One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, each time expecting different results.
It’s like that infuriating toy grabber claw arcade game where all you have to do is cinch the claw at the right time and the cute stuffed pig or octopus is yours.
Oh! —there it goes!, you say as your pig slips underneath the claw teeth.
Another 50 cents later, Darn it! I swear it was almost mine!
Some people walk away after a dollar, figuring out that the game is rigged.
Other people play the bloody game until their pockets are empty.
Addicts fall into the second group. Their brains are missing the link associating certain behaviors with unfavorable responses. Their craving for a high, or a dopamine spike, is so acute that they don’t consider the prior 99 failed attempts before they load the machine with another 50 cents. This time will be different. Look how cute Nemo is. My happiness depends on that stuffed fish. Somewhere in the insanity of their thoughts, they step from Fun Land to Addict Land.
The Empty Promises of Addiction
“Addiction is a process of buying into false and empty promises: the false promise of relief, the false promise of emotional security, the false promise of fulfillment, and the false sense of intimacy with the world,” writes Craig Nakken in his book “The Addictive Personality.” It’s less about the object of the addiction—vodka, pot, Macy’s, Marlboro Lights, Godiva, Starbucks, work—and more about the process of filling the hole in the soul, the chronic ache that all addicts have in common.
You can give up booze. However, unless you’re actively working your recovery, you’ll simply transfer your addiction to another item or behavior.
That’s what I did.
But I’m Cured Now
Last summer, with 28 years of sobriety behind me, I decided to test the waters to see if I was truly an alcoholic. My inability to drink responsibly was simply a form of high school rebellion,I reasoned. I am an adult now. My brain has evolved and developed. Surely I can handle a beer or two.
My experiment lasted a week.
My addiction picked up exactly where it dropped off at age 18. I couldn’t stop thinking about my next drink. I took a six-pack of Coors Light to the park to drink alone. I considered buying a bottle of vodka to keep in the trunk.
“If you couldn’t control it before, what makes you think you can control it now?” a friend said to me with tears in his eyes.
The next day I went to a support group meeting and have stayed sober ever since.
But I didn’t work at my recovery.
So my drinking problem morphed into other addictions: to nicotine gum, to clothes from White House Black Market, to people.
Codependency: Another Kind of Addiction
“Hi, my name is Therese, and I am recovering from …. everything,” I said today at my first support group meeting for codependency. As everyone shared personal stories, I recognized the subtle way addiction has filtered into my relationships, driving much of my dysfunctional behavior.
Characteristics of codependents include:
- Having a lack of personal and professional boundaries.
- Taking everything personally.
- Letting a fear of rejection drive decisions and behaviors.
- Trying to earn love by being successful at everything.
- Going out of your way to people please, to win love, approval, and acceptance.
- Using guilt or shame to control other people’s behaviors.
Codependency is perhaps the most painful of my addictions because its roots extend into childhood issues and trauma that need to be addressed, and because codependent behavior directly affects those whom I love the most. It’s also extremely complex because I can’t easily extricate the behavior and put it in a locked safe like I can with booze, cigarettes, and my credit card. My insatiable need for acceptance and approval can organically make its way into a conversation. By the time I recognize the behavior, I’m already in dangerous territory.
Step Away, My Friend
People in recovery circles say they have a “thinking” problem more than a drinking problem in that the thrill with which they hope to fill the empty pockets of the soul starts in the head. There are times when I can recognize the false promises of addiction whispered into my ears and refrain from exploring their paths. And there are other times, like recently, I am a bit deaf. I need a room full of people to help me tease out my inner voice of wisdom from the manipulative messages of addiction and codependency.
Experience tells me there is no such thing as a pain-free life, even after you’ve put down the drink or cigarette or new dress. Sobriety is about identifying the things in your life that are real and good and true, one day at a time. It is about stepping away from the claw game and realizing your happiness doesn’t depend on some stuffed pig or the challenge of winning the pig. Happiness is dropping that 50 cents on a cup of coffee with a friend.