Ask Parvati 27: Addiction – Part 2: What Is Addiction?

BY Parvati

PART 2: WHAT IS ADDICTION?
(Continued from Where Is Addiction?)
Addiction is a serious disease that affects millions globally. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry.” In the truest sense, addiction is a compulsion to be involved with a substance or activity despite the negative and harmful consequences associated with it. As such, addiction alters brain chemistry, making users dependent on either a substance or an action in order to sustain and maintain that particular chemistry.
From a psychological perspective, addiction is a compulsive activity that hinders the quality of life. When do you know, for example, if a few drinks every day after work, makes you an alcoholic? People with this habit are likely to say that they can stop at any time. Perhaps they can. So then what makes them an alcoholic?
To find out if a habit like that makes you an alcoholic you need to see if the habit is negatively affecting the quality of your life and the close ones around you. In order to see if it is negatively affecting the quality of your life, you need to be willing to look honestly at yourself. The notion of “negative effect” can be overt, like bankruptcy, divorce, contemplating suicide. Or it can be subtler. For example, perhaps you feel that having a drink is more comforting than speaking with your children or spouse. The drink, which seems to simply “take the edge off”, is in fact building a wall between what you feel and your ability to be honest with yourself. Because of that habit, your relationship with your spouse and children suffer. If this is the case, the alcohol habit is an addiction.
I adore the quote attributed to the Buddha, which I feel sums up so succinctly the way our minds work:
“Watch your thoughts, for they become words.
Watch your words, for they become actions.
Watch your actions, for they become habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”
There is an important difference between habit and addiction. When we are addicted, we are identified with the habit. That habit defines who we are. It is our identity. We can no longer differentiate between that action and who we are. We fully believe that that drink, or that joint or that hit will take the pain away. It defines our reality.
When we are sober and face a habit, we can see that it either hinders or serves us. We have the self-awareness, the discipline and the willingness to alter that habit and choose healthier ones. In the case of addiction, we identify with that habit as who we are and cannot see it or the possibility of being free from it, so it continues.
In this way, I understand that addiction to a substance may not be the root of addiction. Addiction can come in the form of thoughts, such as a perpetual core belief with which we have fully identified. For example, the idea “I am ugliness” or even “I am darkness” could be so all-consuming that we end up acting in ways that feed that identification. Feeling like a victim would feed that identity. Feeling others are against us would feed it as well. We can believe that we are empty and need to be filled. We then may turn compulsively to substances, work, sports, people or even to religious practices as a means to try to fill ourselves up. We have identified with darkness and act in ways that only feed that reality, until we wake up to the reality that we are not darkness, but are in fact beings of infinite light.
This form of psychological addiction can come in any form. Perhaps it is the idea “I am not enough”, or “I am a nobody”, or “I am incapable”. Any of these kinds of self-effacing thoughts, when we identify with them as who we are, become an addiction. These distorted, root thought forms, when they become our identity, then in turn fuel secondary addictive behaviors, such as substance abuse.
EXERCISE

  1. Take a look at what actions in your life are compulsive. See if they negatively affect the quality of your life.
  2. Go within, go deeper and ask yourself, are there any core beliefs that seem so pesky that they have become the way you simply see yourself and reality?
  3. If you have identified yourself and your reality in impossibilities, are you willing to see otherwise?

(Continued tomorrow with Hitting Bottom)