The Qultura perspective on addiction
By Stella Baker.
If you care to look at the above image you will see someone who is struggling to cope and who is suffering. They are struggling to cope with the effects of a substance and this is something which you can see. But what you cannot see is the struggle they are going through in life and the struggle they are going through to cope with a situation or specific set of circumstances in their life. What you also cannot see is the trauma and traumatic experiences they have gone through in childhood or adulthood. The visible effects and the addiction is always a consequence of the trauma and the traumatic experiences they have gone through. The visible effects of the addiction is always a consequence of their more immediate struggle to deal with a situation in life or a set of circumstances. It is also quite often a consequence of a lack of emotional, psychological, social or community support.
The above is true for any addiction and we base our entire perspective on addiction on the work and theory of Canadian physician Dr Gabor Mate. This doesn't just relate to drugs and alcohol, but it also relates to such things as obesity, food addictions, various activities, the pursuit and relentless acquisition of money, financial assets, property, material assets, and personal power. These are all valid examples of addictive behaviour.
Addictive behaviour is something which is only seen in human beings. No other animal species develops addictions which means that there is a natural predisposition for addiction and addictive behaviour which comes from our emotional dependency on culture and complex social relationships and also our natural tendency for using tools. These are not causes of addictions and addictive behaviour is not something which can be regarded as natural behaviour for human beings, as addictive behaviour is dysfunctional behaviour. But it could provide part of the reason why human beings are naturally predisposed to addictive behaviour.
Individual factors and willpower
Addiction is a choice. This cannot be dismissed or discounted. But also addiction is a consequence. This also cannot be dismissed or discounted either. Nobody chooses to be traumatized in life or abused in childhood. When we look at an individual choice made by someone who has an addiction or is resorting to addictive behaviour we also need to consider the context in which that choice is being made. We cannot pass judgment about an individual choice and disregard the context, the past life experience, the memories and perspective which was developed out of the trauma, nor can we disregard the challenges, struggles or stresses from the current life situation or circumstances. Attached to every choice everyone with an addiction makes are social and environmental factors.
This is what makes the question of willpower such a complex and difficult question. Are the social and environmental factors in someone's life more stressful? Is that person more isolated in the community? Is that person lacking in positive, reaffirming or nurturing social or community support? Then that person who is struggling with an addiction is going to have a much greater struggle when it comes to finding the willpower. But does that person have a focus in their life, something which is meaningful, fulfilling, engaging, and do they have access to an adequate level of social and community support? Then these people will find it somewhat easier to find the willpower to overcome their addiction.
All addictions come with social factors, i.e. factors which contribute to the addiction which lie well beyond the control of the person with the addiction. Addiction comes with a lot of social stigma, social hypocrisy, condemnation and punishment from not just people in society but also the media and people in authority. Rather than making it easier for people with addictions and addictive behavioural habits to overcome the addiction, social attitudes generally reinforce the addiction, driving the person with the addiction further into social isolation, undermining their self-confidence and self-esteem, alienating them further from the community and making the addiction itself even more powerful and stronger, and much harder to overcome.
Many social and cultural attitudes enable and encourage compulsive and addictive behaviour. In many cases social and cultural attitudes, as well as all mainstream political attitudes encourage, reward and promote addictive behaviour. The primary social motivating factor of perpetual economic growth, excessive material consumption, relentless pursuit of money, and encouragement of addictive work practices are some of the examples where politicians very clearly promote and reward addictive and dysfunctional behaviour. The media and broadcasting also promote such addictive behaviour, celebrity culture promotes addictive behaviour, social media platforms encourage addictive and compulsive behaviour. In fact it can be said that mainstream politics - both left and right - and most of what constitutes modern culture not only reinforces addictive and compulsive behaviour but creates and encourages addictive behaviour in people who, in a different social and cultural environment would probably never develop an addiction in their lives.
Looking at addiction from a different perspective
Instead of looking at addiction as a problem and a reason to hate or despise a fellow human being perhaps we need to pay attention at what someone with an addiction is getting out of their addiction, what their addiction is giving them? What addicts are getting are relief from pain. They are getting a sense of peace and tranquility. What they're getting is a sense and feeling of control, or as fleeting sense of calmness.
Then you have to ask the question why do they need such substances to achieve those things in their lives? Why can't they achieve the peace, tranquility of control without those things? What has happened to them in their lives, or what is missing from their lives to make them feel that they need these substances and they need those feelings? You see if you look at drugs such as heroin, morphine, codeine, cocaine, alcohol, these are all painkillers. They work in different ways, but they all soothe pain. Perhaps instead of asking ourselves why the addiction exists within the individual, we need to be asking much more why the pain exists within the individual.
"I don't drink myself to oblivion because I want to die. I'm not afraid of dying. I just find it extremely difficult to face up to my life."
-- Graham, alcoholic of 30 years
The British psychiatrist R. D Lang has said that there are three things people are afraid of, and these are death, other people and our own minds. As a former drug and food addict myself I remember the contortions and rituals I went through just not to be myself for a few hours. Sometimes I wanted to justify the angry voices from my abusive childhood in a ritual of self-abuse or I wanted to distract myself from my memories and those angry voices. Empty spaces are often dangerous for me because it brings back the memory of being the unwanted child, the one who causes the problems and messes everything up for everyone else (such as I was taught to believe about myself) and I still struggle today to put into words the isolation, loneliness and emptiness I sometimes feel. This is how my work developing Qultura and my creative work acts as a counter to my addictive behaviour. Now I try to fill the void wherever I can with creativity, my service to others and with compassion for those who are still struggling. If you are reading this and still struggling with an addiction, I get you. Trust me, I get you.
What is an addiction?
I define an addiction as any behaviour or substance, or anything which gives you short term respite or relief but for which you pay a very heavy price. An addiction is not the same as a psychological dependency. An addiction is where you cross the line into abuse, abuse of yourself and abuse of a substance. But what many people don't seem to get is that yes, the addict may be fully conscious of the abusive nature of their addiction, and they get that it is a choice, but at the time they may feel that they just don't have any other choices available to them. You also cannot become free or give up the addiction despite the fact that you know the relationship is abusive and you're going to pay a heavy price for that addiction.
If you can look at addiction from this perspective you will perhaps realize that there are very many addictions. There's not just the classic addictions such as to drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and food, but there's also addictions to consumerism, the addiction to sex, to the internet, to shopping, to money, to attention and to power. Yes the addiction makes you needy, but we are living in a society which is making many of us needy. We are struggling to fill an emptiness or a void, and many of us are trying to fill that emptiness or void from the outside. This is the exact same thing as what an addiction is trying to achieve, it is trying to fill the emptiness or void from the outside.
You see when it comes to the question of why someone has pain you cannot pay too much attention to their genetics or brain, you have to look at their lives, their personal narratives, and their histories. Almost invariably the addiction is a consequence of abuse, whether in childhood or adulthood, asnd it is also a consequence of trauma. We're talking here about such things as physical abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, abandonment, rejection, emotional loss and pain, and quite often these are not single experiences but cycles of experiences which occurred time and time again. This is why there is pain.
Social and environmental factors
There are other aspects to addiction which go beyond the individual and an abusive or traumatic experience. There is also the social and environmental factors which shape the development of the brain in the addict which influences what goes through the mind.
This comes back to the natural predisposition. If you go into a lab and feed a mouse the mouse will eat the food and enjoy it. But if you knock out the dopamine receptor in the brain the mouse will not move towards the food and will starve to death. Dopamine is what gives you your motivation, vitality, curiosity, your get up and go. When someone with an addiction takes drugs they get a dopamine hit. But why aren't they producing dopamine naturally like everyone else? It's a myth that any substance or drugs is addictive, just as food, shopping and sex isn't addictive, but for some people it is. What is it that has happened in their brains and mind so that the natural human instinct to seek out something and to use tools gets twisted into addictive behaviour?
Likewise baby mice if they are separated from their mothers will not cry for their mothers. In the wild this would mean that the baby would die because it is only the mother which protects and nurtures the baby. Why? This is because the chemical binding site in the brain for endorphins was knocked out. Endorphins are indigenous, morphine like substances which act just like natural painkillers. Endorphins also facilitate love and attachment to the parent and the parents attachment to the child. This means that infant mice without endorphin receptors in their brains will not call for their mothers.
Drugs such as morphine and heroin act on the endorphin system. The question remains what happens to these individuals and why do they need these chemicals from the outside? When these individuals are abused as children these circuits don't develop in their brains. When you don't have love and attachment in your life when you are very young then those important brain circuits just don't develop properly. Under conditions of abuse things just don't develop properly which means that their brains are susceptible when they take drugs but not if they feel pain relief, not if they feel love, not if they feel emotional attachment. One addict has related that the effects of heroin felt like a warm soft hug.
I maybe didn't go through some of the extreme experiences of other addicts but I was an unwanted child, told I was an unwanted child, and I picked up on much of the abuse my mother was put through in my parents dysfunctional and abusive marriage and later on in my own relationships I ended up with as sense of emptiness which I still believe cannot be filled. My whole point for going into theatre was that if I cannot be loved for who I am, then I can be needed, admired, or loved for something I do or for my work in the community. But see if I were to be in a relationship or have a family and putting my creativity first I would simply be passing on the same message to my children. This is why I elected never to create a family or have children. I prefer to pass on my insight rather than my suffering and I have no desire to pass on any of the abuse that I went through as a child.
You see there are many ways of filling the emptiness. But the emptiness always goes back to what we didn't get when we were very small and what we were put through in our environment.
But then we look at the drug addict and we say to them "How can you possibly do this to yourself? How can you take drugs when you know it will kill you?" But look at what we are doing to the planet as a species. Look at how we are polluting the planet with all sorts of chemicals and substances and filling up the oceans with plastics, and how we are destroying the environment. This in turn is having effects which are killing us. So which addiction is the greater here? Is it the addiction to oil and fossil fuels? Or to consumerism? Or to money? Which of these things is causing the greater harm?
You see this is why we judge the drug addict and the morbidly obese person because we see that they are just like us and we don't like that. So we tell them that "You are different from us. You are worse than we are." This is the whole premise and thinking behind political campaigns such as the war on drugs or policies designed to tackle obesity. It is pure deflection and nothing more. This is no different from scapegoating the immigrants and blaming them for the political and economic failures of political parties.
Recently we have fires in the Amazon rainforest, as well as fires in other rainforests in the world, and the genocide against the indigenous people in Brazil who are fighting to protect their lands and their forests from the corporations and the big farmers. But if you head north and go to countries like Canada and the United States you will also find indigenous people who are also heavily addicted to drink and drugs, who have also been dispossessed, and who also make up a disproportionate number of people who are kept in jail, kept unemployed, jobless, poor, homeless, and you will also find cases of indigenous women who have either gone missing or killed yet their murders or disappearances remain unsolved. These are abuses which have been going on for centuries and generations.
Now if you can understand the suffering of these indigenous people who have been dispossessed and who are now addicted to seek relief from their suffering, what about the addictions of the people who are perpetrating this abuse? What are these people addicted to? They are addicted to power. They are addicted to wealth. They are addicted to acquisition. They want to make themselves bigger.
Addiction and power
If you are interested in addiction it's worth looking deeper into addiction to power and looking at those figures in history who have been addicted to power and their lives. Look at people such as Alexander the Great. Look at people such as Napoleon Bonaparte. Look at people such as Adolf Hitler. Look at Genghis Khan. Look at Joseph Stalin. It's worth looking at these people and asking yourself why do they need power so much? Interestingly many of these figures were physically small people. They were outsiders and not considered part of the main population. Stalin was a Georgian, not Russian. Napoleon was a Corsican, and not French. Alexander was a Macedonian, not a Greek. Hitler was an Austrian, not a German. There was a real sense of insecurity and inferiority. They needed power to feel okay about themselves, to make themselves feel bigger,m and in order to get that feeling they were perfectly willing to fight wars and kill a lot of people. This doesn't mean that only small people can be addicted to power, because power and addiction to power is always about the emptiness that you try and fill from the outside.
Even when he was in exile on the island of St. Helena Napoleon still maintained that he loved power. Napoleon could not see himself as a person without power. It's interesting to compare this to other figures such as Buddha and Jesus. Both the Buddha and Jesus were tempted by the Devil and one of the things the Devil offered them is power. They were both offered earthly power and they both rejected that power because they knew that power was something which existed inside themselves. They know that power is something which comes from deep inside oneself. They don't want to control people, but merely wish to enlighten people and teach through example, and through compassion and kindness, and through wisdom and insight and not through force or coercion. They refuse power.
It's very interesting what its believed they said about this. It's claimed that Jesus said that the power and the reality is not outside you, but inside you. The Kingdom of God is within. Prior to his death when his monks and followers were starting to mourn him, it is claimed that the Buddha told them "Don't mourn me or worship me. Instead find the lamp inside yourself. be a lamp unto yourselves. Find the light within."
How do we use the light and power within ourselves?
So as we look at this world with the climate change and environmental destruction let us not look to the people in power to change things. The people in power unfortunately are some of the weakest and emptiest people in the world. They are not going to change things for us. We have to find that light within ourselves. We have to find the light within our local communities. We have to find the light in our own individual creativity, in our own wisdom and insight. We cannot wait for the people in power to make things better for us because they are never going to. Not unless we 'make' them, but if we have to expend so much energy to make them, then surely it would be better to expend that energy on making the changes for ourselves and simply disregard them? Why waste energy in conflict and division fighting the people who have the power but who only want more, when we could expend that energy in connection and making things easier for the those in our communities who don't have access to any power?
Surely it is better to be there for those who have nothing and to shine our light and examples so they can learn to find their light within, and their individual power, than to waste energy trying to convince those in power that they are wrong when they have not shown any willingness previously to change their beliefs or to let go of their attachment to power?