Have you ever wondered why some people become addicted to substances or activities that end up harming them? Why it is that so many people find themselves destructively reliant on drugs, alcohol, sex, shopping, gambling etc.? Why do addicts relapse so often? What makes it so hard for addicts to stay clean and sober? Is is a matter of psychological or physical dependence? Why do some manage to stay abstinent and not others?
Addictions are commonly represented in the media as weakness – something that happens to someone with no ‘will power’, an unsympathetic and often nasty character, who will turn on their friends and family in order to meet their mysterious and apparently bottomless need for which ever habit they have picked up.
I’m not an addict, but I do have personal experience of living at close quarters with all kinds of addicts – crack users, heroin addicts, alcoholics, pill poppers – and my experiences with addicted people was what first led me to answer the question ‘Why do people become addicts?’ is that it is an attempt to escape from severe emotional pain.
Living with addicts – the crack house I called home
I used to live in a crack house. And, truth be told… I quite liked it. I was pretty happy there. No, I wasn’t a drug addict. No, I wasn’t a crack dealer. I was a student. I moved into what I thought was a perfectly innocent flat share while at uni in London.
Naive, middleclass me had no idea, at first, that my flat was actually full of drug addicts & pushers, who turned thief and prostitute at need with a level of nonchalance that still blows my mind and breaks my heart. The estate was filled with families who were all addicted to crack and/or heroin, three generations through.
So I’m aware that it’s weird that I felt like I fitted in there. I didn’t really, but I think it seemed that way to me because I felt accepted. I found my flatmates and neighbours easy to talk to, friendly, empathic and non-cliquey. They showed me a type of kindness that middle-class suburbia had not. There were few pretensions and a lot of easy humour and warmth. People were interested in each other – in me. They asked me for favours and did me favours in return.
I’m not romanticising that place – parts of it were rundown, filthy, dangerous and rife with social neglect and injustice. Some people occasionally stole from me (or tried to,) attempted to scam me, addict me, or bring me in on their various schemes to scam others. Someone smashed our windows in one night. And someone once broke in and robbed us.
What kept me living with drug addicts? Social & emotional connection
I did not engage in criminal behaviour and to be truthful, I was lucky – no harm came to me. It could have done. The police were always puzzled when they stopped and searched me on my way home – they stopped and searched us all very often, for obvious reasons.
“Why are you here?” they would say, on this windswept corner, or that one. “No comment”, my flat mate would say, digging me in the ribs as I went to answer, and I would smile and shrug. It was a good question. Why was I there? I had enough privilege to be able to leave any time I wanted…but I didn’t want to leave.
Truth be told, I had been lonely in in the suburbs where I’m from. People found me odd. I often failed the social tests of conformity and standardised ambitions. I was a bit of a reject, really. The pain of social rejection left me when I lived on the estate. On the surface we had very little in common but underneath that, on a human level, we were all struggling to manage our difficult feelings and experiences.
Addiction as emotional pain management?
Addiction specialist and author Dr Gabor Mate says:
“[a]ddiction begins with solving a problem, and the problem is that of human pain, emotional pain.”Dr Gabor Mate, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts
So I guess it could be said that the majority of the people I met on that estate were using drugs to self-medicate – to manage their pain caused by an array of things – family breakdowns, deaths, illness, sexual assault, poverty & despair. Objectively, drugs obviously weren’t a great choice, and led to more problems, but when the pain is excruciating, even a few minutes of bliss probably feels more than worth those problems.
So, I’m not saying that estate life was conducive to good mental health for all its inhabitants – that would be totally crazy. What I’m saying is that I know that **my** mental health improved there, and I think this was because I didn’t feel like a freak – we were all sad, depressed and anxious, all struggling to make sense of it and no one was pretending any differently. This meant that I was offered opportunities to connect socially and emotionally with the people around me in a way that I hadn’t been in my home town.
Of course I did leave in the end…
I know that I was lucky to be able to, really.
I had access to money, choices, education – all the things that most people I had been living with didn’t have and most likely never would. But I felt lonely when I came back to Hertfordshire.
It’s very hard to feel continuously misunderstood, and I did. I felt emotionally impoverished and a depression set in that, together with the rigours of motherhood a few years later, almost took me out – it certainly took me the next twenty years to shake it. I still don’t feel massively accepted where I love. I just manage those feelings differently now.
I’m lucky enough to have had ten years of therapy, and a bunch of counselling training too. I can now accept myself and the cliquey-ness of many of my fellow middle-class contemporaries pains me hardly at all. Working through past trauma and pain helped me to feel better and when this kind of support is offered to addicts, it helps them too.
We are all wired for connection
We are all wired for connection. Social rejection and alienation registers like pain in the human brain. Withholding that from anyone is going to hurt them and result in emotional difficulties. . We get damaged in relationship with others – but this is also where the cure lies. Why do people become addicts? They are in pain and they don’t have access to the kinds of relationships that might help them heal.
It’s not enough to wean addicts off their substances of choice – the addiction is a symptom of a deeper problem. Addicts, like most in emotional pain people, need psychological support and a community to offer them real connection in order to have a chance of staying healthy – physically and emotionally.
Therapy – a way to heal & manage difficult feelings & experiences
Therapy was a safer, healthier way for me to access the emotional connection that I needed to heal from the difficult feelings and experiences I had accumulated throughout my life. But I will never forget the respite I found on that estate, the acceptance and the warmth. I know what it’s like to feel disconnected, unimportant, rejected, passed over and unbelievably depressed & anxious.
I also know what it’s like to work through that shit and come up again emotionally resilient, happy and determined to create a more satisfying life. And I want to share that opportunity to heal emotional pain with anyone that wants the same for themselves.
That’s why I do what I do – why I became a counsellor & psychotherapist – because I know what it was like for me to feel hopeless and I want to help people feel better, as I have been helped.
And that’s why I will always do my best to donate time and money to organisations like The Counselling Foundation, which offers subsidised therapy to those who genuinely can’t afford it. Mental illness is no respecter of persons, rich or poor – chances are we will all need help with our mental health at some time. Money should not be a barrier to effective help and treatment.