What would modern life be without our addictions? We binge eat and binge drink. Binge shopping turns into a show you can binge watch. (It's called Hoarders, and it's gloriously horrible. You’re welcome/I’m sorry.)
Don't worry though. I'm not here to take your addictions away from you, and the last thing in a million years I would do is shame you for any of this. If anything, I want to set your mind at ease. All these addictions are coping mechanisms for deeper issues and unresolved traumas. The thing you think is the problem is the solution to the problem. They allow us to cope with the realities of life. It’s neither kind nor useful to take the pacifier away from a screaming child, and it's no more helpful to shame an adult for their coping mechanisms. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk talks about binge eating as a solution to early abuse.
“How do you turn a newborn baby with all its promise and infinite capacities into a thirty-year-old homeless drunk? As with so many great discoveries, internist Vincent Felitti came across the answer to this question accidentally. In 1985 Felitti was chief of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventive Medicine in San Diego, which at the time was the largest medical screening program in the world. He was also running an obesity clinic that used a technique called “supplemented absolute fasting” to bring about dramatic weight loss without surgery. One day a twenty-eight-year-old nurse’s aide showed up in his office. Felitti accepted her claim that obesity was her principal problem and enrolled her in the program. Over the next fifty-one weeks her weight dropped from 408 pounds to 132 pounds.
However, when Felitti next saw her a few months later, she had regained more weight than he thought was biologically possible in such a short time. What had happened? It turned out that her newly svelte body had attracted a male coworker, who started to flirt with her and then suggested sex. She went home and began to eat. She stuffed herself during the day and ate while sleepwalking at night. When Felitti probed this extreme reaction, she revealed a lengthy incest history with her grandfather.
This was only the second case of incest Felitti had encountered in his twenty-three-year medical practice, and yet about ten days later he heard a similar story. As he and his team started to inquire more closely, they were shocked to discover that most of their morbidly obese patients had been sexually abused as children. They also uncovered a host of other family problems.”
– Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score
This suggests that if you set down one coping mechanism without healing the underlying trauma, you’ll pick up another. You can leave your judgement of yourself or others at the door for whatever you’re doing to get through life. You probably can't imagine what fresh hell drove someone to the tip of a heroin needle, or maybe you can because you lived it. Either way, send yourself some love for making it this far.
Wherever you find yourself, set an intention to open up the dark cupboards of your unconscious and little by little air out the old wounds that keep you replaying the old miseries as you do so, you will find it easier and easier to let the addictions drop away.
Notice when you've fallen into this spiral where the addictions feed and reinforce themselves. Alcohol is probably the most socially acceptable and simultaneously one of the worst creators of toxic behaviors. So I'll pick on it.
You're miserable at work, so you end each day with a bottle of wine. You choose it over spending time with people who love you going for a run or watching cartoons alone under a cuddly blanket. Again, there's no shame being dealt out here. We're just looking at what happens. Now let's look at what happens when you choose alcohol. What's the night next day like? I'm not even talking about the hangover, although that's part of it. I'm asking about overall life satisfaction. Are you creating a more creative and connected life or does the drama of the previous day get more knotted up into the next? That's a drama spiral. The complications of each day feed into this black hole that endlessly spins of its own volition. If you find yourself in one of these black holes, you're probably using at least a couple of addictions to keep you numb enough to the pain to stay there. For whatever reason, you don't believe you can break out of the black hole yet. And the pain of being there is more than you can bear to feel, so naturally you turn to substances, alcohol, food, sex, video games, phone, exercise to the point of injury, working yourself to death, et cetera.
We all know the basics of escaping these downward spirals. Sleep more, eat better exercise. It's just so damn hard to turn around your habits. Once you're caught, start really small. Identify the moment you were about to loop around. Once again, for alcohol, this might be picking up the corkscrew. Make an intention that you're allowed to open that bottle only after you've walked around the block. Then the next day you walk a little further. Once it's easier to get yourself out of the house before opening the bottle, you set the intention to run a mile or two. Slowly work yourself back into the habits you know work best for you, whether it's running or something else.
Most importantly, find support for healing the underlying trauma. The thing about the coping mechanisms is that they stop working over time. Alcohol no longer dulls like it used to. The thousandth hit never feels as good as the first. The porn loses its luster. At midlife, the pain really starts to break through and insist you deal with it. Your health starts to fail. Please find a healing professional to hold space for you. If you’ve tried talk therapy and it hasn’t gotten you where you want to be, know that there are so many other options, some that don’t use talk at all, which are better designed for processing depressions, anxiety and trauma. See our Further Support page.
See the light reversal > PRESENCE