As I observe people “in recovery,” I am aware of an enormous amount of self-inflicted suffering. There are several kinds: the self-critical voice that keeps telling the individual that he’s not enough, the lack of awareness of limits, which keeps the person working past exhaustion, the willingness to sacrifice oneself for some external “good.” These are by no means the only sources of suffering; I mention them simply to show how horribly easy it is for an addict or a co-dependent to sink into suffering.
There is a moment in a person’s recovery, if he or she is very fortunate, when the realization hits: it’s the suffering that locks me into the disease. If I don’t abuse myself, I don’t need relief.
I know a man in recovery, who loves to go to his property in the mountains. It’s a very large property, with acres of woodland that need tending, streams that need clearing, high grasses that need mowing. A rather sedentary person throughout the week, he will get up and out early on a Sunday morning, with his chainsaw and his pruner, and go to work. He seldom asks for help. He usually reaches that point of exhaustion where he no longer notices how tired he is, until he finally stops. And then he wants a drink. When he is at his lowest, he must fight that powerful urge. He has long ago passed his reasonable physical limit; he may even have stirred up some angina. What a marvelous excuse for a drink!
Why does a person push himself beyond reason? When this individual talks about himself, you would never suspect that he doesn’t think he’s worth very much. But what do his actions say? In fact, he’s treating himself like a worthless old shoe, that you wear and wear and wear until it’s falling off your foot. And then you throw it away. He’s throwing himself away, which is excruciatingly painful. He NEEDS relief.
And the cycle continues. In recovery, avoiding the substance or the action that creates the “high” interrupts the addictive cycle. Without this interruption recovery cannot happen. But it doesn’t address that part of the cycle that still seems “good.” Work is “good.” Self-denial is “good.” Putting the Other first is “good.” Selfishness, on the other hand, is “bad.” Stopping work before a job is done is “lazy.”
In active addiction, that Thing that feels so good is addressed as morally “bad.” And the humiliated addict’s promises to “be good” are also promises to suffer. This is a destructive twist of the pleasure principle – the idea that we are hard-wired to like those things that are good for us (food, warmth, touch), and dislike those things (too hot, too cold, ouch!) that will hurt us. Suffering carries with it a sense of moral superiority. In recovery, one is first asked to give up the only pleasure in a miserable life, in order to survive. Only considerable experience (and positive example) can bring the realization that the “high” and the suffering are unalterably intertwined.
It’s a cycle of feast or famine. Mostly famine, with a few heady spikes of feast. While we, as clinicians, need to encourage any addict to put the drug down, we must also go further: we must understand that if the person cannot find goodness in life without the addiction, the addiction will reclaim them. We need to keep in mind that the full cycle needs treatment, not just the “high.”
If you notice this cycle in your own life, or in that of someone you love, there is help available. I'm happy to talk with you.