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Addiction's True Nature: A Psychologist's Perspective on Drug and Alcohol Recovery

Jun 11, 2008
The negative impact of abuse, which originates with the addict, slowly permeates into his or her family and ultimately throughout the community. Efforts to educate our communities, regarding these consequences, are critical in initiating positive change.

Before one can understand any behavior, including addictive behavior, it is imperative to understand that feelings truly dictate our actions. Consider the fact that most people probably have brand name toothpaste or soap in their bathroom. Although everyone intellectually knows that generic toothpaste, for example, is basically the same as (and less expensive than) brand name, people often pay more for the brand name, because they feel that it will provide them with "fresher breath and whiter teeth."

Advertisers trick our emotional selves into feeling good about their product, over their competitor's or generic, often causing a behavioral change to spend more for their product. Self-directed use of this basic "Psych 101" principle is essential to empower personal, healthy change, especially with respect to recovery.

The tangible losses associated with addiction are often readily apparent. Crime and the eventual losses of health, jobs, family, friends, and money are only the manifestations of a more intangible loss, which is likely the real culprit behind abuse: loss of one's self through the insidious and consistent detachment of one's feelings through addiction.

Feelings serve the useful purpose of guiding one toward better understanding oneself and one's actions. The avoidance of feelings (particularly through addiction) robs oneself of the valuable, directional information which feelings can afford. A "gut instinct," for instance, can be viewed as a crystallization of all of one's life experiences into a single guiding feeling. Nobody can be consciously aware of every life experience, as it may relate to a presenting concern. One can, however, benefit from one's guiding feeling.

Addiction has the real potential to dull this and other types of valuable feelings, which can ultimately, further alienate the addict from him or herself and others, leading to confusion, poor direction, and despair. This cycle can continue to create a pattern that can lead to the more tangible aforementioned losses. Education (whether through the media, therapy, or the like) is key to breaking this pattern and changing ultimate despair into real hope for the future.

Within recovery, it is also important to note that human behavior is fundamentally structured to pursue pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, any behavior can actually be changed within an instant. The cocaine addict would instantly quit, if each thought of cocaine were coupled with an electric shock, while each moment of abstinence were followed by a reward of a million dollars. Of course, this type of pain / pleasure is impossible. Therefore, treatment consists of helping the person in recovery to pair the real, emotional pain associated with dependence, combined with the real, emotional pleasure associated with sobriety, in order to motivate recovery.

The Jellinek Curve offers a graphical representation of the insidious path of addiction and the hopeful path of recovery: http://www.in.gov/judiciary/ijlap/docs/jellinek.pdf.
About the Author
Gerald Solfanelli is an American psychologist in private practice, who also hosts www.ThePsychologist.com and www.QuitForFree.com.

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