Addiction’s a Jingle Jangle

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Coffee and biscuits in the atrium then the delegates move into the large lecure theatre.Professor McEwan welcomes them, expresses her pleasure that so many experts are assembled in the same venue. She is delighted to introduce the world famous Emeritus Professor Nathan Bronowski, acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authority on addiction. Fulsome applause accompanies his walk to the podium. Then follows an avuncular  talk interspersed with good humour which brings ripples of appreciate chuckling from the audience. Beautiful slides on the big screen bring images of complex neural activity, statistics and the chemical structures of the latest pharmaceutical medications which evidence has shown to be efficacious. He is humble enough in his lecture to acknowledge the work of others in the field, but he deftly dismisses their theories almost with sadness.

The day proceeds with further lectures and workshops in which various experts gather by speciality. A delicious banquet is provided in the university’s great hall in the evening, then delegates retire to the several bars. Somewhat ironically, some of them fail to hide their hopeless addiction to alcohol and make fools of themselves. Others, more fortunate, bond in pairs that find their way to the bedroom.

The second day, a little less enjoyable for those nursing hangovers or guilt, ends with Professor McEwan’s rapturous celebration of how successful her conference has been. The delegates disperse. Journalists from the BBC and the world’s leading media send their stories through the ether to sub-editors who will headline them with claims that huge advances in the treatment of addiction have been discovered. Within a week, everybody will have forgotten the conference and the media stories – except for Professor McEwan who will already be thinking about her next big event as she continues her ruthless climb towards the top of the academic tree. So it goes.

The proceedings of the conference are made available in a publication which, like most academic publications, costs a great deal of money to compensate for the fact that there will be very few buyers and even less readers. Perhaps a PhD student will discover it in a few years’ time and refer copiously to it safe in the knowledge that neither his supervisors nor the world at large will have the slightest inclination to examine the primary material. The said student may with equal safety discover and refer to perhaps a hundred or two such dusty tomes in a university library, and go on to produce a thesis which does indeed add ‘an original contribution’ to the field of research, a remarkable tapestry of totally random material made whole and coherent through the application of academic discourse. Such tapestries – and there are very many of them – reveal great skills of weaving and stitching  If the successful PhD candidate  is lucky and possesses rudimentary knowledge of self-promotion the thesis may be the basis of a reputation such that other academics and journalists will regard him or her as an authority. So it goes.

Those of us who are not academics and who lack the humility to look up to them, are not lacking in access to experts on addiction. Since most people are addicted to something or other these days, not surprisingly there is money to be made. Anybody can set themselves up as a private therapist, for instance. With some capital you can establish a recovery retreat centred around holistic principles and involving a diet almost totally of watercress: you could charge, say, £2000 a week. In publishing, there are so many magazine and newspaper articles, so many books that will cure you in a week, so much drivel on social media (a place people go to when they have lost the capacity to live in the world), so much of it all that I lack the will to say more (although doubtless a different kind of person may find it a rich area for PhD enhancement). Suffice it to say you could end your life still addicted having spent it reading about how to beat addiction or paying a fortune to people to beat addiction for you. Or eating watercress.

 

But addiction isn’t funny. And though it’s fine to be lighthearted about academia, we acknowledge too that getting a PhD, doing research are not easy. Most are doing their best to add a drop to the ocean of knowledge, most are passionate about their work, many are deeply motivated by wanting to make the world a better place. Like addicts, academics, are human beings first. An addict or an academic may be a murderer or a saint. Anyway, addiction isn’t something to be treated lightly. It’s certainly unlikely too that all the academic research in the world has made or is likely to make any immediate difference to an actual addict, a unique human addict. ‘Expert’ theorists of addiction argue wih other, often vehemently, defending their position and attacking their ‘opponents’. The situation is as bad or worse for us ordinary mortals who equally support this idea and strongly oppose that idea. 12 steps enthusiasts can be unshakeable in their belief of the power of the programme; others have a strong aversion to it. ‘Born again’ ex-addicts can be evangelistic: for them it’s not enough to have recovered, they have a mission to convert those left behind with ‘the indusputable truth of the way’.

In fact, addiction is a messy concept. We can get rid of the cases where it’s used metaphorically such that people say they are addicted to Game of Thrones or chocolate. We can be left with a clear idea of devestating addiction where life is slowly destroyed at many levels, but it’s still a pretty tangled concept. A jingle-jangle as Bob Dylan refers to in Hey, Mr Tambourine Man. The experience, the being, of addiction can’t be categorised neatly, objectively. Like severe depression (which often precedes, accompanies or follows addiction) the experience is different for every person. Even a gifted writer has trouble explaining what it is or was like for her or him, but there are some excellent addiction memoirs which demonstrate the uniqueness of the experience for each unique person. (There are also many more dreadful memoirs. Not everybody has the gift of writing well).

Nevertheless, there are some commonalities which most addicts would recognise. Some of these factors are overlooked, ignored or counted as unimportant in therapy and research. It is much more straightforward to categorise addiction as ‘impuse control disorder’ or to concentrate on the neural pathways involved in orbitofrontal cortical mediation: such precise ‘scientific’ approaches are neat and can be investigated, and do add something to understanding addiction. But they’re not the complete picture by any means. Many of the factors overlooked are subjective feelings which cannot be seen by the scientific gaze.

 

We could call these factors ‘the human factors’ since they appear in everybody, not only people suffering with addiction (and incidentally, ‘addict’ is a word loaded with negative connotations which is when used here is simply for brevity. The language of mental health is a serious topic in its own right).

In everyday language we are familiar with the word ‘shame’ which refers to a fear of what other people think of our wrong actions The word ‘guilt’ refers to our conscience, it’s a negative feeling brought on by judging ourselves. In addiction, both of these factors are greatly amplified, partly because of the damage caused to self and others, partly because the addicted person’s mind will be hyper-vigilant, in extreme anxiety which over-arouses negative feelings. And partly because of stigma – related to shame, the shame that society stigmatises, ‘casts out’ the class of people with addictions, and related to guilt because of self-stigmatisation. The addicted person as a member of society has internalised the norms and values of the culture, and is then in the terrible situation of ‘casting out’ themselves as worthless, not fit to be in public. It is not unusual to hear of people in such extreme states talk of hating themselves. Yet how can one ‘recover’ if one feels deeply that one is worthless? And, unsurprisingly, it is to be expected that people then feel ashamed of being ashamed like this, ashamed of feeling worthless – so they have to put on some sort of front, a mask just to survive in the family, in public, in the doctor’s office.

In many cases, especially in connection with gambling addiction, it will not be only the guilt, the shame, the loss of dignity and self-respect that goes with addiction. The person may well have done things that anybody would feel ashamed or guilty about. especially theft, conning people, perhaps violence.

Clinically the person will suffer to varying degrees from depression and anxiety. There may be complex underlying mental health issues that have never been diagnosed. Mental distress such as chronic depression may have been what led a person into addiction in the first place, a means of relieving pain through self-medication. Adverse childhood experiences are known to be particularly strongly correlated with not only addiction but other adult problems, and often the person may suffer from addiction as well as developmental problems. In the case of gambling addiction there is an extremely high correlation with alcohol dependence and/or other drug dependence.

People with addictions often present with what are called ‘multiple and complex problems’. Some are mentioned above. Others include imprisonment, homelessness, severe debt and long term unemployment.

We’re a long way from the lecture theatre and the academic research. In each individual any or all of the above factors may ‘cross cut’ through the central problem of addiction. It’s a reasonable supposition to claim that there are many who face a much harder road to ‘recovery’ than others. Reasonable but not always the case. Experience demonstrates that some facing the most severe obstacles not only beat addiction but turn their lives around. On the other hand, some who seem to ‘have everything going for them’ find it impossible to overcome their addiction. Sadly, not everybody does recover. But the majority do, and of that majority most do it ‘on their own’ with little or no help from doctors, support groups, books or social media gurus.

To label somebody an ‘addict’ is wrong not only because it carries a lot of negative stigma but because it misses the point that somebody suffering with an addiction is a unique person first and foremost, with a complex and singular individuality. There are therapists, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and others who can relate to the human factors, and through their art (as opposed to their science) provide some help. Help but not a magic wand. Maybe medication is a necessary help. Maybe being housed or helped with money worries. Maybe just being treated with respect and loved.

 

 

 

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Anxiety and Time

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Anxiety is a normal and essential part of life. It acts as a motivator. It is a function of the ancient need for vigilance, an evolutionary ‘must have’. As a part of the full spectrum of our lives we feel anxious much of the time. We worry about our children, about having to gave a talk in public, about a job interview. Wemay have lef the house then worry that we have not locked doors and windows, or that we have left the oven on.

However, anxiety goes beyond the normal range for millions of people. Anxiety is one of the commonest mental health conditions. Depression often accompanies anxiety. Anxiety is not simply a ‘mental’ state: it affects, and is affected by, the body and all its organs. . A hangover – which is a temporary illness – often brings severe anxiety to join its unwelcome symptoms. Severe anxiety, apprehension of doom or death, accompanies some heart attacks.

Among clinical anxiety orders is included a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder, a chronic unease and state of worry. Anxiety can directly affect the body with digestive disorders, ‘butterflies in the stomach’, irregular heart beat. A very intense and unpleasant experience of anxiety is in panic attacks. In panic disorders one may feel that one is about to die, that something dreadful is about to happen, even that one is abou to die. Obsessive compulsive disorder is classed as a severe anxiety disorder.

There is no neat line between ‘ordinary’ and ‘clinical’ anxiety. Mental ‘disorders’ are best seen as extremes on a spectrum of normal human experience, exremes which have a significant impact upon quality of life and funcioning. Such extremes are treated by medication, counselling and ‘talking therapies’ such as cognitive behavioural therapy.

Some people are more anxious than others because of their constitution, the genetic factors: they are in higher states of arousal, classically the condition of introverts who are uncomfortable with too much social interaction; shyness is a form of anxiety. Others are made anxious by experience. Adverse childhood experience is a key factor: abuse, inadequate parenting, trauma in a young child who lacks all the adult defences may scar permanently. Such childhood experiences can lead to a range of other problems later in life including addiction.

One of the commonest reasons for addiction taking root is given by the self-medication hypothesis. This essential states that a mood of distress such as anxiety is found to be relieved by a substance or behaviour such as gambling. Not all addiction follows this course, but where it does, recovery must take account of the underlying factors.

There are other ways of looking at anxiety than through  medical or therapeutic perspectives. For instance, it’s interesting to note that the word itself has its roots in the same Latin word which means anger, and that Latin root itself came from a meaning of choking or strangling. Anger itself is one of our basic emotions, a response to danger which is often immediate and without thought. It’s not hard to feel how some forms of anxiety are experienced as an angry turmoil. Anger is strongly related to fear. Anxiety has been likened to fear ‘without an object’, a vague but very uneasy feeling of fear that something very dangerous but ubknown is very near. When a person is anxious, having no object to be fearful of, they may ease their anxiety by turning it into fear of a specific object. Hatred and social evils such as racism are related to this process wherein a deeply anxious, fearful person projects anger towards an object.

In those many parts of the world where chronic absolute poverty, starvation, war and other horrors exist, everyday life is largely fearful of specifics. Where is the next mouthful of food coming from? Will the soldiers come tonight? But in rich nations here basic material needs are largely satisfied, for many who have everything there remains a deep underlying unease. hen all the material needs are satisfied what is the person left with? Many people prosper and live satisfying lives; many with similar material security do not. A chronic anxiety fills the days. The poet W.H.Auden coined the term ‘The Age of Anxiety’ for a long poem in the 1930s.

The sense of this sort of anxiety – unexplained fear – is accompanied by a sense of emptiness. The experience can be one of racing thoughts all going nowhere, restlessness, inability to be at peace with oneself and the world. One reason that such unease occurs in rich countries is that we have the luxury or horror of facing fundamental human problems. We spend a lot of mental energy, for instance, pushing down the fact that not only are we going to die but e may die in the next moment. We learn to block feelings of dread when people close to us suffer and die. Alone, we seek distractions to stop thinking deeply. Much – much more! – has been written around such cheerful points by philosophers and others, but the essential point is that everyone faces these questions or, more commonly, refuses to face them.

Addicts are no different. When you label someone an addict you often disguise the fact that they are as much a human being as anyone else. If you label someone a doctor, you can forget that more importantly they are a human being. In some ways people who are addicts are extreme examples of individuals who have sought and found a means of escaping a world that is ultimately meaningless. The world escaped from is full of anxiety, suffering, death – and the hard, hard work of getting along with other people (‘Hell is other people,’ the philosopher Sartre wrote). The addictive moment, when an addict engages with the drink or the gambling machine, is also an escape from time. Time is the demon at the heart of anxiety. It is the fear that the future, the next hour, the next minute, the next second will bring something overwhelmingly dreadful. The worst anxiety is Dread.

Starting in the United States, the phrase ‘the machine zone’ was employed to refer to the unique state of being between gambling machine and user. The zone is a time one more than a place one, or rather a timeless zone. All the Dread and anxiety associated with time dissolves. The ‘zone’ is a double whammy. It removes the deep negative anxiety of time and provides a positive experience of intense power, independence from the flow of time, and something akin to those ecstatic moments produced by drugs and some religious rites. The latter themselves may be deemed a form of addiction. To a lesser extent, the ‘ordinary punter’ may escape anxiety by shopping, bargain hunting, social media, internet addiction, hoarding, proud housekeeping, fooball, reading, climbing, exercise, over-eating… Addiction seen this way is an extreme example, a very harmful one, of ordinary human behaviour. Most people have a range of distractions, some healthy and some not, but addicts centre their lives around one major objec of desire.

The wealth of modern rich economies is built less on coal and steel than on consumer products. Businesses that provide these products to a large extent reach the need of customers to chase distractions from the pressures of life, and to fill what would otherwise be a terrible emptiness. Business practice is as much a reflection as a driver of culture, its own practice dependent upon and informed by the culture(s) we all live in. Some business, however, also sets out to exploit vulnerable consumers, and this can be seen in financial products including respectable high street names credit offers. The worst cases are exorbitant interest fees for loans and cheating old people of their savings and homes. In he case of gambling and drinks industries it appears that those most vulnerable to harm are exploited. Cheap high strength alcohol is made available for pocket money prices.

Moving towards a conclusion now, i can be argued that states like anxiety and depression are common experiences and we seek ways to escape them. Some ways are relativelt harmless but addiction brings with it not only severe life and health problems but an increase in both anxiety and depression. Addictive engagement seems to bring about a quick way of switching moods very quickly, that switch is the attraction. This isn’t the case for everybody: addiction is a complex condition dependent on many factors peculiar to the individual. But it’s certainly true that many people have felt ‘lost’, anxious, depressed, unable to concentrate as thoughts race. These feelings are not uncommon in society as a whole. Many who are a long way from clinical anxiety and addiction nevertheless live a life permeated by unease, a vague pervading anxiety. In the case of full blown addiction, this unease is intensely powerful and negative, and the only sure ‘way out’ seems to be the ‘fix’ which will lead, of course, to deeper anxiety, guilt, shame, all the impossible attributes of feeling helpless, powerless in the drive to do the one thing one desperately does not want to do.

Those of us who have known addiction or are struggling with it may acknowledge that we have not learned the coping strategies of facing everyday unease. The psychiatrist Sigmund Freud said that his therapy was designed simply to move people from ‘neurosis’ to ‘common unhappiness’. Even the happiest, most contented people have periods and episodes of unhappiness and unease, but they have found positive things in life against the negative background – family, music, donkey racing, clmbing, music, reading, exercise, volunteering, whatever. Recovered or recovering addicts lapse often because the negative unease persists, and perhaps it’s here that medication or other therapies are most important. But when people do recover they don’t become saints or bundles of joy: they slowly come to terms with the anxiety and unease that is part of the package that all humans have to live with to be alive.

Addiction and Being

The word ‘addiction’ started life in Roman times. A slave was addicted to a master by a formal contract. In mediaeval times monks wre similarly ‘addicted’ to God. In both the case of slave and monk, the whole being was given away. One’s will, one’s desires, one’s idetity were no longer one’s own. Every thought and action was under the sway of Master or God. One had given oneself away, one had lost oneself. All choices, all decisions such as they were in a very limited spectrum were determined by the Other.

Similarly, today, we talk of addicts to substances or behaviours as having lost their self, having given themselves away. All thoughts, feelings, actions are determined by the centrality of the Master, God, Other. Just as every aspect of a slave’s or monk’s life was determined beyond themselves, so the modern addict is enslaved in every aspect of their life to the object of their addiction.

That is why those who talk of the addict’s responsibility and choice are not only cruel, they are ignorant of the nature of addiction. Addiction is a state of being in which one has disowned oneself. A slave would have many moments of hating the Master, of wishing to be free, yet they were bound firmly. A monk may waver in his faith, wish to be free of the strict demands of God, but having given himself over he must endure.

We do indeed talk today of an adict’s being enslaved to the object of their addiction. We may say too, for instance, that alcohol is a drinker’s god.Yet there is a big difference between today’s addicts and the original ones of slavery and monasticism. An addict today can become free.

The experience of most addicts who start on the road to freedom is important. Often, usually, by will power alone they can stop the behaviour they wish to be free of. But then they relapse. Clever scientists suggest that the brain has ‘pathways’ which strongly affect our behaviour. Addictive pathways are literally, biologically laid down in the brain and are powerful. Linkages between the parts of the brain that control impulses are weakened. The good news is that these ‘pathways’ can be altered. The brain is said to be ‘plastic’. It is not fixed, but constantly changing in the light of new learning.

Some evidence suggests that relying on will power alone to defeat addiction can be counter-productive for every time you fight the brain pathways they fight back! There are evangelical claims that such and such a therapy – 12 steps for instance – is the one and only way to ‘defeat’ addiction. Yet words like ‘defeat’ suggest fighting, using yourself to fight yourself. All addicts know this dreadful experience of inner struggle, trying not to do what they don’t want to do while at the same time wanting to do it!

Another aspect of addiction, depending on how long it has lasted, is that every part of life has adapted to it. With the object of desire as the central command all else revolves around it: relationships, work, money, leisure, love. An addict may function in society, have a job and family, but she will place these as second to the object of desire. That is why we hear of ‘trusted’ employees stealing from work, husbands stealing from wives, betrayal, broken promises, bankruptcy. Substance addicts will slowly be committing suicide via the damage to their bodies. Actual suicide may occur in the case of addicts who have struggled so hard for so long against themselves and lost.

An addict who starts young will never learn healthy relationship and social skills, monetary skills, impulse control skills. Recovering from addiction needs much, much more than simply stopping. It may mean learning from scratch what was never learned through natural maturation. On the other hand, those who have been addicted for a short period may have the foundations from earlier life to return to and build upon.

It is often overlooked that there is a strong recognition that most addicts recover by themselves, without any input from specialist services or support groups (and it is sadly worth pointing out too that many who enter specialist services and support groups do not recover. There may be something very naive – if very profitable – in private clinics’ offering 12 weeks ‘recovery’ cures). Young people who are addicted in their energetic teens and 20s are known to ‘mature out’ when they start a family, settle into employment and replace one way of being with a healthier way of being. The famous study of Vietnam soldiers, addicted to heroin in Nam, shows that 80% of them recovered naturally when they returned from the war to their families. A ‘bad’ thing is wiped out by a ‘good’ thing.

One of the great potential benefits of any recovery method is that the addict has taken responsibility for owning their condition. Remember, there are many millions of addicts who deny their condition at first: some will go to the grave denying it. For some, and by now means all, group meetings provide a weekly or daily regularity that has been missing in life. For some, by no means all, the very sociability of groups takes the addict from the well known deep self-centred thinking to the beginning of entering the world of social interaction. These benefits, rather than the particular programme, may be what accounts for their success for some, but by no means all.

There is absolutely no such thing as a typical addict. Somebody with an addiction has a unique history, is a unique person. Yet one may perhaps allude to a certain common problem facing some in the early stages of recovery. It’s almost like dread. You’e done three, six, twelve months but you feel empty, lost, nothing grabs your interest. Not uncommonly there is a state of clinical depression and/or anxiety. Underlying mental health conditions which brought about addiction in the first place may surface. These can be treated clinically. But there is also often a deep unease at the level of being. After years sealed off from life, what is life? What is my life? I’ve stopped drinking or gambling or my sex addiction but my life doesn’t feel any better for it. What’s the point? Remember that such feelings will amost always be accompanied by intense negative feelings of guilt, shame and bitter self-recrimination.

The bad news is that there is no magic answer, whatever evangelical gurus or sellers of this or that method say. Addiction is every bit as devestating as cancer in those cases where statistics show the numbers that sadly don’t make it out. The better news is that most people do recover, more often on their own than not. And one thing seems to help above all others. Whether with or without support, it’s finding healthier, deep meanings to life. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived most of the second world war in concentration camps because he was used as a doctor. He wrote a book* in which his central insight is that the dreadful conditions of the camps brought people to their kneees, physically, mentally and spiritually Yet some died very quickly. Others in identical circumstances survived. Those who survived, he said, had deep within them some core meanng to their lives; for some it was religion, for others it was their family outside the camps, for some it was music or literature or writing, for some it was helping others. This idea of having a deep meaning for being (or reasons to be alive) is seen as crucial to surviving the sufferings life throws our way.

Addicts by the nature of addiction have developed a specific sense of time peculiar to addiction. The time of the ordinary world is filled with boredom or threat, but the immediacy of engagement with the object of desire shuts out that ordinary world. In the ordinary world the biggest dread is not of pain but of meaningless, something much deeper and more intense than boredom. Unease with time is relieved by triggering the addictive process which provides not only a relief from unease but a sharp and powerful pulse of energetic feeling. (This process is described particularly acutely in the experience of playing electronic gambling machines: it’s called ‘being in the machine zone’. Note the word being).

Recovery has to come to terms with recovery from that addictive way of handling time. It means finding meaning in long term feeling, thinking, doing, being. For some it may need no more than becoming ‘addicted’ to the love of one’s children and grandchildren. For others, trainspotting is enough. But after the years of fury, and the early period of srtuggling recovery, it is true that, after all, time heals.

 

* Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning