Lisa started drinking when she was 16, just casually with her friends. After her parents’ messy divorce, she started to overdo it. Later, in college, things started to get out of hand, and soon she was on a downward spiral of excessive drinking. She knew it was destroying her life, but she couldn’t stop.
Mark first saw pornography when he was 13, but he didn’t make a pattern of looking for it until he was 16. Mark wasn’t close to his parents, and felt like a loner at school, and when he felt bored or stressed he found pornography made him feel a lot better. Years later, he was fired from his job for looking at pornography at work. Soon after, his wife started talking about separation.
Looking for a Fix
It can be hard to understand why people continue with an addictive behavior, even when it threatens to destroy their life. What we often don’t understand is that things like alcohol, drugs, gambling and pornography can sometimes feel like the only options people have to deal with the mess in their lives.
When our need feels desperate, the pressure to find a solution can be overpowering. Think of what it would be like to crawl through the desert for days, mouth as dry as sandpaper, only to come across a pitcher of cold water, with a sign that says “do not touch.” Would you be able to restrain yourself? This gives you some idea of what an addict feels when their brain is pushing them towards meeting a need, or in other words, getting a ‘fix’.
Our brain is wired to solve problems for us. It builds bridges between problems (hunger) and solutions (eating). If we are lucky, we have felt the incredible comfort that can come from someone who loves you and is there for you in your time of need, and so when we feel lonely or sad, it makes sense to turn to one of these people—our brain has built a bridge. But what if this isn’t an option in our mind? Maybe, like Lisa, our family doesn’t feel safe, or like Mark, we don’t have many friends. Where can we build a bridge to?
Fortunately, the brain is a great problem solver, and it will find a solution somewhere else. Unfortunately, under pressure, sometimes it will find a solution that leads down the path of an addictive behavior. Our brain will remember how great that thing felt, and how useful that could be right now. Each time we indulge the impulse, the bridge grows a little stronger, until after a while it feels like the only possible option, and becomes relatively automatic.
Building New Bridges
The good news is, this understanding can open up some big possibilities for recovery. Instead of focusing on just stopping the behavior (which is often frustrating and ineffective) we can instead focus on what the underlying problem is that the addiction is responding to. Then we can find an alternative solution that lines up better with the way we want to live, and gives us the comfort or support we really need. Often, this is best achieved by developing a supportive relationship, and learning to go there for comfort and support.
For example, Mark came to a full awareness of the impact of his addiction, and wanted to make changes. He was so used to hiding his issues and feelings and using pornography to deal with them, that it was hard to open up and be honest—with himself, his therapist, and his wife. But as he learned to go to his wife when he needed comfort and support, they both found that their marriage soon improved to a point where they felt closer than ever.
After crashing out at school, Lisa was referred by her school counselor to an AA meeting. There, she met with people who understood the pull of alcohol, who didn’t judge her, but instead supported her to overcome her addiction. She started to repair relationships with family and friends, and this, along with the support of her group and sponsor, gave her the motivation to get her life back on track.
Addiction affects everyone, everywhere. Often, the best thing we can do to overcome it is to develop caring and supportive relationships that address the underlying need, and help the addict know that they are loved and they are not alone. Recovery can be scary and difficult at first, but it becomes easier as you walk a new path of openness and connection to the people and things that are truly important to you.
Written by Sam Ryland, LCSW
Originally published on Utah Valley Health and Wellness