Today, I am loosely following concepts incorporated in a Vernon Johnson “Feeling Chart” chalk talk, heard at the Rutgers School for Alcohol and Other Drug Studies in 1979. I am grateful to him, for his work in the field of addiction, and for helping me find my road to recovery through it.
Defenses are the usual physiological (using organ/muscle-energy connected to thought) behaviors by which we mediate and manage our feelings. Using drugs teaches us a no-energy way to manage feeling states, one that varies from person to person—though each has his or her idiosyncratic palette of substances to choose from, in our culture. This brain training happens at a preconscious level in the Pons/Medulla/Limbic system of the brain. As such, the neural pathways are too central for a lobotomy to be a safe option—though that is the only way one could completely alter the brain training outcome.
Persons with addiction do not respond well to retraining—partly because their complex neuro-structures conform to genetically engineered changes in the brain’s cellular structures. In non-addicted persons, a great degree of behaviorally conditioned re-routing of these pathways occurs—when the individual has a negative outcome from drug use. At present, the only way of marking the distinction between addicted persons and those who are not is behavioral. Both experience using a chosen substance as having a positive effect on one’s feeling state. Practiced repeatedly, all drug users begin to think “it works every time.” A second bit of information that becomes grooved and is also socially reinforced by DUI programs, and other legal and social sanctions is that “I control how, when, and where to use, and how much.” These commonly held beliefs may be changed in the non-addicted person, if negative outcomes occur as a result of drug use. The defense mechanism of questioning oneself comes into play and the individual alters pre-peak-feeling use patterns to say: “I’ll never do that again.” And s/he doesn’t do that again.
The person with addiction has defenses that protect the using behavior—so, rather than questioning oneself, s/he wonders, “What in the environment or events surrounding the use was responsible for the negative outcome I experienced?” Invariably, some paltry excuse or reason is found for the negative outcome. The initial confidence in a positive outcome (“it works every time’) and in my power to control my use (“I control how, when, and where to use, and how much”) is reinforced by my “reason” for the negative outcome. And so it rolls: the non-addicted person challenges and changes his or her own behavior leading to the peak feeling one gets from using; and the addicted person challenges or alters the environment to find the problem, thereby assuring the negative outcomes will continue to occur.
After a period of time of flying in the face of reason, the addicted person loses the ability to reason. Literally, s/he becomes unable to critically challenge his or her own behavior; and s/he becomes convinced by the negative reactions of society or persons around them that the problem really does lie with others rather than self. The defenses completely support using substances to mediate feeling states, and normal emotional give and take with others becomes less and less possible. The person with addiction may believe that s/he would be OK if certain other persons would change. S/he may even change friends and life partners in an effort to find the “right” kind of people. Typically, this has the effect of surrounding the person with others with whom s/he might never have associated—prior to becoming a drug user.
Standards and values once held as sacred are also gradually lowered to be within reach of a more relaxed (read: “less critical”) state of mind. The person develops an alibi system to explain the distance between reality and dreams of once-hoped-for life outcomes. “If my wife/husband had been more understanding—we would never have separated or divorced.” “My boss really liked my work until s/he had to do more work because of the business that I brought him. I wore myself out for him/her and needed the extra time off. How dare s/he cite ‘unpredictability’ as a reason to pass me over for promotion. ” The person with addiction often retaliates, both aggressively and passively, to get even for resented insults to those once held dreams.
This is the insanity of addiction. It is so compelling and strong that fully 93% of person with addiction never succeed in realizing that they have it and cannot bring themselves to get help. Of those who get help, only about 3.5% achieve any success at leading a normal life. Because of shame and stigma surrounding addiction, many of those success stories are never told, because it is too painful to collect the prize by publicly owning the problem. Meantime, the 96.5% of persons with active addiction continue to raise families, work on assembly lines, run businesses, lead persons into battle, run for office and make laws. All such work is negatively impacted by addiction that society as a whole has accommodated so long that it no longer realizes the damage being done…or perhaps our denial just makes it easier to own our powerlessness in the face of obvious social decay. Nearly one fifth of US are addicted and/or will suffer from its direct effects in our lifetime.
One bright spot exists.
In September of every year for the past decade, those persons who are surviving and recovering from addiction are shouting about how it is done—getting more of their story told. In the process we are seeing heads of families discuss the roadmap to recovery, for self and family. We are seeing workers and business leaders explain how the crooked and damaged product of addicted commerce can be repaired and improved. We are hearing from respected leaders about the benefits derived from owning and walking through the pain to correct the damage done in a drugged past. Unavoidable human suffering can be redemptive: Celebrate Recovery in September.