13: A cure for addiction

Sharpened charcoal & sandpaper block

Addiction is a fact of life for many, perhaps most, people these days. For all the talk about the “disease” of addiction, we continue to get addicted at great human cost. It stands to reason that we want to be addicted, that addiction is in fact doing something for us that is worth the cost. If so, we might hazard a “cure” for addiction: a reason to quit.

Demons and diseases

Before we really get into it, let me disclose that I’m not a doctor and what follows is not intended as medical advice and should not be taken as such. Rather, this post is intended for educational and informational purposes only. What you do with this information is up to you.

Whether the vice is sex, drugs, or social media, we return again and again to the object(s) of our addiction. Why do we do this? A popular explanation is that our vices work similarly to demonic possesion, where an external power compels us to action against our will. However, this explanation is not especially actionable in that it places us at the whims of circumstance, to say nothing of the magical causality it proposes. [1]

Indeed, if we are demonically possessed, we have little recourse but to appeal to a different external power to exorcise the intruding force. Assuming it works like this, we’re nevertheless left with the problem of addicts getting repeatedly repossessed, that is, relapsing. This is great for exorcists, not so much for the addict. If addiction is the outcome in any case, may as well save your money for more vice.

The virtues of addiction

The frequency of “repossession” suggests inadequacies in the “demonic possession”, i.e. the disease, model of addiction. Foremost among these limitations is the oversight of the virtues of addiction. That is, what addiction is good for.

That addictions are good for something is clear from the fact that people become addicted to things in the first place. Barring a multiplication of entities like wandering demons, it is safe to say that people take up addictions. [2] In other words, addiction is something we do. [3]

Now, insofar as humans act, we act according to reasons (or “motives”) - however sensible or fanciful they may be. So, we may ask, why might a person become addicted? To answer this, we need only examine the phenomenon of addiction itself.

We say that a person has an addiction when they, seemingly compulsively, engage in a repetitive behavior - when they do something over and over again. Since addiction means something more than mere repetitive activity, we tend to attribute to it some element of “being out of control”.

For example, we say that the tobacco smoker “cannot help themselves”, that they “need” a cigarette. Indeed, smokers often say this themselves. This seems to make sense, but on a closer look this doesn’t seem quite right either. We all “need” water, and habitually and repetitively drink it. In fact, we do it whenever we feel the compulsion of thirst. Yet, we do not say that we are addicted to water.

“Sure,” you might retort, “but we need water to survive, not cigarettes.” Perhaps, but what of food, then? We need food to survive, yet we do say that people get addicted to food. What then is the difference between food and water? Presumably, the difference is that a food addict or a theoretical water addict consumes too much. But how much is “too much”?

As you can see, we are now firmly in the realm of human judgement and discretion, and well beyond the concrete, measurable realm of disease. We can test for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, but not for addiction. This is because, unlike an actual disease, addiction has no material [vector](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vector_(epidemiology).

What then does a person do when they are addicted? Clearly, they alter their life in some non-trivial way, however we may judge this change. [4] Specifically, one changes how one is when one engages in addiction. The details of this change will vary from person to person, and vice to vice, but what is common is that, in all cases, the addict moves from one way of being to another. To put this simply, addiction alters mood.

Changes in mood may be singular or repetitive. In the case of addiction, we see a repeated alteration of mood in a specific way. That is, whenever we do the thing we feel more or less the same way. We are experiencing the same mood, again. The reliability of a given vice is what lends it to addiction. Addiction is, as it were, a tool for mood management.

How does this tool work? Consider the experience of mood. Each of us is always in some mood, and only one at a time. Mood changes over time, sometimes regularly and sometimes erratically, depending on all manner of things. Not all moods are good moods, whatever your idea of “good” is. [5]

It follows, then, that addiction is altering mood in a specific way in perpetuity or simply repetitively. Though, we might go one step deeper and say that the function of addiction is to stabilize mood in a manner preferable to the addict. The addict wards off undesirable moods by relying on the consistency provided by their chosen vice. That is, addiction provides comfort, control, and some amount of certainty. This result may seem surprising at first, but as we’ll see there is some use to this.

Addiction iconoclasm

The foregoing analysis led to the unusual conclusion that addiction in fact serves a function, that it’s good for something. So much confusion and ineffective “treatment” around addiction stems from the failure to recognize this function and the attempt to battle an external force exerting itself upon the addict. While there’s a kind of truth to this, it isn’t the whole truth and casts addiction in a distorting light. Let’s see how we can break through this confusion and propose a “cure”.

Objects of addiction can and do “speak” to us, as any aspiring habit-breaker knows. The smoker is “tempted”, that is addressed, by the cigarette they could be smoking right now. It “calls to them”, as we say. In this sense, there is something coming from “outside” the addict as far as his or her experience is concerned.

However, the confusion sets in when we attribute the full force of necessary causality to such temptations addressed to us by our objects of addiction. At any moment, we may be called to any number of things, each of which will affect mood in some way or other. Similarly, we may be addressed by others and called to do or feel various things. Yet, we don’t call all such cases temptations or addictions. What is special about objects of addiction?

The important aspect seems to be “compulsion”. That is, addiction seems to be compulsory, irresistable. In a way, it is, for in the temptation to indulge we are already indulging, if only in fantasy. Temptation puts us there with the object of addiction, holds out the possibility of indulgence to us. But the holding out of a possibility, however enticing, is not compulsion and is certainly not causality.

Indeed, the addict may find the possibility of forgoing addiction to be quite compelling, and nonetheless retain their addiction. The trouble is precisely that “compulsion” lacks the force of a material causality. A person under compulsion to do something may still not do it. In contrast, an object thrown into the air must and will fall eventually, no compulsion required.

Since compulsion doesn’t guarantee action, even if addiction were compulsory, it would not necessarily entail indulging in any particular action. In other words, compulsions by their very nature may be resisted or refused. This brings us back to the function of addiction: we heed the call of the objects of our addiction not because we are compelled to (since we could nonetheless refuse), but because the addiction is good for something. Diseases, on the other hand, are good for nothing. [6]

Specifically, addiction is good for managing mood, as discussed above. It follows that an addict will remain addicted so long as his or her addiction remains useful in this way. That is, so long as he or she seeks the mood(s) afforded by the object of addiction. When the addict hears the call of the addiction, they will heed it. That is, unless they’ve found a “cure.”

Finding a cure

Insofar as addiction serves to attain a goal, namely mood, it stands to reason that addiction stops when its goal is abandoned. So, any “cure” for an addiction will entail giving up whatever goal the addiction aims at. Such a task is both more complex and more difficult than it may first appear, as we will see.

On first glance, an obvious solution presents itself to this problem of goal abandonment: find a new goal. This is, as far as it goes, a valid and powerful solution. However, establishing new goals is rather difficult to do, even without addiction. Worse, there is a trap here that is easy to fall into.

Conventional approaches to addiction often fail because they set the dissolution of addiction as the goal of “treatment”. This is circular, for the goal entails the existence of what it is to get rid of. In other words, the goal of abandoning addiction is only a valid goal so long as one remains addicted. As soon as one frees oneself of the addiction, the goal is lost. The easiest way to get a new goal - and one that is moreover welcomed by the rehabilitator and society alike - is to become addicted again. There is a forbidden word for describing what such a procedure is.

This is also the reason why imperatives to “be disciplined” or “just say no” are ineffective: they simply invert the goal of the addiction by prefixing it with a “thou shalt not”. Not only does this create the circular problem described above, but it also adds an additional reason to indulge the addiction. That is, people generally don’t like being told what to do and especially don’t like being told not to do something they want to, and so will often do things simply to rebel against or spite those who attempt to compel them. [7]

Accordingly, a goal must be found that is orthogonal to the addiction, that is, that is inherently independent of it. Again, not an easy task in our godless, aimless age. [8]

Fortunately, difficult is not yet impossible, so the possibility of finding a new goal remains open. As discussed elsewhere, this is often a matter of hearing the call. In this case, it is a matter of responding to a call other than that issued by the objects of addiction.

Flee or feel

It is hard enough to hear the call under normal circumstances, but with addiction there is often an additional layer of challenge. Beneath the surface level goal of instilling or maintaining a mood, there may be a more basic and essential goal being pursued: escape.

Specifically, addiction often aims not just at instilling a desirable mood, but in doing so to the express exclusion of some other one. That is, in addiction one runs away rather than toward, such that the mood yielded by the addiction boxes out other moods and possibilities that are not desirable.

Addictive flight from feeling generally takes one of two forms, by fleeing either from a specific mood or possibility, or from mood or possibility in general. For example, one may pick up an addiction in the wake of the loss of a loved one or of one’s livelihood. Alternatively, one may find life altogether too unpleasant and seek to blot out as many feelings as possible.

The advantage of the latter, generalized case is that it includes the former, specific case. This allows people to get pre-emptively addicted in advance of loss, providing a brace against the feelings that may flow from it. Such bracing is increasingly common in the modern world, which is, as observed above, aimless and godless.

Thus, the start of convalescence is to shift from fleeing to feeling. Opening to feeling and to moods beyond the control of addiction opens the addict also to the possibility of new goals. This will often entail feeling things that are unpleasant, quite beyond physical sensations of withdrawal. Rather, the addict may be brought face to face with the orienting center of their addiction, that from which he or she may be fleeing.

The therapeutic other

Here we reach a point of divergence, where the resolution of addiction will vary radically from individual to individual. The motive for flight may be anything or nothing in particular, whether it be loss, trauma, or simply knowledge of mortality. In each case, the “cure” will be unique to the individual addict and oriented to his or her experience, just as the addiction itself is tailored to his or her needs. What is common in each case, however, is the value of therapeutic companionship.

Opening to feeling, especially painful or traumatic feeling, is not only difficult, but dangerous. Specifically, even when we pull up the courage to feel, it is easy to get swept away and lose ourselves in the feeling, or become so overwhelmed that we clutch our addiction that much more tightly. The counterbalance to this lies in the presence of another who cares for us, a kind of “therapeutic companion.”

It’s not especially important who this companion is per se, so much as that they are present, with you, in an orientation of genuine, attentive care. A close friend, family member, spouse, or professional may equally well provide the ground for an addict to plant their feet as they open to feeling and to the possible call they may hear in their openness, provided they are of the proper disposition. More on this in a later post.

In a sense, the addict has settled in to a circular way of life, such that life unfolds in a “dull round” of listlessly repeated activity. As a circle is closed, so are the addict’s possibilities. The therapeutic companion provides, by their presence, a safe place for the circumference to be breached. Within this space of human care, the addict is free to feel, to unfold their life into myriad shapes and forms previously foreclosed by the control loop that is addiction.

While it may be possible for a person to abandon addiction on their own, the presence of an other on the “other side” of the enclosure remains invaluable. Such presence unifies the controlled world created by addiction with the world beyond that addiction. The therapeutic other witnesses both and is present in both worlds at once. That is, the healing companion remains with the addict, in their circular world, without abandoning the world of open possibility that they, the therapeutic other, inhabits.

“It’s a way of life”

It is thus unsurprising that genuine recovery from addiction is often described as a kind of “rebirth”. In light of this, the therapeutic companion may be thought of as a kind of midwife to the addict who, inchoate within the womb of their vice, is to escape the enclosure of their addiction into the vast world of possibility that is life at large. The healing other attends to the addict in their transition from one way of life to another.

Pulling all of the above together, we see that addiction is, in fact, a way of life. Specifically, it is a way of life defined by mood management and control that aims at fleeing some possibility(ies) of life deemed undesirable by the addict. The “cure” for this way of life is to transition to a new way of life through a profound reorientation of goals in which the goal of flight is replaced by one of any number of other possible purposes. Such a transition is achieved through a process of opening to feeling and possibility, as aided by the care of one or more therapeutic companions.

It follows from the foregoing discussion that addiction is, in fact, nothing like a disease or a controlling demon to be exorcised. Rather, it is way of living with its own aims and “logic” unto itself. Any effective “cure” for addiction must acknowledge the underlying “utility” of it and understand its fundamentally human motives. In other words, addiction is not a medical condition requiring medical treatment, but a human condition requiring human treatment - that is, being treated as human being.

Notes

[1] That is, our vices are to somehow act as little homunculi pushing and pulling the levers of our minds and bodies, not unlike the way one operates a crane. How non-sentient things like cigarettes or porn gain the ability to operate a human body is beyond me.

[2] Some might say people “fall into” addictions. Perhaps so. However, this doesn’t address the issue: a skydiver falls to earth as much as someone pushed out of a plane against their will. The fact that one is falling itself says nothing about why or how one came to fall.

[3] It is worth clarifying that “addiction” in the context is not intended to cover “chemical dependency” - the condition wherein a person will die or suffer severe bodily harm in lieu of consuming a given substance. Addiction may or may not entail chemical dependency, despite the fact that Webster’s conflates these two things. The first definition on that page refers to a theoretical concept, whereas the second definition gets us closer to the phenomenon. Here, we are concerned more with this second definition, though it still says too much.

[4] Can a person become addicted to physical fitness? If so, should they be treated for it (and not to ice cream)? Who is to make this judgement?

[5] For instance, melancholy is a desirable or enjoyable mood for some. For others, not so much.

[6] That is, leaving aside biological warfare and any eccentric evolutionary advantages that may attend contraction of a disease. I know of no cases of the latter scenario, but I can’t rule out freaky fringe cases where it might hold.

[7] In light of this, the preference of stoners for wearing D.A.R.E. apparel perhaps makes much more sense.

[8] It is perhaps no coincidence that faith-based programs like Alcoholics Anonymous are effective antidotes to addiction in many cases.