Not why the addiction, but why the pain
I had been working out intensively for two hours, exhausted and fatigued, yet kept going, obsessively counting in the head my calorie intake from last night’s bingeing and calculating the hours required to burn it off.
It had been almost a year since my first bingeing episode, and the occurrence had become more frequent and intense over time. My mind was preoccupied with food most of the time, going through a vicious cycle of binge eating and excessive exercise. I was unable to share my obsession with anyone out of fear of being judged. I alienated myself from my social circle to reduce the risk of being found out. I was isolated, alone, ashamed, and disgusted, silently battling with an eating disorder called Bulimia Nervosa.
I was an addict, addicted to food.
Are you an addict?
Before you jump to an answer, let’s examine what constitutes an addiction. Addiction manifests in any behavior that a person finds temporary pleasure and relief in, therefore craves. In the long term, the person suffers negative consequences from the behavior and is unable to give it up. While addiction is often to substances, it could be to anything that fits the definition – to gaming, to work, to sex, in more recent years, to social networks, to Netflix, and psychologically, to attention, even to love.
In his groundbreaking book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, trauma and addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté writes, “There are almost as many addictions as there are people.” He posits that most of us fit somewhere along the addiction spectrum.
So now, are you an addict?
When you lose the promotion for which you have been working for the last two years, do you allow yourself to feel the disappointment and sadness which entails the need for grief; or do you go to bars, in a desperate attempt to drown the unbearable pain of unworthiness in alcohol?
When you sense your partner’s elusiveness to an innocent question, do you choose to have a difficult but honest and necessary conversation; or do you turn to online shopping as a way of suppressing the need for attachment?
When you snap at your children at the dinner table knowing that you are taking it out on them, do you have the courage to apologise to your children for your misplaced anger; or do you turn on your favourite Netflix series to mute the voice in your head whispering a painful truth that we are all flawed human beings?
When you fail yet another workout regime, do you have the compassion to connect with the self-destructive part of yourself and understand what he has been rebelling against: a mother always strives for perfection, a critical father, or a teacher deems that you will never be good enough for anything? or do you bury a profound sense of shame in a tub of ice cream?
The ultimate question is not why the addiction, but why the pain, posed by Dr. Gabor Maté.
So, what do we do?
The Canadian clinical psychologist and author, Jordon Peterson advises: “Pick up your damn suffering, and bear it, and try to be a good person so you don’t make it worse.”
In his book “12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos,” he talks about how to face the reality of pain and suffering in life.
“To stand up straight with your shoulders back is to accept the terrible responsibility of life, with eyes wide open. It means deciding to voluntarily transform the chaos of potential into the realities of habitable order. It means adopting the burden of self-conscious vulnerability and accepting the end of the unconscious paradise of childhood, where finitude and mortality are only dimly comprehended. It means willingly undertaking the sacrifices necessary to generate a productive and meaningful reality (it means acting to please God, in the ancient language).”
Our addiction was our protector once upon a time. It soothed our wounds, it mitigated our anxiety, and it made us feel safe, warm, and fuzzy. Without it, we would have fallen apart, given up, or gone into depression and eventually lost the will to live. Our addiction was the best strategy we had to cope with a challenging situation. It is not a personal failure. It is an adaptation. If it is an adaptation, it can be reviewed, re-evaluated, and re-established.
A psychotherapist can facilitate the process of understanding why and how addiction takes root, identifying our unfilled needs, and exploring new healthy ways to fulfil these needs so the addiction will lose its appeal.
When the urges arise, do not run away.
This time, heal our pain, not with addiction, but with courage, humility, compassion and ultimately, love.