-indulgence or of self-preservation. No matter what the role, eating plays a part in all of our lives, which emphasizes the premise that addiction is not found in the behavior itself, but in the emotional processes that surround that behavior. In the above example, eating could have just as easily been replaced by any behavior the child had been introduced to: alcohol, sports, relationships, sex...

Once the pattern of using a specific behavior as a stress relieving tool develops, you become more and more adept at using this behavior to manage your stress. You become a master at this particular behavior and usually expand your mastery into other similar behaviors (or similar patterns with unrelated behaviors). Let's take the behaviors of masturbation/fantasy. Masturbation and fantasy have many healthy roles to play in a healthy person's life: self-exploration; self-awareness; stress-management (yes, stress management...there is nothing wrong with managing your stress — even through "addictive behaviors"; the key is to manage your stress through a balanced approach that does not include behaviors with destructive consequences); self-esteem, etc. The danger in masturbation/fantasy comes when the act begins to jeopardize long-term values for the sole benefit of temporary, short-term relief. The danger comes when the act is reduced to nothing more than the simple need for immediate relief or immediate pleasure. When this occurs, your masturbating/fantasizing are used just like any other drug. The chemical changes that take place inside your brain has the same characteristics as artificially-introduced drugs, such as alcohol, cocaine or morphine. In He Danced Alone, this principle is discussed as it helped me to conquer my addiction and so I will condense the passage for you here:

A normal person, in a state of sexual arousal, has an increase in the level of biochemicals — drugs, if you will — circulating within their brain. Adrenaline, endorphins — this is powerful stuff. Stuff you CAN get physically addicted to. You've heard of runner's high? It's the same concept. Your brain produces chemicals that affect the way that you feel. Imagine a cocaine addict having a tiny coke dispenser installed within his/her brain. To get high, he only needs to think about cocaine, to trigger the dispenser. At first, he wouldn't need to think about it too often, as small amounts of the drug keep him satisfied, but as time passes the small amounts are no longer having the same effect. What's more, the reliance on these drugs have actually began to deteriorate other values in that person's life — thus causing an even greater need for the drug. The only way that he can continue feeling good is to think about the cocaine for longer and longer periods of time, thus causing larger and larger amounts of cocaine to be released into his system.

Sexual addiction is like having your own coke dispenser installed right there in your brain. The thoughts and fantasies that are associated with sexual addiction produce emotions (technically, produce a release of the biochemicals that influence emotions). To the person experiencing these emotions however, there is little difference between feelings that are created through artificial means (e.g. fantasy) and those created through actual life experience. Their immediate perception is that they feel better — and at that point, nothing else matters. Of course, as their reliance on thoughts and fantasies grow, their ability to develop healthy strategies to relieve stress diminishes. Their values become more and more distorted until eventually, the behaviors which provide immediate emotional comfort are deemed real and important, whereas those which provide long-term satisfaction actually begin to produce stress. Unfortunately, additional fantasy then relieves that stress, and the separation of your core values has taken place. Your fantasies become associated with who you are; while who you are gets relegated to the role of fantasy. The tragedy in this, is that once the separation of your values begin, and you learn to manage this "artificially", it takes more and more fantasy to maintain the same level of comfort that is initially produced. Longer sessions of fantasy help, for a while. But eventually, there comes a time when even a state of nearly constant fantasy won't do it. Introduce: masturbation. And in particular, the orgasm. Complete physical and emotional ecstasy — without having to pay a single dime. The original thoughts once used to manage your stress are now expanded to include a whole new set of behaviors. Each of which will follow the same pattern described above. Over time, even the orgasm will not allow you to successfully manage the value conflicts and the increased stress that you will experience, and so you learn that the more illicit, the more dangerous, the more prolonged the exposure to sexual stimuli...the more "drugs" are released into your system. It's not quite as simple as that, but imagine: an endless supply of mind-altering chemicals, with unlimited access, available to you with nothing more than a thought or by viewing a single image.

Once your behavior is fused with your identity — that is, once the behavior itself has taken on the illusion of being a value in your life — the process for using that behavior becomes much like baking cookies. This is not to undermine the seriousness of sexual addiction, but more to provide a working model for how each behavior plays its own role in the overall scheme of using sex to manage your emotions.

In the next lesson, in an effort to develop a functional awareness of your compulsive rituals, you shall learn to bake cookies!

Lesson 16 Exercise:

I. Consider the POSITIVE role that addiction has played in your life. What purposes has it served (think short-term, not long)?

Understanding the functional role of your addiction is important in removing the power, mystery and fear from that addiction — to begin seeing it in terms of practicality, rather than as some kind of supernatural fate or disease that you are doomed to suffer.

Share a few positive aspects of your addiction in your recovery thread.

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