If you can’t walk a mile in the shoes of another, the least you can do is keep from judging them for the condition of their soul.
Addiction is an unfortunate and poorly understood part of being human. Despite our best efforts, we develop these addictions all the time. I’m not entirely sure why, but we tend to see addictions as compulsive and uncontrollable needs related to substances. We see and understand, at least on the surface, addictions to alcohol, drugs, tobacco and even food. Behavioral addiction remains cloaked in shame and secrecy. Because the compulsion doesn’t manifest in a substance, the addiction isn’t seen as real or uncontrollable.
Most of us accept alcoholism, drug abuse and even cigarettes as acceptable addictions. They are tangible and we’ve been conditioned to see them in that light. I surmise the detectable aspect of substance addictions is what helps us accept them. If we wanted, we can touch, see, and even taste the source of the addiction. We can look at a man like Lamar Odom, feel pity and not blame him entirely for his tragic condition. But what if his addiction wasn’t drugs and/or alcohol. What if it had been sex?
Addictive behavior is quite often more difficult for us to grasp than when a substance is involved. When a person is addicted to sex we call them whores and/or womanizers (or much worse). Compulsive gamblers are expected to just stop. Porn addicts are generally laughed at and derided. “Why can’t they just control themselves!?” Those afflicted by behavioral addictions are derided as weak and ineffectual people. They’re expected to just handle it. Get themselves under control. Deal with it.
Addiction, no matter the behavior, is chemical at its roots. The act, behavior or substance triggers something in our brains that causes us pleasure. The feeling may be fleeting or it may last quite a while, but it is still pleasure. There is a high and an accompanying low that leaves us feeling unfulfilled or unhappy. In many cases, self loathing and shame are an integral part of the low left after the high has ended. In that regard, people know what they are doing is hurting themselves and others and still are unable to stop the compulsive behavior that causes it.
We know that brain chemistry plays an integral role in addiction. It is not, however, the only reason people become addicts. Problems in our lives, mental illness, and low self esteem are just a few of the factors that can lead a person to compulsive and dangerous behavior. If we flip our thinking and stop looking at addiction as the disease but a symptom of a greater issue, we may be surprised at what we see.
We know there is a chemical alteration in the brain that causes addiction. We don’t understand all of the mechanisms and we certainly don’t have them all beaten. We know that gambling addiction pings many of the same parts of the brain as drug addictions. We’ve already seen that sugar lights up the same areas as cocaine. The question then is what else can we apply this to?
I know of people that are serial cheaters. Like a junky during a fix, they get a feeling of euphoria while it’s happening. Self loathing and regret soon follow, which are hallmark behaviors of addiction. They don’t want to cheat, hiding and covering their tracks as they go. They don’t like who they are and what they do but are somehow compelled to it by an unseen hand. These are men and women struggling with their identity and actions just the same as an alcoholic or gambler. They are self medicating, filling a void in their lives they may not know exists.
A little understanding can go a long way. It’s OK to be angry and resentful. We can be hurt and devastated and angry at the people we love for the hurt they’ve brought upon us due to their addictions. Those are valid and justified feelings that shouldn’t be forgotten or negated. Just as important is our capacity to forgive and move forward.
I’m not saying you must stay married to an alcoholic. I don’t believe every cheater should be forgiven and I certainly wouldn’t trust an addicted gambler with the monthly budget. I do believe, however, that we all have the capacity for change. If an addict is self aware enough to realize they need help, then the support of those they love and trust most can be a pivotal factor in their recovery.
It isn’t the addiction itself that destroys people, though it certainly plays an incredible part. The real killer is what pushes people to the them. The drug addict you step over on the street may be escaping a life of unimaginable abuse. The chain smoker may be dealing with her anxiety the only way she knows how. The alcoholic may be self medicating a life of sorrow and perceived inadequacy. The spouse that’s constantly caught cheating physically or emotionally may be masking deep self esteem and value problems.
If this piece has done nothing else, try to remember that addictions aren’t necessarily the disease, they’re simply the symptom of a greater problem. There are plenty of people in the world who’ve chosen the path of judment and castigation. The true measure of our humanity is our inclination toward empathy and compassion. If you can’t walk a mile in someone elses shoes, the least you can do is keep from judging them for the condition of their soul.
A version of this post was first run at Some Talk Of You And Me
Photo Credit: Kaushik Narasimhan/flickr