There has been some new information about the cause of addiction that has been getting a lot of attention in the media lately! I was first introduced to a book called Chasing the Scream by one of my wonderful kiwi friends while on a trip to Australia. We had just met, but jumped right into a wonderfully stimulating discussion about addiction because she’s a drug an alcohol counselor too! The actual source of this information is a book called In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts by Gabor Mate, MD and Peter Levine, PhD. Myself I’m not so concerned with what causes addiction, but how to heal, transform and change people’s lives for the better, mine included. These authors say the cause is very important, it is childhood trauma and that the “disease” model is flawed. (I think we have other things that are keeping us trapped as well, but more on that in my next blog)
For many years I have been an addictions counselor. I have seen people from all different levels of society, age ranges and cultural backgrounds suffer from drug or alcohol abuse. I was so very lucky to have been introduced to a wonderful man that I’m not sure many people know. His name was Dr William Madsen. He passed away in 2004 but I had the great fortune to be one of his students back in 1985 at UC Santa Barbara. He was an anthropologist who wrote a book called The American Alcoholic. He studied addictions in the context of culture as an anthropologist. There are different cultural patterns of addiction when it comes to drug and alcohol abuse, but that’s not what I want to share with you today. Dr Madsen was there when Alcoholics Anonymous was still forming. He knew the founders and others whose names are not so well known. He studied AA as a culture itself! He was a wonderful mentor to us young and newly sober college students who were in his course called “Anthropological Approaches to Addiction.” He would whisper little things to us out of the side of his mouth that were kind of hard to understand but came in very handy later. He said things like, “god’s will for you is your will for yourself,” referring to the third step which reads, ” We turned our will and our lives over to God as we understood God.” Of course in religious circles this might sound heretical but I have found it to be very true! In fact I would say it is our job to get out of our own way and really take the time to get in touch with what we want. We may not want to live the way we were taught we were “supposed to!” Now that I am sitting here in this present time I see Dr Madsen as a rebel of sorts. Not that he ever interfered with my recovery. He didn’t. This is why I feel a little hesitant to jump right in with this new wave of energy about the likely cause of addiction. I have a no problem with us healing unresolved trauma as this new perspective suggests. In fact this should and is impacting the treatment of addictions. That’s just common sense and good advice, whether or not a person has an addiction to a substance. But I do feel concerned that those who are vulnerable like I was in the beginning may take this new perspective the wrong way and say…well if it isn’t the drugs causing the addiction then I can heal trauma and use and drink to my hearts content! The person abusing alcohol or drugs has conditioned themselves in a very strong way to be more likely to use drugs or alcohol. There is no end to this pursuit. That is the meaning of ” the realm of the hungry ghost.” I have seen many people die when no one thought they were going to drink or use again. We just don’t know who is going to relapse or when. The problem is that they end up very vulnerable to accidentally killing themselves because they had no sense that their tolerance had recovered, if only for a brief time. They they drank or used like they did at the height of their abuse but this time it killed them!
In fact what I am left hearing at this moment is Dr Madsen saying what he always said to his class, “is it nature or nurture? What is the cause?” He spent his life looking at this question and like a good researcher did not settle on one answer but kept refining the questions he asked, looking for those questions that are most relevant. I do wish he were alive an able to discuss this “new” information. Maybe the question of cause has been answered now, maybe not, but we still need to be very sensitive to the person who is new to recovery or anyone who may have a chance at succeeding like I did. We should give them every chance because recovery is possible.! Dr. Madsen was a great advocate for the person suffering from alcoholism. He said to his class, “perhaps the alcoholic doesn’t need to worry about going to hell…..he or she has already been there!” I feel wary of putting information out to the public that gives anyone in a vulnerable position another reason to drink or use. It is a hell to live with addiction to substances.
Despite the horrible consequences there are successes as well. Those people don’t get much press because, as Dr. Madsen used to say, ” what if you don’t see them because they’ve ‘returned to normal life” as the 12 promises in the Big Book of AA says!” We don’t hear this much. And as I hinted at in the beginning of this blog there may be an even better, different or more fulfilling ” normal” that we can create for ourselves and together.
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