Author’s Note: Before I go into this unorthodox theory of addiction, I want to first acknowledge the addiction-claimed lives of a few artists who have, in their gracious offering of their remarkable gifts, very deeply touched and inspired my heart and life: Amy Winehouse (struggled with crack cocaine/heroin abuse, alcoholism, anorexia and bulimia, died of alcohol poisoning), Whitney Houston (struggled with poly-substance abuse, died of cocaine overdose), Michael Jackson (died of drug induced cardiac arrest), Judy Garland (struggled with substance abuse, died of barbiturate overdose) Heath Ledger (suffered from depression, died of lethal combination of Rx drugs), Jimi Hendrix (struggled with poly-substance abuse, died of asphyxia under the influence of barbiturates), Janis Joplin (struggled with opiate addiction, died of heroin overdose), Cory Monteith (struggled with alcoholism and opiate addiction, died of heroin/alcohol toxicity), and, of course, Phillip Seymour Hoffman (struggled with opiate addiction, died of heroin overdose).
May your souls finally be at peace.
I know this may sound baffling to some of you, but there is wisdom in addiction.
For me, addiction was an incredibly unskillful, yet unbelievably brilliant, way to keep myself alive amidst a very deep and insufferable grief, depression, existential/spiritual angst and anxiety that would’ve otherwise killed me. Literally.
Addiction is a paradox: It’s a method of sustaining ourselves that gradually and ultimately takes our life away. Few people who struggle with the mental/emotional/physical/spiritual dis-ease that manifests as addiction get the chance to unpack the dynamics and hidden wisdom of the affliction. Doing so requires the suspension of dangerously naive attempts to mask, avoid, or tolerate the very things—often a traumatizing and paralyzing sense of panic, terror, insanity, death/dying—that overwhelm the afflicted’s psyche and inspired the addiction in the first place.
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” ~ Khalil Gibran
For many of us who’ve been kissed by grace and afforded the opportunity to step back from our addictions, we find that we’ve been doing our best to feed and satisfy the insatiable appetite of our hungry ghosts. Those past experiences of fear, trauma, loss, and sorrow that cast a lurking shadow in our present experience of living. Experiences that impacted us in such a way that the only way we could combat their threat to the integrity of our existence was to adopt the only kind of strategy that matched our skill-set for living. What made the most sense to us at the time.
We learn that recovery is the lessening, but not the absence, of addictive impulses, because the hungry ghosts are always there.
We discover that recovery is essentially learning how to relate to our hungry ghosts, and to ourselves, very differently. It’s cultivating the heart and courage to turn towards and listen to our demons. After a great deal of time, patience, commitment, and practice, we have facilitated a return to and remembering of ourselves. Then, we discover that the soulful howls that echo within the chambers of our being, haunting us and driving us toward insanely compulsive endeavors to silence and be rid of their maddening shrieks, are actually the cries of the old, young, wounded, abandoned, lost, and terrified parts of ourselves that are begging for our attention, love, and care.
“Our suffering has the capacity of showing us the path to liberation” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Recovery from addiction is a journey to self, and it’s far from easy. For some of us, addiction is the first arrow that points us toward our need to come home to and take care of ourselves. When we can see into the brilliant wisdom of addiction and find new ways of following it into our deep need for healing (usually with the assistance of someone trained and skilled in navigating such a path), our lives are transformed.
Unfortunately for some others, the wisdom and goodness of the impulse towards aliveness remains hidden by addiction, and the underlying starving needs for healing that go on to be unknown and unacknowledged—neglected—eventually cause precious souls and lives to be starved to death.
If you or anyone you love is struggling with addiction/addictive behaviors, consider the possibility that you/they are simply doing the best you/they can, or know how, to stay alive amidst a pain that no one else can see, and that only you/they can feel. Please also consider the fact that there are countless other ways to achieve the relief from that pain—and the fear of it—that addiction or addictive behavior currently provides.
Addiction is not limited to drug and/or alcohol abuse or dependency. There are certainly many forms of addiction that people struggle with, suffer from, and need/seek help/treatment for. It is important that the reader know in addition to chemical/substance abuse or dependency, addiction—as I understand, specialize in, and approach it as a psychotherapist—also includes the behavioral addictions of disordered eating, eating disorders, and compulsive exercise.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editorial Assistant: Guenevere Neufeld/Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: elephant archives