Having people close to me who have struggled with addiction, I sometimes think I have become somewhat of an expert on the subject. That is, until I read the next authoritative-sounding book or article, and then I decide once again that I don’t have a clue what’s going on.
Just when I think I have a handle on it all, someone or something causes me to question my previous assumptions. This can be highly frustrating when you’re trying to exercise some sort of control over a situation that is out of control—which is a rather flawed approach in itself, given that addiction is often someone’s self-defeating attempt to control something that is out of control.
As the person on the periphery of another’s addiction, you can end up unable to control something you want to control in someone who is out of control because they are trying to control something… What was that definition of insanity, again?
Anyway, my latest back-to-the-start jolt came from reading Marc Lewis’s The Biology of Desire. Its scrambling of my brain is flagged by the subtitle: “Why Addiction is Not a Disease.” A psychologist and former addict himself, Lewis challenges the widely held idea that addiction is ultimately a malady.
I’d been quite content with the “addiction-is-a-disease” idea. It seemed to combine the best of freewill and fate—some people are physically susceptible, so no shame there. However, like a person with diabetes, it’s up to them to manage their condition.
Then I picked up The Biology of Desire. A lot of the science and biology goes over my simple head, but Lewis’s main point is that addiction and the changes in brain chemistry that follow are not actually cause-and-effect. Our brains are also changed when we fall in love and develop positive interests that demand our attention, and we don’t consider those to be diseases.
While I am still pondering what all that means for my understanding of addiction, I was also struck by his comments regarding some of the language of addiction. While “recovery” fits with the disease model, Lewis notes that it is not always helpful if you take a different view.
“Recovery” suggests returning to a previous state, to finding again something that has been lost—the foundations that were there before everything started to fall apart, a formerly healthy status. But for some caught in addiction, they do not have anything good to go back to. Indeed, their addiction was an attempt to get away from back then. As the saying goes, “Drugs (or alcohol or porn or whatever) are not the problem—they are the (inadequate) answer to the real problem.”
Rather than finding their way back to a place they once knew (or, actually, never knew), some people struggling with addiction need to find their way to a new place they have yet to experience. Namely, a sense of self and strength previously unknown. Instead of being centered on something in their past, they need to drop an anchor into their future.
As an alternative to pursuing recovery, maybe they need to be focused on discovery.
That’s what I think. At least for now, until the next thing comes along.