The Paradox of Addiction

The Paradox of Addiction

The insanity of addiction is a paradox, and that’s why it’s insane. The value to the addict of his drug or behavior of choice is not the effect of the drug or behavior per se. That is a useless pursuit and subject to physical and psychological laws such as the rebound effect. The addict’s subconscious knows this, which is reflected in continued and increasingly more intense cravings. What satisfied yesterday doesn’t satisfy today, no matter what. But these are external manifestations of an internal condition.

The addict’s conflict is internal and very real. Acting out, while perhaps pleasurable at first, isn’t really about pleasure. Its purpose becomes a way to match or exceed the level of shame that the addict inherently and already feels, a sense of worthlessness so powerful that it’s unbearable. By matching or exceeding this internal belief with actual behavior, the addict creates a bizarre form of temporary relief, because he affirms the internal message of worthlessness and shame, which ends the conflict almost magically. However, it always and eventually returns. “This is the way that bad people behave,” is a subconscious message of coöperation or surrender, and when it no longer “works” to quiet the discontent, even greater degrees of debauchery are required. By this time, the addict is no longer finding any use whatsoever from acting out, but he simply cannot stop. So far from reality has he drifted that the only thing left is the discontent. He may try another method of acting out, but eventually that won’t work either, and he is then doubly troubled or even worse.

The paradox of addiction, therefore, is that discontent increases with attempts to quiet the discontent. This is why the only programs that “work” are those that challenge the essential belief of unworthiness and its accompanying shame. To the addict, his behavior makes sense. He’s frantically trying to extinguish a raging inferno. It’s logical to him, no matter how it appears to the outside. People tell him he drinks too much, eats too much, gets high too often or is obsessed with sex. On a certain level, he can see what they’re saying, but he cannot — can not — stop, for to do so would be to live with the pain of the shame and unworthiness he believes and feels. He simply has no alternative.

The world to him appears happy and joyful, and this validates his internal beliefs, because he feels so awful. He lives with a constant loneliness that only those who’ve been there can understand. He is a slave to intense fears that might prove his unworthiness and shame, even though his behavior provides a regular internal validation of those same feelings. Above all else, the addict is confused.

When criticized, even remotely, he will run or fight, because criticism cuts far too close to his absurd and self-created reality. Bursts of anger or rage become the norm, but they mask intense feelings of guilt, shame and mostly fear.

The addict is not a “bad” person, though he may well be the cause of abhorrent and often illegal activities. Our prisons are filled with addicts, and our culture seems unable to confront the questions of why. We are bombarded constantly with images of success and happiness in others, messages that scream “something’s wrong with you, if you don’t have this.” This translates to shame in the mind of the addict.

Control is the addict’s weapon against reminders of his shame. He tries to control the fire by acting out, and the more he does, the more real control slips from his grasp. He tries to control his surroundings by wearing certain masks and stacking rationalized lie on top of rationalized lie. He tries to control others in the same way, although he will isolate rather than risk exposure to any validation of his unworthiness. When introduced to someone new, the addict’s mind will be occupied with reading body language and planning control options, so much so that he will seldom remember the name of the person to whom he was just introduced.

This need to control produces another powerful ally for the internal message of shame: anxiety, for to control requires advance knowledge, and so he is on a constant search in planning and rehearsing situations he “might” have to survive. He lives in tomorrow in a vain attempt to find understanding but mostly to know when to duck, should some unforeseen situation arise. He is constantly nervous, and it takes a physical toll.

Deny, ignore, avoid and blame are the four cornerstones of the addict’s mind. These reveal the highly self-centered nature of his existence as he runs from the internal drivers of unworthiness and shame. Denial is an especially heinous form of dishonesty, because it is a lie to oneself, which the addict justifies as a part of the paradox. He will ignore situations that might trap him into revealing his shame, or, if he’s smart or has experience in such situations, he’ll rise up and take them on to prove to those around him that he is more than capable, though he feels exactly the opposite. He will avoid people, places and things that might place him in a position to lose control, and he becomes so good at this that it’s second-nature to him. To people around him, however, his behavior here seems odd and annoying, because he appears so smart, capable and in control. His ability to shift blame is spectacular and also second-nature, because he simply cannot afford the risk of being blamed for anything that might reveal his believed inability to do or handle anything correctly. The repercussions of being “found out,” are simply too great, and therefore, he lives in a constant state of agitation and fear, which is the very definition of anxiety.

In a desperate attempt to appear normal, addicts often make terrific employees. While they’ll rarely try anything truly new, addicts are capable of extraordinary accomplishments in business, athletics and other avenues of life. Obsessive behavior isn’t limited to the behavior or drug of choice; work is often another way to escape the internal drivers of worthlessness and shame. There is, too, the illusion the addict lives that suggests he can somehow earn normalcy if he performs at a high level, and whenever he begins to approach that level, he raises the bar so as to keep it just outside his grasp. At some point, however, the whole thing will collapse like a stack of children’s blocks, for sooner or later, the paradox of addiction will take over. The addict’s journey, remember, is always about subconsciously proving that which he fears most.

Another part of the addict’s need to control is co-dependency and people-pleasing. Ask any addict and they will confess to some level of the need to impress or please those who are most important to them. If the wife is happy, so is the addict. If the husband smiles, the addict is free to smile. Addicts glom onto the mood of the room and do what they can to improve it, which is an inherently self-destructive practice. So bound up in other people’s happiness is the addict that he can actually become the life of the party, despite a desperate fear of people. For the addict, a stage can be a terrific place to hide.

This obsessive need to please can become cloying and self-defeating by actually pushing away the very people the addict is trying to please. He is completely unaware of this, of course, and is surprised and shocked when those around him – perhaps even close to him – get up and leave. In this way, again, the paradox of addiction pushes addicts into behavior that accomplishes exactly the opposite of what was intended, whether for the good or for the bad.

Obsession provides the energy for the impossible drive to perfection, the real prize of attempts to control everything and everyone around the addict. Perfection hangs as the proverbial carrot on a stick for the addict, who’s convinced that he must be perfect, or his shame and worthlessness will be exposed for all to see. Perfection in humans, however, is at best an illusion, but addicts chase it to the gates of annihilation, for the mere hint of imperfection is intolerable.

The addict suffers a pain known only to others of his kind. The pain is real and unbearable, because it is self-created and therefore resistant to actual relief. The cutter cuts, because the pain is superficial yet provides a form of relief from that which is burning inside. In the same way, all addicts administer relief by acting out, the insanity of addiction’s paradox.

There is hope, however, if the addict — and those around him — is willing to explore the defining characteristic of addiction: self-hatred brought about by intense feelings of shame and worthlessness. Non-addicts may find this ridiculous and be justified in so thinking. After all, why not simply accept that we’re all human beings, that all struggle with this to one degree or another, and that, therefore, anybody can behave differently? Modify the behavior, fix the addict, but this is naïve and useless, because the addict is far beyond this simplified view. Moreover, the behavior is always a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself, and this is what non-addicts simply cannot fathom, for to them, there’s no such thing. It’s the behavior, stupid!

As a culture, we’re only willing to go so far in talking about addiction. Media exploits the behaviors and the consequences but never looks responsibly and in-depth at the cause. The cause doesn’t lend itself to quick or sensational sound bites that work in a promo to drive viewers, listeners, or clicks. Nothing of any lasting good comes about, and only stereotypes are advanced when programs like NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” exploit the lives of sick and suffering men by trapping them, labeling them as sex offenders and demanding they explain their insanity. Bad behavior sells, whether it’s a movie subplot, the backdrop for character development, or the freakish behavior found in the chaos we call “the news.”

Meanwhile, a much bigger question looms: why is there so much shame in our society in the first place?

The answer is complex, but a big part of it begins with “do this or else” condemnation that comes from our pulpits. 12-step programs introduce addicts to a “power greater than themselves” to help overcome their core self-created beliefs, and in so doing, often are able to help people set aside religious convictions that trapped them – rightly or wrongly – in this conscious form of suffering. If Christian Church leaders ever seriously participated in recovery programs, they’d see and hear firsthand the accounts of those who were chased away by the mockery that some have made of the gospel of grace. There would be a call for repentance the likes of which hasn’t been witnessed in modern times, but this is unlikely, for modern evangelical Christianity uses its own “laws” to maintain its quo among the status.

You want to “see” God in action, attend 90 AA meetings in 90 days with an open mind and ears.