In her book, Start Where You Are, Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron relates how she participated in sweat lodges when she was young: "I would always sit by the flap covering the entrance to the sweat lodge. That way, if things got too intense, I could quickly, easily duck out."
That's an apt metaphor for how addicts live their lives. They sit in the sweat lodge called Life -- often intense, challenging, confronting, emotional, and sometimes uncomfortable. When it gets too tough, they duck out -- for a drink, for some comfort food, for a smoke, a little shopping, a pill, a toke, a hit, a snort, a trip to the casino, or whatever escape is available.
You duck out the door of your own metaphorical sweat lodge and escape into something -- anything -- that will make you feel better. If you're down, you seek something to bring you up. If you're up, you seek something to tone it down just a little. You're continually mood-altering, one way or the other.
The only problem is that, over time, you're not ducking out of the sweat lodge of Life occasionally -- you're doing it regularly, even daily. Your best friend (food, shopping, pills, booze, cigarettes, sex, gambling) soon becomes your master.
Millions of Americans -- and hundreds of millions of people worldwide -- are in the grip of addictive substances (alcohol, drugs, nicotine, caffeine, sugar) or addictive activities (gambling, shopping, sex, internet porn). Addictions are the number one public health problem in the U.S. -- costing our country tens of billions of dollars in medical care, law enforcement, social services, workplace absenteeism and lost productivity, and related expenses. Worldwide costs of addiction are incalculable -- and heartbreaking.
What are we to do about this addiction pandemic? What are our options? What works?
Einstein said: "A problem cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that created it." Which explains why addicts cannot simply put down their drugs and solve their problem. It requires a shift in consciousness -- some form of psychic transformation -- for addicts to live without their "fix."
Medical experts look for bio-chemical solutions -- paying particular attention to brain chemistry. Other researchers look for genetic markers in our DNA, seeking to understand why alcoholism and other addictions often run in families. Many psychologists look at the "nurture" side of the "nature versus nurture" debate, pointing out that use of mood-altering substances or activities is learned behavior -- coping mechanisms developed in response to painful, dysfunctional family life. Religious authorities suggest that addiction is a spiritual malaise, amenable to spiritual solutions. In short, experts each look through their own professional paradigm for an answer to the riddle of addiction.
I applaud these experts for their efforts, but when I hear them explain their theories, I can't help but recall that old saying: "If your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail." It's easy to be blinded by your paradigm.
We needn't wait for white-coat experts to find causes and cures. We can learn much from the personal stories of those who have already discovered a way out of the hell of addiction. These sober, sane, serene people don't argue whether addiction is a physical disease or an existential dis-ease -- they don't care about parsing details. They just care about what works and how they can help others who still suffer.
Here are some of the basics, based on the experience of recovering people:
~ Addiction is a multi-faceted condition, with physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual aspects - requiring a corresponding multi-faceted approach.
~ It is essential that an addict be teachable in order to change. Buddhists call it having a "beginner's mind." This is why most addicts have to hit bottom before they give up doing things their own way and become open to learning a new way to live.
~ Denial and ignorance are two major barriers to recovery. Addicts are usually in denial for a very long time about the seriousness of their problem; family members are often in denial as well. Public ignorance about the true nature of addiction keeps many people from seeking help; there are many stereotypes and myths about who's an addict and who isn't.
~ Rarely, if ever, are addicts able to kick their habit without help. Self-reliance and self-sufficiency may be laudable attributes in our society, but these same qualities hinder recovery from addiction.
~ Human beings are social creatures -- we do best when we have good social support. Addicts recover best with the support of a strong group, where they learn healthy inter-dependence.
~ Unconditional love and acceptance are at the core of recovery from addiction.
There are a number of terrific groups and organizations dedicated to helping addicts get unhooked. Some of these are secular organizations; others are spiritual in nature.
The most well-known are 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous and the other anonymous groups based on the same principles (Overeaters Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Sex Addicts Anonymous, Nicotine Anonymous, among others). 12-step groups have the highest success rate of any program, but they may not be your cup of tea. There are many other recovery resources available, including: therapists, support groups, rehab clinics, in-patient and out-patient centers, hospital-based programs, church-based programs, for-profit treatment centers, and non-profit treatment programs.
If you or someone you love is in the struggling with an addiction, go online on your computer to find local resources; pick up your phone and make some calls; and keep looking until you find the right resource for you or your loved one.
And remember, three of the most powerful words in the English language are: "Please help me." No one can do it for you, but you can't do it by yourself.