By Guest Blogger Richard Achiro, PhD
The Urge to Kill
Someone recently told me that it would be best for everyone if addicts just died. She was referring to a reality TV show featuring a miserable woman who struggles with drug addiction. Despite my initial shock at its tactlessness, her comment made me ponder the prospect that this fantasy to “off the addict” may in fact be quite widespread (albeit more hidden from most of our awareness). The fantasy that all of the problems in a family or even of the world can be packed into someone/something and then done away with is very attractive.
Perhaps even more tempting is to submit to the idea that we can force all of the destructive or otherwise problematic parts of ourselves into one target problem that can then be magically lifted from our being. Whether we’re aware of it or not, we are constantly waging battle against those parts of ourselves that we determine to be the source of our suffering. So who wouldn’t be inclined to eradicate the internal addict insofar as it embodies our most poignant struggles with powerlessness and loss?
But before we go and kill it off, let’s take a moment to get a bit more acquainted with this shadowy figure that exists in each of us.
Some of us know the addict inside quite well; likely, those among us who have struggled with substance abuse of any kind. But this commonly held idea of what constitutes addiction misses the fact that, for many of us, toxic excesses often take on subtler, more culturally sanctioned forms that can be equally detrimental to our capacity to thrive. Working to avoid living, shopping to replace feelings with things, and compulsively exercising to attain bodily “perfection”—these are but a few common examples of where our addictions can be expressed.
Perhaps the best way of assessing where your particular internal addict expresses itself is in asking this question:
Which activities leave you feeling the most empty and, then, reciprocally make you crave them all the more in the hopes that, this time, the emptiness will dissipate?
Wholeness/Emptiness and Fulfillment/Craving
The experience of emptiness and concomitant frantic efforts to fill ourselves with something… anything is a painful hallmark of addiction which begs the question of what initially constitutes this void. To begin to answer this, one must first consider our nature as social animals. Interpersonal connection is critical to our survival and ability to thrive as human beings. We are inherently people-seeking creatures who are born prematurely, almost totally dependent on our primary caregivers for years after the point of birth. Precarious as it makes the human condition, this “premature” birth is an elegant cornerstone in our developmental process in that it provides a foundation for being able to appreciate the limitations of our control over our environments and related lifelong vulnerabilities as beings who need one another for physical and emotional survival.
Like an infant melding into the arms of his/her maternal figure, we thrive when we are felt and sense ourselves being held. When all goes well enough, our first relationship provides the enduring experience of feeling protected and “fed” by someone who’s bigger than us but who is, simultaneously, a part of us. Such experiences give us wholeness.
In adulthood, when playing the proverbial or literal mother —holding the other— the identification with the held infant remains a deeply felt experience. The link with the supportive caregiver is maintained whether holding or held, concrete (i.e., actually being in the intimate presence of others) or symbolic (i.e., the felt sense of being supported, protected, seen and safe as derived from memories of actual experience). Paradoxically, it is also our ability to need others that frees us to experience our autonomy in a way that is enlivening rather than a perverse demand to perpetually pick ourselves up from our bootstraps. The freedom to depend on others is synonymous with the freedom to be ourselves and have our unique, deeply-rooted will intact.
The delicate balance between needing and being needed, between autonomy and symbiosis is an essential tension to the human condition. When we are able to hold that tension and somehow appreciate the inextricable link between our greatest pains and pleasures, life generally feels more tolerable, more joyful. More full.
However, when we become overly stressed and conflicted by situations beyond our control, this tension can collapse, leaving us stuck on one side or the other of the spectrum. We might come to depend so much on others to save us outright that we readily sacrifice our sacred autonomy—our “me-ness”—in a desperate attempt to keep them. On the other side, we might place all of our efforts into being the needed, indispensable, all-knowing savior; an equally self-sacrificing and draining endeavor. Being stranded at either pole is a loss of self. We may so automatically become empty in this way that we hardly notice it took place.
Enter the Internal Addict
Just as it often happens in life, addiction has surreptitiously entered the scene. The two extreme modes of relating just described are themselves addictive. Subtly assuming the role of helpless victim or totalitarian perpetrator is perhaps the most widespread and overlooked drug of choice. As with any addiction, acting these roles represents a last-ditch attempt to regain control and wholeness in a way that offers short-term solace but which, ultimately, reinforces emptiness.
Addiction rears its head when otherwise reentering the collapsed space of interconnection, vitality and fullness seems an impossibility. Our difficulty in caring for ourselves or in seeking out others to care for us often reflects an experience with our primary caregivers early in life. This subjective experience of feeling dropped and stranded tends to be self-perpetuating in that it makes leaning into our vulnerability the most difficult at the very moments when we most need support. With no other option in sight, the internal addict takes over to help us regain a sense of control and invulnerability. We turn to our drug of choice as a means for making our world into a utopia where bad does not exist.
Sadly, utopias never actually turn out to be real. Our drugs render us into false gods at the expense of our authentic, felt humanity. Therein lies the safety. Therein lies the torture of not (co)existing.
Especially in the context of our wifi driven, ever-virtually-connected reality, it is all too easy to settle for the mere illusion of connection and wholeness while simultaneously shunning the opportunity to invest in complicated, risky, intimate, long-term relationships with ourselves and others. The increasingly ubiquitous scene of a group of people gathered silently around a table, taking selfies and checking social media speaks volumes about the pain surrounding our desire to connect and the lengths to which we’re willing to go to fill that void with alternative measures. The selfie allows us complete and total control over our image; a degree of control that, inconveniently, simply does not exist in interpersonal relationships. Those of us who have made the naïve mistake of offering to take a picture of someone poised to selfie know well the risks of trying to penetrate such a closed system. One might expect a look that falls at the crossroads of terror, confusion and disgust on the face of the intruded selfie-taker. The message is clear: dude, the Yes, I’m Open t-shirt I’m wearing is ironic. This is about “shares,” not sharing and associated complications.
But it’s easy (and addictive) to sit on the outside and critique. What about me and my own masquerade? Throughout this writing process, I have only fleetingly been in contact with my own sense of vulnerability. In fact, it’s likely that a key motivator in writing this piece has been to push that vulnerability out of my awareness by attempting to demonstrate that I understand something important; to prove my own value by appearing to be somehow knowing. How many precious moments were squandered throughout my weeks of thinking through this piece, obsessing about this paragraph or that sentence while blankly staring into the faces of people whose love I could have shared had I given them a chance to see? Self-hatred sets in as I know I can never get those moments back. I’m quick to pathologize myself for being so closed-off. I feel a sting of guilt for being absent when I know firsthand how critical it is to experience others as present.
Now, another moment: the feeling of loss creeps in and my eyes glass up. My tears are a precious reminder that to distance myself and hide in my drug of choice is a part of what makes me the limited human that I am. In that simple but felt realization, I share myself with you and the addiction recedes. My writing—at one moment an expression of my internal addict—becomes the exact medium through which I can now feel myself as alive and experience the fullness of my connection to you.
To Kill is to Be Killed
It would seem that to kill off our internal addict would be to finally live a life in which nourishment and toxicity are easily distinguished from one another and the mysterious urge to replace the former for the latter would be forever overcome. But we can’t kill off the addict inside without the rest of us going with it. The intensity of our need to be connected with one another and the sense of vulnerability and powerlessness that makes us hide are two sides of the same coin.
The urge to hide and regain the illusion of total control may never be expelled completely; however, with enough care and attention, we can learn to hear our internal addict when it speaks in a whisper rather than waiting for it to bat us over the head with behaviors that lead to our destruction. We owe it to ourselves to continue to increase our understanding about what our particular internal addict is telling us at any given point in time so we don’t have to blindly act in accordance with its wishes.
So instead of seeking to kill the addict, attempt to use it as the great communicator that it can be. Just as the scapegoat “addict” in a family system helps to tell a story about each of the family members’ hidden vulnerabilities and self-reproach, the internal addict can help to shine a light on aspects of ourselves we’re most quick to hide from because of the terror and shame they elicit.
As you autopilot to your iPhone to mindlessly skim apps for the third time in an hour, who/what is it that you’re hiding from? Who/what are you trying to find behind that shiny screen? What is it that you hope they can give you? It is in reflecting on questions like these—and at least fleetingly allowing ourselves to feel the force of the weighty implications they bear—that can provide us with the freedom of reaching an organic high that transcends what any drug could offer. This requires that we hold ourselves or allow others to hold us for long enough to be present when the addict calls; at the very moment when we are certain that to stay would mean to be destroyed. To our shock and amazement, we may find that what we thought would destroy us are the very feelings that turn out to make us the most alive.