The 17th-century Dutch philosopher Benedict Spinoza wrote that “when a man is a prey to his emotions, he is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune.” He named this condition “human bondage.”
In my view, there is no greater form of human bondage among us now than drug addiction. Addiction is a form of self-imposed bondage that binds people as firmly as if they were held in chains. People who are addicted are being held in a form of bondage that is rooted in their own emotions.
In my three years of working with people in recovery from addiction, I have seen a clear pattern emerge. Individuals who begin recovery by detoxifying from their drug of choice soon feel a rush of hard emotions. These hard emotions are the ones they have been suppressing with their drug use.
From there, successful recovery follows a few distinct steps:
1) Patients name the emotions they are feeling.
2) They identify the story they have been telling themselves about the people, events or circumstances that are at the root of those hard emotions.
3) They examine the meaning of the story they have been telling themselves and consciously challenge that meaning.
4) They find a way to change the meaning of their story.
Because emotions flow from the stories we tell ourselves, patients in addiction recovery can then begin to change the emotions they feel, including the hard emotions that led to their drug use.
Let’s examine these four steps to recovery in detail.
1) Identify the hard emotions that arise. People vary significantly in their ability to discuss emotions. In general, women tend to be better at expressing their emotions than are men. Among people who abuse substances, both men and women typically struggle with expressing emotions. Not knowing how to handle strong emotions, and needing to numb them out, is often at the root of their use.
I often begin group counseling sessions by asking patients to name various emotions. It is a warm-up exercise to get them thinking about the range of emotions that exist and whether they are feeling them at that moment. Among the emotions frequently listed are loneliness, sadness, abandonment, depression, anger and hurt. Often, I will fill a chalkboard with their emotion words and then ask the participants to pick out a few words that apply to them. By giving patients a broad panoply of emotion words to choose from, they often find it easier to name their own emotions.
2) Identify the people, events or circumstances from which those hard feelings arose. For one young man, it was seeing his father, whom he considered his “rock,” suffer from diabetes and have his foot and part of his leg amputated. This was followed two years later by his father’s death. For a young woman, it was the death of her mother and the simultaneous abandonment by her boyfriend. For another young man, it was the emotional coldness of his father, which compelled him to threaten to commit suicide to get his father’s attention.
A sense of abandonment — and, in particular, abandonment in one form or another by a parent — plays a large part in many people’s addictions. A parent might be physically absent, either through death or divorce, or a parent might be physically present but emotionally absent. This can be the result of a parent who is simply emotionally distant by nature or a parent who is emotionally absent because they are involved in some form of addiction to drugs, alcohol, work, sex, gambling, pornography or other things.
Children by nature model themselves after their parents. Sometimes children are unaware of this modeling behavior. One client hated that his father struggled with alcoholism. So much so that this client had promised himself he would never drink alcohol, and he kept his promise. Instead, he used heroin. He had simply replaced one addiction with another, becoming as emotionally unavailable to others as his father had been to him. One common element among all addictions is that they make a person emotionally unavailable to others around them.
Sometimes I use the analogy of fun-house mirrors — those mirrors they sometimes have at carnivals that distort people’s images. As children, we try to get a clear picture of who we are by the image we see reflected in the eyes of our parents. If a child is fortunate enough to have mature, healthy parents, that child is more likely to gain a reasonably accurate self-image from their parents and have a secure emotional foundation from which to face life.
But if a child’s parents are unhealthy or immature, then the self-image the child receives from those parents is more likely to be distorted or flawed. These children may go through life with the unsettled sense that there is something wrong with them. The grown child then lacks a basis for determining what his or her self-image should be.
That sense of not being able to see oneself clearly can create a lasting pain in a child’s heart, and addictive behaviors are more likely to develop in an effort to numb out that pain. As counselors, our work can involve “reparenting” our clients by providing a clear self-reflection of who they truly are — an image these clients might never have received from their actual parents.
There is also a hidden stigma involved in situations in which children have the opportunity to become better than their parents. Sometimes this stigma is called invisible loyalty. For example, if a child comes from a family where drinking is normal behavior, the child risks breaking a family norm — and thus becoming “better” than his or her parents — by not drinking. That is a step toward independence that not everyone is willing to take.
3) Challenge the story you are telling yourself. Often, the event or circumstance involved in the triggering event creates a terrible blow to the person’s self-esteem. For example, the client whose father walked out on the family when the client was 5 was taught in the most unmistakable terms that he was worthless. The woman whose mother died and whose boyfriend left her shortly thereafter simultaneously suffered both grief and abandonment — abandonment at a moment in her life when she most needed someone she could turn to and trust to help her deal with her grief. The young man who lost his father to diabetes felt cast adrift without the man who had represented stability in his life.
Our emotions follow our narrative. If the stories we tell ourselves are ones of loss, abandonment and aimlessness, our feelings will be ones of worthlessness. It is that feeling of worthlessness at the core of our being that is often at the root of addiction. Addiction is a way of trying to numb out those unbearable feelings. If our narrative tells us that all is lost, then there is nothing much to do but to numb out our pain and drag ourselves through life as best we can.
Our feelings are predictions of what to expect, based on our past experience. If our past experience has been full of sorrow and loss, we will come to expect more sorrow and loss in our lives. We will approach the potential of something joyful happening in our lives with dread, lacing it with the expectation that, sooner or later, things will turn out badly. If close relationships turn into abandonment and loss, we might create self-fulfilling expectations by not entering into new relationships with openness.
And yet, it is human nature to want to have close relationships. One young man with whom I worked desperately wanted to feel some sort of emotional connection with his father. To all appearances, his father was a good man and a good father, but he was incapable of showing warmth and caring to his son on an emotional level. The son’s drug use was an attempt to self-medicate the pain he felt at the lack of that important connection in his life.
It reached a point where the son called his father and said he had a knife in his hands and was ready to slit his wrists because he was so desperate for his father to show some level of care and concern for him. The father responded; the son did not commit suicide. He told his father of his drug use, and the son agreed to go into recovery. The son had received a message of worthlessness from his father, and he found that message too painful to live with. He forced his father’s hand to show caring.
In recovery, the young man gained an understanding of how deeply he felt the sense of emotional abandonment by his father. Once he gained an understanding of that emotion, he was ready to pursue the fourth step.
4) Change the way you tell your story. For that young man, recovery meant telling his story differently. Instead of telling himself that his father’s coldness meant he was worthless, he came to understand that his father’s coldness was his father’s nature — the product of his father’s own difficult upbringing. The son learned that he was capable of finding the sort of emotional connection he craved with his mother, his siblings, his friends and his new companions in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
He came to accept that he would never change his father, but he learned that he could change himself so that he could find the emotional gratification he longed for from others. He had previously believed that he needed to be like his father — cold and emotionless. Once he changed his story and gave himself permission to truly feel the emotions he was experiencing, he could share those feelings with others and find the sort of emotional connections that he craved. Once those emotional longings were satisfied, his need to numb out his more painful emotions evaporated.
Changing one’s story is fundamentally an act of building self-esteem. Self-esteem is built in a number of ways. It comes from allowing oneself to feel one’s emotions, from avoiding all-or-nothing thinking and from recognizing that life events most often consist of shades of gray. Finding the strength to express one’s true self among others, and to experience that self as different from other people and to develop enough detachment to become comfortable with those differences, is also essential.
For some people, and particularly those who had difficulty with their parents while growing up, spirituality may provide the context for seeing themselves differently. This is the concept behind the step in AA to surrender to a higher power, however that higher power may be understood. Seeing oneself as a child of God may provide a corrective lens for those who grew up with the fun-house mirrors and were never able to gain a true picture of themselves through the eyes of their parents.
I once spoke at a Christian-based recovery center where I offered that sort of corrective vision to the patients by slightly changing the word order of a familiar Scripture reading. I told the audience, “If you want to know who you are, consider these words from the Gospel of Matthew. ‘You are blessed, you who are poor in spirit, because yours is the kingdom of heaven. You are blessed who mourn, for you shall be comforted. You are blessed who are meek, for you shall inherit the earth,’” and so on through the remaining Beatitudes. And then I said, “You are a child of God, because why else would Jesus have taught us to pray to God as ‘Our Father?’”
Learning to see oneself differently, and changing one’s story in a way that builds self-esteem, is the fundamental act of recovery. Guiding patients through the growth of creating a healthy sense of self-esteem is at the core of my work as a counselor. People are not only recovering from the habit of substance abuse. They are recovering their lost selves.
Spinoza wrote, “The more clearly you understand yourself and your emotions, the more you become a lover of what is.” Examining emotions with patients and helping them to see themselves as they truly are is the royal road to helping those in recovery. It is the path that leads them to self-knowledge and self-esteem. Ultimately, it is the path out of the trap of human bondage.
James Rose, a national certified counselor and graduate professional counselor, is a recent graduate of Loyola University Maryland and works in addictions treatment at Ashley Addiction Services. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more by James Rose, from the Counseling Today archives: “Stepping into recovery”
Related reading, also from Counseling Today: “Grief, loss and substance abuse”
Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.