It’s no mystery that an “us versus them” mentality contributes to the stigma surrounding drug and alcohol addiction. People think: “I would never do that to my family,” or “Why can’t they just stop? I would never drink like that”. Separating ourselves from people who are behaving in ways we fear or dislike is a defense mechanism. When we look down at our fellows from a tower of righteousness, we feel safe. Pointing out our differences rather than our commonalities allows us to put distance between ourselves and horrific life circumstances. If we are “better than”, we can delude ourselves into thinking we will never end up like our suffering brothers and sisters. We comfort ourselves with the idea that we are “too smart” and “too composed” to end up overdosed in a public bathroom.
No matter how high we build our towers, the reality is that we are all vulnerable to addiction. No one is immune. In fact, an overwhelming percentage of those who don’t identify as drug addicts or alcoholics are probably engaging in similar behaviors without even knowing it. The desire to escape reality isn’t reserved for so-called addicts; it is an innately human quality. This is why the mindfulness movement is so important – as a human race we are hurtling away from the ability to sit with reality. Escapism is the new norm. If we have a bad day, we take the edge off with a glass of bourbon, a piece of cake, or a shopping trip. Moreover, we don’t just need that bourbon/cake/treat, we deserve it. It is far too uncomfortable to sit with a negative emotion, process it, and let it go. Unfortunately, what we actually do by “taking the edge off” is push that emotion down….and all those unprocessed emotions compound into the general sense of dissatisfaction our society faces today.
What makes the average person who uses external things to escape and/or derive a temporary sense of relief different from someone suffering from clinically significant substance/behavioral addiction? The answer is simple: level of impairment. One’s functioning declines a lot more swiftly when one is using heroin than when one is using something with a less severe biochemical impact on the brain. In fact, if the biochemical impact is “light” enough, one might not notice an impairment in functioning in his or her lifetime. However, the desire to escape or achieve relief remains the same. Furthermore, just because one doesn’t recognize impairment doesn’t mean one’s quality of life hasn’t diminished.
At the end of the day, we really aren’t that different from each other, even when we create a narrative that spins a different story. We are all human beings who want to feel better. We all want to be loved. We all need to feel connected and fulfilled. Recovery isn’t just for people in church basements and drug treatment facilities, it’s for all of us. We can all find healthier ways to process our emotions, realize our purpose, and form genuine connections. Recovery is a commitment to constantly examine how we can become better people and live our best lives.
Cultivating awareness of the mechanisms we use to feel better and superficially “fill the void” isn’t just about busting stigma and finding common ground. It’s also about helping people who are combatting clinically significant impairment to recognize potential pitfalls in their healing process. A cliché commonly belabored in recovery fellowships is “don’t switch seats on the Titanic”. If one has already destroyed his or her life with a particular substance or behavior, it doesn’t make sense to switch to another. The point is that one will never find what one is looking for in external things. Whether you’re in steerage or first class, the ship will inevitably sink into dark, icy water.
Drugs and alcohol aside, here are six other addictive things that can impede our ability to become our best selves:
- Social Media – Is your phone the first thing you reach for in the morning? Can you leave the house without it? Can you make it a full day without checking Facebook? Can you make it through an event without taking a selfie? Do you talk to your family at dinner? How many hours do you waste in front of a screen that could be spent more productively? Do you exclaim “I don’t have enough time in my day,” even as your mobile device is glued to your hand? Do you envy other people’s lives even as you put an Instagram filter over your own?
- Consumerism – We pack houses, closets, and storage units with stuff…and it’s still not enough. We need more. The clothes we wear and the cars we drive are status symbols. These material goods dictate how we feel about ourselves. As landfills overflow and garment factories collapse on workers, we buy, and buy, and buy. On some level, we know our possessions will never be adequate, yet our self esteem depends on the perpetual cycle of consumption.
- Food – That slice of pizza or carton of ice cream might taste good going down, but the benefits end there. Diabetes and heart disease continue to be leading causes of death in the United States, both of which can be linked directly to diet. Furthermore, studies show that cheese contains a substance called casein, which triggers opioid receptors in the brain. Yup, you read that right. Cheese and heroin have something in common! But food addiction is no joke. People are dying… and yet we continue to eat the same unhealthy junk. The societal consequences are staggering. Why do we not view this catastrophe through the same harsh lens we view the drug epidemic? Are the billions in healthcare costs not enough to give us pause?
- TV/Video games – There’s nothing wrong with giving your brain a break. However, if your favorite show or game prevents you from going to a recovery meeting or engaging in other healthful activities, you may have tiptoed over the self-care line and into the realm of escapism. What could you have accomplished in the twelve hours you binge-watched an entire TV season? What are the consequences of your descent into fantasy? Online gaming alliances are not a substitute for face-to-face contact. Technology has provided us with amazing tools and capabilities, but it has also caused our social connectedness to deteriorate at an alarming rate. We don’t need to “Netflix and chill,” we need to chill out on the Netflix.
- Sex – In today’s world, we have the ability to hook up with a single swipe. But casual sex may come at a cost. We can use it to avoid becoming vulnerable with another human being. It can also erode healthy boundaries and self image. Sex isn’t a cure for loneliness and lack of connection. However, it is often confused with healthy intimacy.
- Caffeine – There’s no doubt about it: Coffee is delicious. But how much is too much? If you buy a $5 coffee every day, you spend $1,825 a year. That’s a mortgage payment, retirement contribution, or plane ticket to somewhere nice. If money isn’t a concern, consider the chemicals in many of the popular energy drinks. Consumed in excess, these beverages can interact with medications, cause health problems, and lead to cardiac arrest.
Taken at face value, there is nothing wrong with social media, shopping, food, TV, gaming, sex, and caffeine. The question is: “How are we using these things?” Those who prefer to gaze at addiction from a tower of superiority may beg to differ, but we are all – to varying degrees – escapists. We all have vices we use to feel better and we all have room to improve. The challenge is to use this knowledge to descend from our towers and extend a helping hand to our fellows. The future of our society hinges upon the choices we make now. The view may appear deceptively better from great heights, but the real beauty is waiting on the ground.
Autumn Khavari is the Process Recovery Center’s web content writer. She received an education in Substance Abuse Counseling from Beal College in Bangor, Maine.