A New Model for Treating Addiction

Feelin’ good, feelin’ good, all the money in the world spent on feelin’ good. — Levon Helm, Feelin’ Good

Everyone wants to feel good. Humans instinctively seek pleasure, joy, happiness, bliss, or at least the absence of physical and emotional pain. It’s basic to our humanity. Sigmund Freud codified it as the “pleasure principle.” It animates our lives.

If it’s natural for people to want to feel good, why do we demonize the pursuit of good feelings when they involve drugs, alcohol, gambling, cigarettes and porn? Why do we condemn these things as “addictions,” while the pursuit of pleasure from other sources is not so labeled?

Our culture has largely mitigated its Judaeo-Christian resistance to the unbridled pursuit of worldly pleasure. Eating and drinking to excess, ubiquitous Internet porn, the endless viewing of Netflix videos and commercial sports, casual hookups and legalized marijuana are indicators that most people abandoned themselves to dis-inhibited self-indulgence a long time ago.

So, why do we still wag our fingers at those whom we deem “addicted” to pleasure-inducing practices and substances? After all, our everyday lives are fraught with dependent behaviors. Most people can’t go a day without accessing their social media news feeds or issuing an endless barrage of text messages to friends and family. Addiction has become normative. Let’s stop pretending that there’s the righteous un-addicted over here and the terrible addicted over there. We have met the enemy and they are us.

The difference between benign addictions like social media and caffeinated energy drinks and those requiring twelve-step programs and rehab is only a matter of degree and consequence. We say that a person has a “problem” with addiction when their addiction diverts attention from constructive engagement with life to short-term gratifications that seriously interfere with life.

This fact suggests an approach to healing addiction. Wanting good feelings is not in itself a bad thing. Addiction, however, is the pathological (harmful) expression of our natural desire to experience good feelings. The best way to deal with it is to help the addict transmute it, to channel it elsewhere. The key is to substitute a healthy notion of pleasure for one that is dangerous and debilitating.

Addiction is the pathological (harmful) expression of our natural desire to experience good feelings.

Let me give you an example from my own struggle with an addiction to cigarettes. I smoked intermittently for twenty-one years. I always wanted to quit, but try after try failed, once after six months, once after a year and a half and once after two and a half years. But the fourth try succeeded. Here’s why.

By force of will, I had managed to cut back on smoking so that I was indulging in cigarettes just three nights a week, while working a part-time bar tending job. At the same time, I was working out regularly, lifting weights and doing aerobics. On the one hand, I had weakened my attachment to cigarettes by cutting down the frequency, but more importantly, had found something that meant more to me than tobacco — health and fitness. When I started to care more about my physical health and well-being than about the transient pleasures of smoking, my desire to smoke gave way to my desire to be healthy and fit. With very little effort, I was cured.

I believe this little story contains the blueprint to an approach to working with addictions that can be generalized to more serious cases. Granted, many will be far more complicated and challenging than mine was, but the insight I gained from my experience still applies.

I don’t mean to teach junkies to enjoy checkers instead of heroin, or to help gamblers raise daffodils rather than play blackjack. It’s more complicated than that. The so-called addict has to change their understanding of what pleasure means and learn to experience it in a new way.

The so-called addict has to change their understanding of what pleasure means and learn to experience it in a new way.

I hear from heavy drinkers that life is boring when they don’t drink. This is because the addict’s idea of pleasure is of something instantaneous and intense. It overwhelms the senses and produces an immediate feeling of well-being, albeit temporarily. Pleasure is here and now. You don’t work for it, you don’t earn it, it’s just there, whenever you want it, in that hit of smack or slug of liquor. Life without it is dull and boring.

The addict’s idea of pleasure is, in essence, a childish attachment to immediate sensation and the inability to appreciate a context that extends beyond the next five minutes. It lies at the core of what makes an addict an addict, be it to gambling, drugs or social media. To overcome this short-sighted attachment, the addict must learn to find pleasure in life activities that extend beyond the current moment and don’t involve blissful states of mind-numbing euphoria. In short, the addict has to grow up.

To return to my example of quitting smoking, I learned to forgo the immediate pleasure of smoking cigarettes in favor of the longer-term pleasure of good health and physical fitness. I can’t offer a sure-fire way to replicate it for others, but I know that that is what happened for me. It didn’t take place overnight or with the snap of my fingers. It was likely the result of a gradual change in mindset as I progressed more and more toward a fitness-oriented lifestyle over the course of several years.

Traditional treatment models depend on the addict wanting to not want the thing they want, i.e., whatever they’re addicted to. This produces a conflict between the addiction and the desire not to have the addiction. As long as that conflict rages, subduing the addiction is difficult and provisional. This is especially true when you’re taught that you are, in fact, powerless to face it without the help of a supernatural power, as AA does. AA contends that once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic because the alcoholic never stops wanting alcohol and may relapse at any time. At best, they learn to want to not want it to a greater degree than they want it — for now.

Traditional treatment models depend on the addict wanting to not want the thing they want, i.e., whatever they’re addicted to.

The way out of this conundrum is to give the addict personally meaningful reasons to prefer a life without addiction, the way I came to prefer exercise and health to tobacco. This approach doesn’t pit the addiction against the desire to not be addicted, but enables the addict to loosen the bonds of addiction in favor of other things that are potentially more meaningful — friends and family, a career, good health, a romantic relationship, a hobby — it could be any number of things. The addict simply loses interest in their addiction in favor of other more wholesome activities.

Naturally, this may be a two steps forward, one step back process. Owing to their addiction, the addict might not have much in their life to turn to. In this case, the addict’s task is to build a life they can honestly prefer to the addiction while restraining their addiction enough to make that possible. Not an easy task, and not one that can occur overnight, but one that can greatly facilitate the process of recovery.

The way out of addiction isn’t through an inner battle between the addict and their addiction, or by appealing to an outside source, but through the creation of a life that’s satisfying enough that the addiction spontaneously fades away as the addict derives more and more positive feelings from living their life.

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Tony is a freelance technical writer and author of fiction, memoir, journalism and personal essays. You can visit his author website at tonygrocco.com.

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