Addictions

I believe there is both a genetic and an environmental component to addictions. If you force-feed genetically different mice alcohol (or any other drug) some will later choose alcohol over water, others won’t. Or at least it takes much more force-feeding to addict them than it does their genetically pre-disposed kin. Some drugs make mice and people physically addicted more quickly than others, regardless of genetics. For example, nicotine and crack cocaine are powerful addictors; marijuana far less so.

Addiction is both physical and psychological. An addict needs a drug to “get high” or “numb out” for psychological reasons. Habituation or tolerance means that body chemistry has adapted to the drug and there is no longer any high involved in taking the original amount. Dependence has nothing to do with getting high; it just means that your body and psyche need the drug to avoid withdrawal and maintain the state it now considers “normal.” Addicts “chase the high” by increasing the amount of the drug.

The other pre-disposing component is emotional pain. (Physical pain seldom creates addictions, even when drugs are used for a long time.) Ritual abuse survivors have a deep well of intense emotional pain and it makes sense that we learn at an early age to do most anything we can think of to reduce that pain, even temporarily. We learn to trance out, to dissociate, and to split, and we learn which substances and activities block the anguish.

I don’t think I have ever met an RA survivor who was not addicted to something — usually several somethings. If it isn’t a substance that changes brain chemistry directly, it’s an activity that releases a rush of endorphins, which are the body’s own pain killers. Gambling and running are examples. My drug of choice is nicotine, followed not far behind by food and trance-inducing repetitive activities, like solitaire.

We can lay the blame for our addictions on our ancestors for the genes they gave us and on our perpetrators for the torture they subjected us to. We have been “set up” and it is not our fault that we have become addicts. It is no more our fault than is being sterile from childhood STDs or having a permanent limp from an unset broken bone.

Although addictions aren’t our fault, they are ours to live with responsibly. How we handle them will determine the length and quality of our lives. Addictions are incredibly destructive and sooner or later cause more pain than they relieve. It isn’t fair. It’s just one more thing that isn’t fair, but that’s the way it is.

Fortunately there is much more public awareness about addictions than there was fifty years ago. AA has saved too many lives to count, and AA’s Twelve Steps have been adapted to other addictions and conditions. No matter what you suffer from, you will probably be able to find a Twelve-Step group to help you cope and feel less alone and victimized. There you can learn how to stop treating addictions as a guilty secret and how to get support for facing them and doing something about them.

I’d like to end with one last thought about addictions. There are non-harmful ways of soothing ourselves when we are in pain, but we didn’t learn them as children. That isn’t our fault, either. Part of dealing with addictions is to learn these new, healthier ways of managing our pain. It isn’t necessary to white-knuckle it through to long-term abstinence. It’s more sensible and kinder to yourself to learn the new ways as you are leaving behind the old behaviors.

from Survivorship Journal Volume 10 Number 2

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