Bruce Sanguin digs deep beneath the surface of addiction. What he finds there is surprisingly common and seductively ordinary.
It’s not until I exit the throes of addiction I can even see that I’m addicted.
Sometimes, when we’re really deep into addiction, we need others to see on our behalf what we refuse to see. When we’re hooked, the mind of addiction doesn’t want us to believe it, or come off the substance, process, or behaviour to which we’re addicted. Our rationalizations are endless.
One of the opportunities afforded me by my chosen path of changing just about everything in my life in this past year—the leaving of a many year career and marriage for new vocation and relationship—has been the examination of my addictive tendencies. For example, I’ve always known that I actually loved the feeling of being drunk.
I never got anywhere near to full-blown alcoholism, but I sure did love my demon rum in my 20′s and 30′s, and then my wine. I’ve since realized that I used booze to compensate for social awkwardness. I “came out of my shell” after a few. There was even a spiritual dimension to the drunken state for me. I felt strangely reunited with the world—what it was like to be in the world without fear, and what it was like was blissful.
I actually regretted the turning in my life, when I found that even the slightest amount of booze left me with a head-ache. I started drinking less and less, deeming that the avoidance of pain was worth the diminishing amount of pleasure I received from a couple glasses of wine.
So today, I virtually don’t drink. But being off alcohol made me realize that I also got addicted to the social rituals associated with the addiction itself. I became an amateur connoisseur of wine. It’s not like I could tell the difference between a ’65 and a ’82 Merlot, but enough so that I enjoyed the banter with my local fine wine guy. So that social ritual is gone. And after a movie it’s just not the same to go for a drink and have a cranberry soda, or watch the Superbowl while drinking Perrier.
The upshot is that when you start removing the addictive substance and possibly the social rituals which occasioned the use of booze, you come face to face with deeper questions, like, what does the booze do for me? How would I use my time if I’m not doing this? And most importantly what are these nasty feelings and thoughts that arise when I drop the addictive substance?
I regard addiction as any substance, behaviour, or process around which I organize my life compulsively. I remember driving for miles looking for decent coffee before I set out early on a car trip, or organizing my day so that I’d end up near the place that roasted their beans fresh and didn’t over-roast like Starbucks. Here again, separate and apart from the addictive nature of caffeine, the loss of the social rituals of getting high at my favourite coffee place (49th Parallel in Vancouver), or brewing it just right first thing in the morning, leaves me feeling empty, disoriented, and with a lot of time on my hands. When you start using that time to obsess about the latte you are going without, chances are you are dealing with an addiction.
As for caffeine itself, I’ve found it to be a tougher nut to crack than alcohol. I haven’t quite come off it. Once a week or so, I’ll have a Chai or a black tea. (Did you catch the “or so” — that’s the addictive mind). My primary motivation for coming off caffeine is that I have trouble sleeping. But once you start coming off a substance, it’s a great spiritual practice to simply observe all of the other side “benefits”.
For example, I got dependent on caffeine in order to write. Whether it’s true or not, I came to associate the free flow of ideas with a shot or four of the chemical. Another “benefit”? A caffeine-induced high leaves me feeling totally self-sufficient and independent. I walk around in bubble of isolation, in my head, and less connected to what my body and heart might want. I’m Since coming off of it, I notice that I need more direct connection with my partner.
Caffeine was compensating for my fears of intimacy. It was supporting my illusion that I could live without intimacy, and helping me to avoid all the historic, underlying issues related to intimate connection.
It’s not until you start coming off of some of these things that you are able to see the societal context of addiction. What’s the impact of a city like Vancouver, which may be the coffee capital of the world, consisting of a citizenship that is addicted to caffeine? I wonder the same about booze.
I’m not riding a high horse here, because as you have read, the reasons I’m trying to come off these substances, are not all that virtuous. It was driven by selfish avoidance of pain. But it’s difficult to understand how our policy-makers, voters, mothers and fathers are able to make decisions that are grounded in what life wants when these substances keep us from knowing what that is—because we’re not dealing with the underlying trauma that these substances often compensate for.
The list of things I’m coming off on also include sugar, television, and my Iphone and computer. Did you know that research has shown that rats will prefer sugar to cocaine? Try coming off it some time—even for a day.
Have you ever noticed the relationship between the need for sweetness in our relationships and the consumption of sugar? How about a quick stop for one of those Lucky’s apple fritters with bacon bits? (Sounds gross, I know, but try it. No don’t). When you stop sugar, you may begin to notice that you turn to friends and your partner to get your sweetness. Or, more ominously, you begin to notice that it’s not actually available in your relationships, and then you are into some pretty real stuff. What the hell, what’s one more cookie?
As for television, I found that I had vast amounts of time, especially in the evening, that initially felt like a gaping void in my life. I miss the big sporting events, (like the Australian Open), but overall this has been a surprisingly easy ritual to let go of. Still, the removal of such a ritual leaves you with more time—more solitude—and it’s a great opportunity to find out exactly why it’s so difficult spending quality time with oneself.
And how are you doing with your cellphone? Love my cell phone. I’m pretty sure that next email or text is absolutely going to change my life. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to get into the habit of clustering my emails and text into a couple of periods of the day. If you are at a dinner party and you can’t put the damned cell phone down, you are mainlining, face it. And face what you are not facing. Are you bored?
I’m thinking that most of us spiritual-minded folks need to back up a step when it comes to spiritual practice. Meditation is great, but if our bio-spiritual systems are perpetually wired, good luck quieting your mind.
Ancient spiritual masters like Jesus and Buddha simply didn’t have to cope with number of addictive possibilities back then. But they were both concerned with the path of freedom, inviting us to be liberating from the compulsions that keep us enslaved.
The challenge is even greater today than when these masters walked the earth. They didn’t have to deal with what psychologist, Dierdre Barrett (Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose” 2010) called supernormal stimuli. Check out this youtube video.
Our earliest evolutionary instincts are being exploited at every turn by advertising to keep us hooked. Like it or not, it’s spiritual battle. Or at least it’s gritty spiritual practice, if we are going to realize our gift of freedom.
The practice isn’t one of exercising willpower to come off all of our addictions all at once, though you’re free to give it a shot. It’s a matter in the first place of witnessing and being honest. Just choose one, say caffeine, give it up for one day, and watch your cravings. Then try two days a week withoutit. Then start in on alcohol, etc. Keep a journal. Pay attention to whatever thoughts, feelings, and behaviours come up or want to come up.
These constitute our work. They form the basis of what our practice needs to be in preparation for other spiritual practices like meditation. You can’t do an end run around them. Why would we want to? They’re gold, because in the process of coming off of them, all your compulsions, fears, unresolved trauma, etc. are being presented to you on a silver platter. Here then is the key to your freedom.
Photos: ‘Addicted to Love’ Album Cover Wicki Commons; coffee: Flickr/bdthomas