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  • Jason McCarty

We’re All Addicts

I believe a major problem in how the general public, as well as some professionals, sees addiction is that it is too narrowly defined. When we say the word “addiction” most people just think of an alcoholic or drug addict. Some might think about sex addiction or gambling, but overall we tend to only think about these more drastic and extreme degrees of addiction. I would like to pose that addiction is a universal human condition. None of us escape its reality, none of us escape its process in our lives – we are all addicts.

What do I mean by this? Well, not everyone has the addictions I mentioned above, but that does not mean there is not something universal and quite human in the process of addiction. I personally have not had a chemical addiction or any of what I would call addictions with a capital “A.” But as I have done this work with folks I constantly try to get involved in the process, to understand it, experience it. Since doing that I have noticed many ways in which this process takes place in my life every day. I believe we all live with lower case “a” addictions that can grow into upper case addictions or stay at more low-level degrees. We focus on chemical addictions because they more obviously ruin lives, but we miss really discussing and noticing the more subtle addictions in our lives.

Irvin Yalom, a psychiatrist who has done existential psychotherapy for many years, wrote a book on the subject and identified four major existential concerns we as human beings struggle with: death, freedom, isolation and meaninglessness. Some other concerns within those and important to existential psychology are responsibility and authenticity. I would like to add addiction to these major human concerns. They are called concerns because we must address them in our lives as human beings if we are to fully engage in being human. I never thought I would work in addictions work since I had never had a major addiction and no one in my immediate family had either (which is why lots of people get into addictions work) but I have found addictions quite fascinating in illuminating so many major existential and psychological issues for people. In many ways I have come to see addiction as a gift from one’s psyche because that person otherwise might never have dealt with some of the major underlying issues in his/her life (i.e. abuse, neglect, divorce, job loss, death and loss, spiritual emptiness, etc). Basically the addictions with an upper case “A” get people to show up to their lives and honor them. You can no longer escape your life. Similarly, lower case addictions can present the same type of experience if we know how to look for it.

So what is it that we are all doing that makes addiction a human concern? What makes addiction universal? One word that helps to sum this up is “grasping.” We all grasp in our lives. We look to fill up some deprived place in our bodies, psyches, or spirits. Whether we look to food, sex, adrenaline, love, acceptance, happiness, toys, drugs, alcohol, or work, we tend to have something in our lives that we grasp for. Buddhism addresses this subject very well in its discussion of attachment to these things and how we grasp for them. Our mind is constantly grasping. Spend some time in the next couple days just noticing your mind, or the center of your body, and notice how it grasps. There are obvious degrees to this and I am not saying it is all bad in any way. This is also how we know what we want or need, which is a good thing. But when it can become problematic or distracting is when it is something we cannot ignore that we don’t necessarily NEED. Hunger for food is grasping for something we need but grasping for our boss’s acceptance is not. Grasping is something we do internally, something that can drive our behavior and attitude and not even really notice it. This is why I believe it is one of the major human concerns. The Judeo-Christian tradition would say we are making these things idols in our lives or putting something where God/Jesus belongs. History has produced many philosophies around this idea of grasping or thinking something outside of ourselves is going to make us happy or quench our emptiness. It is up to us to realize this process so that we can better understand our behavior and what deeper needs really need to be met.

The author Stephen Batchelor, in his book Buddhism Without Beliefs, speaks of his draw to Buddhism as a way of living human life and explains that what the Buddha taught was a way of existential confrontation as opposed to existential consolation. More theistic traditions would focus more on existential consolation. I’m not sure we have to be exclusive here, and many people might be quite happy with existential consolation. The point being, we do need to confront our human lives – they are right in front of us. So how are we going to do that? Awareness. How to become more aware is a journey and a search for each individual. I will leave that process up to you. But focusing on the reality that we experience addiction everyday is something I believe all human beings need to do in order to more fully engage life and experience inner peace.

Lastly, addiction exists on a continuum as well as in degrees. If we continue to only see addiction as a drug addict on the street we will never figure out as a society how to really help deal with this issue. We must see ourselves in the other. We must understand that that person is just further down the continuum than we are at the moment. We must understand that we are not that different in how we engage in the addictive or grasping process. It is a process not a fixed label or disease. And if you really like the word disease than I would encourage you to see it more as a fundamental human concern that has become more severe – a dis-ease in the existence of one person – not a medical disease.

Understanding addiction this way will help our community to better understand and help deal with upper case addictions, and it will help each individual to become more aware of the ways in which they are grasping for something that will never bring them inner peace. Ask yourself these questions when you are in that place: “what does this grasping REALLY need right now?” or “if I go deeper into this internal experiencing of NEED what do I find?”

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