I’ve been in recovery for almost five years. It’s difficult to say, however, what my recovery is from. There’s no measureable substance with which I can relate my sobriety, no way to legitimately claim abstinence from a particular behavior. There is no 90-day or five-year chip. Some people might not believe that my recovery is “as important” or “as difficult,” or even “as real” as recovery from a substance or specific behavior. They might also believe that the damage from this side of addiction couldn’t equal its counterpart.
I can assure you, however, my recovery is real—as real as the destruction in its wake. And it’s been a difficult journey. Some of you may be able to relate. Others may not want to.
My addiction is emotional and relational—almost impossible to quantify, but poignant in body and soul. Clean and sober, for me, is a process that occurs internally and in the realm of how I connect with people in my most intimate relationships. The only way to understand whether I’m “on” or “off” the wagon is by having a felt sense of being in relationship with me—and not just any relationship—being in the grit of life with me.
Maybe it’s silly for me to look at my own earlier relational habits as addictive processes. But if we are not able to look at this spectrum—the tightrope that we all have walked, in some form or fashion, whether personally or in relation to others—it’s impossible to have the necessary understanding and compassion when it comes to the need to hold and heal the overarching epidemic of addiction in our culture and world. It has literally become part of the infrastructure of our relatedness, an underlying root system that is rotting out from under us, from which our relational matrix has evolved.
A large percentage of how we know one another, how we manage emotions in the presence of one another, how we share intimacy, and how we function are relational constructs that have depended on generational patterns of addiction to exist. And it is essential that we look to each one of us—to how we’ve been a part of this evolving destructive cycle, if we want to begin to heal our capacity for being in the world and with one another.
It’s easier to think of addiction in regard to alcohol or drugs, or a behavior such as pornography, gambling, gaming, or sex. It’s much more clear to imagine how the effects of those behaviors can wreak havoc in families and relationships, or in our professional lives. …But emotional addiction? What does that even mean? And who’s to say what’s addictive when it comes to our hearts expression? One way to look at it is this: An addictive personality has an inability to regulate emotions internally, so seeks some external substance, behavior, emotion, or relationship to help regulate. This could be alcohol, sex, heroine, shopping, food, relationship, control, gaming, or any other number of behaviors intended to provide short-term relief from emotional discomfort.
Some might see these types of relational/emotional addictive patterns as a “co-addiction” or co-dependency. The thing is… ALL addiction is RELATIONAL. It begins with emotional pain—emotional loss or trauma. And it begins in relationship. And I want to point to the beauty in that, as it is through relationship—with ourselves and others—that we heal.
Culturally, it is easy to look to an “identified patient” when it comes to addiction. But addiction happens within a system of closeness, of togetherness, of intimacy of some sort, and so really, addiction IS co-addiction, and almost always happens in a co-dependent system. And it is through a systemic lens that we need to look, if we are going to heal.
Systems support dependency through co-dependency. Think about it.
Since addiction doesn’t happen alone, we don’t heal alone. We heal when we are in the presence of willingness, compassion, understanding, honesty, challenge, and grace; and are able to allow our pain some space–to have a voice. When we can fully be with what is in the presence of another, we have an opportunity of living into the people we were designed to be. When we learn to allow healthy relationship to help regulate our nervous systems, with mindful intention, we can begin to increase our own tolerance for emotion, and learn to organize and regulate our experiences from an internal locus of control.
Emotional pain lights up the brain just like physical pain, and whether an addiction is to an external substance or an internal feeling, the brain’s pain response can be soothed in similar ways. Our addictive patterns—whether to heroine, shopping, or emotional control or drama—are all attempts to soothe pain, to escape it—to be in the world, in our bodies, and in relationship with others.
As Dr. Gabor Maté says, we need to be looking not at what’s wrong with addiction, but what works—what’s right about it. When we can understand how it’s working, we can begin to understand the underlying need. And when we can understand and validate the true need, the habit and/or desire to avoid it can dissipate.
So what’s the difference between addiction and co-addiction?
Let’s first define addiction:
Addiction is a condition that results when a person ingests a substance (e.g., alcohol, cocaine, nicotine) or engages in an activity (e.g., gambling, sex, shopping) that can be momentarily pleasurable but the continued use/act of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work, relationships, or health. In this scenario, the decision to stop ingesting the substance or engaging in the activity can feel impossible.
The definition of co-addiction looks a little different:
Co-addiction is the dependence on the needs, behaviors, or control of, another—to the point where one can become entirely preoccupied—and placing a lower priority on one’s own needs and behavior, resulting in an external locus of control: The experience of one’s emotions being regulated by someone or something external to the self. Initially, the experience can feel pleasurable, as it can result in a sense of connectedness, purpose, the building of ego, and the feeling of “care-taking.” For an active co-addict, however, the decision to “let go” of an addict and their behavior, and focus instead on SELF, can feel insurmountable.
If any one of us finds ourselves in intimate, long-term relationship to “an addict,” let’s get clear:
That doesn’t happen if we don’t have the right wiring to be in relationship with addiction. We are an integral piece in the puzzle. This is where co-dependency can be confusing. If we’re in an addictive system that we can’t seem to get out of, we are on the spectrum of addiction—plain and simple. That doesn’t mean that other things aren’t in play, or that we always have equal culpability in every relationship or situation. It does mean, however, that what we bring to the table matters and that more than likely, if we’re blaming an addict, we have blind spots with regard to how we are impacting our relationship.
Addictions related to our emotions can contribute to levels of toxicity in our lives that equal, and may even surpass, the damage done by chemical or behavioral addictions, mostly because of our lack of awareness, coupled with our blame toward “the addict.” When we see another as “the problem,” we disregard areas in our own lives that are causing damage. We may be embodying contempt, which research has shown is the kiss of death to relationship. (That’s another article!) When we focus on another’s problems, we also disempower ourselves to take charge of our own path. We become the victim to our situation and lose our objectivity—our ability to clearly see a different way.
I have fallen “off the wagon” multiple times. What does that look like, you might wonder. Someone with a substance addiction can’t “kind of” relapse—a drink or drug is a tangible slide. Yet a thought…. even a misstep in relationship is subtle—less obvious. Comfortable, in a way, because it’s what we “know,” (that early wiring) and also because there is a certain relational truth to the core underpinnings of our addictive behavior—the underlying intention to connect in ways that feel good can be incredibly healthy. The feeling, though, is also incongruent, and most often in my case, I’m the only one any wiser. Thankfully, I’ve gotten better during the last decade at tracking the subtle shifts that clue me in, and less comfortable with how they land.
When I have a misstep, the most obvious impact is that I feel incongruent with who I know myself to be in intimate relationship. It shows up in my behavior, in my every day emotional presence, and in my body. Dr. Maté shares a quote in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts stating, “Nothing records the effects of a sad life so graphically as the human body.” When we learn to pay attention to the subtle shifts in sensation, in our bodies, we begin to know when we’re off track, and how to utilize that deeper wisdom to help us find our way back into alignment.
So… the actual point of this share?
We’re in this together, each of us. We exist in systems that are held in greater systems; from physiological, biological perspectives, from family, relational, community, and cultural perspectives, from spiritual and energetic perspectives, and from the perspective of healing, change, and growth.
Healing addictive cycles needs to happen from a “bottom up” approach, rather than a “top down” approach, changing the foundation verses treating the symptoms. We need to nourish the mitochondria of a diseased cell before we simply apply a balm to the resulting external wound. We need to look at the foundation of this matrix of our cultural connectedness—our human identity and the way in which we experience one another. We need to understand how we’ve woven together the fabric of our human experience and how each of us are a part of that fabric. We need to heal from a lens of togetherness rather than separateness.
I’d appreciate your thoughts, your own sharing, your resistance and reservations.
For the Love of Your Life,