addiction: the opposition to opposites

We might see psychotherapy as the process, whereby we are supported in coming to terms with the opposites of many of the things we want in our life. For example, we meet the love of our life, and over time discover she or he isn’t the god or goddess we had dreamed of and have irritating habits, or weaknesses of character. Or, we land the dream job and find we have been sat next to a work colleague who takes an instant dislike to us.

Psychotherapy is therefore a means of helping us come to terms with many of these areas of experience, which we live in hope won’t happen to us. We place all our expectant belief that somehow, with this new relationship, or with this new job that this time it will all be different.

We might view addictions as being an amplification of this process. Nobody becomes an addict to become addicted, ruin their life and become profoundly miserable. People fall into the trap of addiction, to find something better in their lives; to find more happiness and meaning for themselves. However, this comes at a price. As a life that is lived without the inclusion of opposites (e.g. the annoying work colleague that dislikes you), leads to an existence that goes in search of anything that can provide some kind of distraction or relief in the face of, what can be experienced as a crushing reality that doesn’t want to conform to our wishes.

This process goes a lot deeper though. For example, when we consider an individual who carries the burden of childhood abuse, at the hands of care givers whose responsibility was to show love and compassion. This person may have no other means of dealing with this level of wounding except to get drunk every night; take lines of cocaine or habitually find themselves in relationships which feel compulsive and uncontrollable.

Whatever structure we have created in order to bolster our fragile sense of sense, our addictive patterns end up becoming defences against the underlying angst of our past hurts, and can be viewed in some sense as failed anxiety management techniques. These wounding’s may lay dormant, out of conscious for many years, yet their legacy still rings in our ears through our addictive patterns behaviours.

My experience of working with clients with addiction issues, has been in supporting them to break this cycle of addiction, through bearing the unbearable, in consciously delving into the obsession; in allowing a space for the unassimilated parts of themselves that have remained buried for so long. It is through this process that the parts of ourselves that have brought such chaos and destruction to our lives, become the means by which we find healing. It is only then that we can find a reconciliation of opposites in our life and a real sense of wholeness. Paradoxically, we might say that addictions can be seen as an attempt to find this sense of wholeness for ourselves.

Depression: to medicate, or not to medicate?

Depression seems to have become a go to diagnosis for all our ills within modern society. We see it as some kind of anomaly, a monolithic entity that needs to be gotten rid of and as such requires treatment in returning us to a place of unalloyed happiness.

However, we might view depression as having different facets; these being “reactive or environmental”; “inherited” and “historical”. We might experience one, or all of them simultaneously. They are however, often undifferentiated, though have different root causes, as well as asking of us differing questions.

 

- Reactive or Environmental Depression:

A reactive depression is a normal response to a loss or disappointment. It is understandable to feel a period of depression, following a bereavement or ending of a marriage. The extent to which we are emotionally invested in the world we live in; will determine the pain we experience. With the right support reactive depression will resolve itself. It only becomes a longer-term difficulty if it begins to profoundly affect the normal day to day functioning of the individual.

- Inherited Depression:

Inherited depression derives from biological causes. This kind of depression can be carried genetically through the family. Individuals experiencing this, find a real difficulty in performing the day to day tasks that many of us take for granted. As though they are constantly walking up a steep hill, carrying a heavy weight. This kind of depression can respond particularly well to medication, as this helps to re-balance the chemical make-up of the brain.

-  Historical Depression:    

Depression can sometimes feel like a well with no bottom. However, from a therapeutic perspective historical depression is a well with a bottom, even if we may need to dive deeply to find it!  We might see this form of depression as a kind of collusion against ourselves. Where we have suffered an early trauma in our lives, such as an emotional abandonment by a care giver. We come to see ourselves as not being worthy of love and care from others in later life. Therapeutically, the task here is to attempt to become conscious of the difference between what happened to us in the past and who we are in the present.   

 

Depression in mid-life often carries with it a crisis that embodies the conflict between what we have created through this false self of our early conditioning; (the belief we are unworthy of love) and the spontaneity and energy of our true selves. We could say at these times that depression is a way of describing the search for the embodiment of our true self.

Unfortunately, at these times, what can become de-pressed is the space that allows us to reflect on “what is the meaning of this depression”. We might say that the therapeutic process is one whereby we are offered the means, at these times to take a breath and allow ourselves to sit with what is being asked of us.

As such, I am not implying that medication doesn’t have a place in treating some forms of depression; especially if there has been a chemical imbalance in the functioning of the brain. However, depression might also be asking us to reconcile who we think we are, with who we actually are. At these times; in using medication as a one size fits all “cure”, we may be missing an opportunity to know who we really are.

Is happiness all it's cracked to be?

It seems to be the endless search within our contemporary culture….To find happiness. Our media and advertising continually tell us that what we all want to be happy and here is the way you can find it. Happiness seems to have become commodified and packaged for us. We just click a button on our computer and purchase happiness in one easy manoeuvre!

We seek to buy our happiness, through bypassing an existential dichotomy; which is that our longings for happiness are continually pitched against what we suffer as our inherent limitations. Another way of viewing this is the difference between what we hope for and what our actual experience of the world is.

Therefore, psychotherapy in particular doesn’t promote the goal of therapy as being one of gaining happiness, but rather to embrace meaning instead. It is true, that we will experience moments of happiness. However, they are ephemeral and can neither be willed into existence or purchased.

So, what does it mean to embrace meaning in our lives? Having worked with clients over a 10-year period I have seen how the pursuit of happiness is often in reaction to suffering. It’s as though happiness is seen as the eternal panacea that will cure all of us our ills and allow us to finally rest in peace. However, the reality of this position is that it often becomes its own form of purgatory, as the anxiety and pressure to find a “way out” through this pursuit brings its own form of unhappiness.

Living a life that gives a place to meaning, also means healing the gap between what we long for and the limitations we face in ourselves and the world we live in. It means learning to live with our suffering. It is fair to say that on the whole suffering gets a bad press these days. However, if suffering didn’t exist we would remain unconscious, dependant and fearful. It is a truism that we only begin to ask the important questions about ourselves and our lives when we are in pain. It is only from these choices to embrace and wrestle with these questions that we can begin to create a life filled with meaning for ourselves.

The purpose of psychotherapy is then, not to remove suffering, but to move through it towards a mind capable of holding the polarity of painful opposites. This isn’t an easy journey for anyone to make, but over a 10 year period I have worked with many clients in making this journey, and allowing them to embrace not only a deeper, more meaningful experience of the world, but also to embrace who they truly are, without the need to continue hiding from themselves.

Understanding Shame

We might define shame, as opposed to other emotions such as guilt, embarrassment, shyness and humiliation. The etymological meaning of the word is “to hide” or “cover up”. The experience of shame isn’t an isolated event, but often becomes tied to a set of destructive emotions. This is because shame is often a difficult emotion to communicate, and masquerades as other feelings. To put this in context, the experience of guilt can often be resolved through some form of practical intervention, which may include confession and making amends. However, the experience of shame is in large part tied to the individual’s experience of self and identity. As such shame is linked to an individual’s self-esteem. This situation can in turn lead to chronic shame, which can begin to take over the individual’s life leaving them with a pervasive sense of fear and terror and the inability to live meaningful lives, leaving individuals with feelings of depression and anxiety. 

Shame can often play a more dysfunctional role in men’s lives than in women’s. Evidence in this respect shows that male clients are often more ready in displaying behaviours to conceal their vulnerability and shame about attachment and caring, with these behaviours more likely to lead to violence. In this respect, the differing varieties of shame can be distinguished between being humiliated and shamed by someone else and those incidents in which the person themselves becomes the major source of criticism and assault on their self-esteem. However, what is clear is that shame is often accompanied by the experience of incompetence and feeling less than; with the associated experience of the individual having no responsibility or control over the circumstances they face. This in turn leaves many feeling they have lost connection with what they consider to be familiar and safe in their lives.

5 sources of shame, including:

  1. Genetic and biochemical

  2. Family of origin

  3. Self-shaming thoughts and feelings orchestrated by one’s own narrative

  4. Current humiliating relationships

  5. Contemporary culture

(GOLDBERG, C., 1991. Understanding Shame. London: Jason Aronson.)


Shame can occur at every stage of development, and we might say that this is an inevitable consequence of being alive; in that as children we are almost entirely dependent upon the exact correspondence of our needs and the attentive nurturing care of our caretaker 24/7, the reality of which unfortunately is impossible to maintain. This process can in turn lead to self-blame and self-loathing, which can lead the individual to seek psychological help. The experience of therapy can be shaming in itself for the client too; as they are often confronted, maybe for the first time in their lives with the realization that they have lost any meaningful control in making changes for themselves. I have found in my therapeutic work that being aware of these factors is an important part of understanding the client’s experience of shame and associated issues around depression and anxiety.

Can Grief Help us to Live our Lives More Fully?

“Grief dares us to love once more.”

Terry Tempest Williams


What does grief mean for each of us? Are we talking about loss, when we think of grief? Is the loss of a relationship comparable to the grief that comes with the loss of a loved one for instance?

There is no denying the intense pain experienced when a loved one dies. However, the loss incurred through the breakup of a long-term relationship may be experienced as just as traumatic for the individual experiencing it. As such, it is difficult to draw any generic demarcation lines for where these terms begin and end.

However, deeply felt grief and loss does have the ability to strip bear who we think we are and take us to a place that exposes us to our innate humanness. Our sense of fragility, that we too are mortal. It reminds us that despite all our goals and ambitions, we will have to let all of it go in the end.

In this sense grief has the ability to pull up from our depths, that which is most authentic in us, that which often asks us the most difficult questions in terms of who we are, how we have lived our lives and what is most important to us. It is through the experience of grief that we risk stepping into a place of facing who we think we are and acknowledging that this person may not be who we truly are. Without this awareness and willingness to be shaped by something larger than ourselves, we remain caught in the patterns of avoidance and heroic striving.

Grief therefore, can open us to unexpected surprises in our lives. It can reconnect us to something larger than the mundane experience of our ego’s. This greater openness within us can also allow us to experience a heartfelt quality of compassion for ourselves and the world we live in. Grief therefore becomes a threshold, that delivers us to the fundamental basis of what it means to be alive, a question that has the potential to connect us to the world in a fundamentally different way. In this sense grief might be seen as the dark colour that helps to add depth to the canvas of our lives, providing contrast and texture. Without these differing tones and hues, our lives would feel dull and uninteresting.

I am not suggesting here, that our lives should be lived being preoccupied with grief or sorrow, but rather to allow ourselves the means of facing these moments with presence and consciousness. In this way; to feel able to face everything that challenges us is the secret of being fully alive.