The principal obstacles to recovery from any addiction are ignorance,
shame, guilt, dishonesty, pride and personal exceptionalism.
Unfortunately for the addict these roadblocks to recovery
are almost always cleverly situated and sited like military forts to provide
mutual support in fending off all attempts at recovery.
Simple ignorance of addiction and recovery, for
example, is in theory easily remediable by exposure to accurate medical
information on the topics – but the adjoining and interlinked
"forts" of shame and dishonesty serve to limit the
amount of understanding the addicted individual can acquire about his real
condition. Similarly, the rectification of the dishonesty and evasiveness
that is a central and necessary part of the psychology of addiction is rendered
far more difficult by the co-existence of the addict's ignorance of
addiction and his resulting shame about his addictive behavior.
The personal exceptionalism of the addict permits
him to outflank facts and moral considerations that would normally prove
decisive in halting or at least decelerating his addiction. Because the addict
believes that he is "not like those other people" and that "his
case is special," he has a virtual blank check to rationalize and justify
behaviors on his part that contravene his personal values and beliefs.
The price of such personal exceptionalism, however,
can be quiet steep: when he keeps bruising himself against the stubborn facts of
the case, the addict experiences intense shame and humiliation. Precisely
because he is an exception, he is "not supposed to be like that." His
personal grandiosity merely makes him a bigger target for "the slings and
arrows of outrageous fortune." Every time he tries to walk on water he gets
wet, an unpleasant and embarrassing experience that requires the assistance of
the neighboring "fort" of dishonesty to explain away(the water
was too cold, he wasn't in the right frame of mind, onlookers were making too
much noise, &etc.).
Personal exceptionalism makes it difficult for the
addict to seek or accept help for his problems. Other people, people unlike
himself, can and should receive help in overcoming their addictions – but he,
precisely because of who he is, should neither need nor obtain such help. To do
so would be a serious threat to his entire system of uniqueness.
The addict is caught between the proverbial rock and a
hard spot in regard to his personal exceptionalism, for if he fails to
live up to the grandiose and unrealistic expectations it requires him to
fulfill, he experiences feelings of failure, shame and humiliation – but on
the other hand, if his personal exceptionalism itself is threatened, he
feels precisely the same feelings for not having been what he thought he was but
instead an ordinary person "like everyone else."
An alcoholic having serious problems such as health,
marital, legal and job difficulties from his drinking may feel that his drinking
is both justified and necessary because of his exceptional situation, that other
people(doctor, spouse, judge or employer) are exaggerating and "making too
big a deal" out of admittedly real but in his opinion minor difficulties,
that he can and will stop drinking or cut back whenever he decides to do so, and
that he doesn't need any help, professional, AA or otherwise in managing his
drinking. At the same time he may be deeply ashamed of himself and the problems
his drinking has caused him and others – but his dishonesty makes it
impossible for him to admit this to himself. He develops paranoid defenses of
the "why is everybody out to get me?" and "why do I keep getting
the shaft?" variety that permit him to hide behind a victim smokescreen of
resentment and self-pity and thus to avoid coming to terms with his own
The psychology of addiction is by no means limited to
alcoholism. In order for the increasingly irrational and harmful effects of an
addiction not to stop the process dead in its tracks, a complex and
sophisticated set of ever-changing rationalizations, loopholes, exceptions and
special considerations must be developed to explain away what otherwise would be
inexplicable: the simple question that the addict is frequently asked by amazed
and bewildered others, "Why do you keep doing it?"
This of course is precisely the question to which the
addict has no truly rational or even sane answer. But though he has no good or
even sensible answer to the question "Why do you keep doing it?" the
addict is seldom at a loss for rationalizations, justifications, excuses and
explanations for his harmful and irrational behavior.
Addictive rationalizations and justifications usually
involve both denial or minimization of the actual negative consequences of the
addictive behavior together with a displacement of responsibility for it. The
addict begins to feel like a misunderstood, unfairly treated and criticized
victim of Fate - and of the mean-spiritedness of other people. Resentment,
self-pity and the resulting sense of addictive entitlement –"If I am
going to be treated this badly, I might as well drink, drug, or do whatever it
is I like to do!"- provide emergency justification for still more
irrational addictive behavior.
The effect of the various psychological defenses that
protect the addictive process is to prevent the addict from grasping what is
actually happening to him and thus to prevent him from learning from experience.
Individuals suffering from addictive illness display a remarkable inability to
"connect the dots," to see the big picture, and to recognize the
forest rather than the trees. They certainly realize that something is going
seriously wrong in their lives as the negative consequences of the addictive
process continue to mount up – but it is very difficult for them to see that
the addiction itself is the chief source of their multiplying difficulties. Only
in retrospect, after some period of recovery from their addiction, do they
usually begin to understand how pervasively harmful it was to them.
The shame, guilt, pride, dishonesty and personal
exceptionalism of the addict may result in a grandiose and defiant false
self that serves to protect the addict from his often intense underlying
feelings of personal inadequacy and guilt. This addictive false self functions
like a suit of armor to conceal the vulnerabilities of the real self – but in
many cases the protective armor grows so extensive and cumbersome that the real
self is completely covered up by it. The result is inner as well as
interpersonal alienation and the virtual cessation of emotional growth. And
because the addictive false self is constructed and maintained to meet the
requirements of the addiction and not of the living individual, the real self
becomes progressively isolated, diminished and devitalized as the addictive self
expands and grows stronger at the expense of the weakened and fearful real self.
Recovery from addiction thus means recovery of the real
self and the resultant resumption of healthy inner and interpersonal
connectedness and emotional growth. The addict is psychologically estranged not
only from others but first and foremost from himself. The overt and obvious
behaviors of the addict represent at most the tip of the iceberg so far as the
actual consequences of his addiction to him are concerned. (See
Away With Addiction?" for an analysis of the actual negative
consequences of any addictive process upon its host psyche.)
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