Changing the Conversation with Your Addict
If you’re in recovery, and especially if you frequent 12-step meetings, it’s not uncommon to hear about the “addict” in each person who struggles with addictive behavior. Often, using this term in this way refers to that part of the individual that wants to use, act out, or wreak havoc in some other way that is harmful to others.
I completely understand, then, why when I hear folks use this term in this way, they’re trying to prevent that damage from happening. They don’t want to lie anymore. They don’t want to hurt their partner with the “addict’s” hurtful words. And they really don’t want to use or act out.
So why am I about changing the conversation with your addict?
The “Addict” Label and How It’s Used
Let’s get the low-hanging fruit out of the way. When you call yourself an “addict,” you’re talking to yourself. How you talk to yourself greatly influences how you think about yourself, your feelings, and consequently your behaviors.
Many of the people I talk to don’t really want to be called an addict. There’s a lot of stigma around that label, and it can be shaming for many.
Yet there’s an understandable reason why many in the addiction field say that you need to identify as an addict:
The disease model of addiction says that once you’re an addict, you’ll always be an addict. So addiction is a condition that can’t be cured but only managed; the best one can do is to keep the diseased addict in control through continued meeting attendance, working the steps, and other ways of engaging the program.
If this works for you, awesome. I’m always all about anything that works. But for many, it doesn’t. They don’t like being labeled as an addict, they don’t like feeling powerless, and they don’t like the prospect of going to meetings and working a program for the rest of their lives.
Why Changing the Conversation with Your Addict Might be Helpful
I’m not crazy about labels in general, including diagnoses (ugh). And I’m not crazy about the idea that managing a lifelong relationship with my “addict,” keeping him in check lest he wantonly create havoc my life, is the best I can hope for.
Sidenote: I am about dealing with your addiction and getting over it. It’s a controversial position these days, believe it or not, but I think it can be done, even if it usually takes time. Okay, back to our regularly scheduled program.
When we talk to ourselves in ways that are consciously or unconsciously shaming, we encourage our need for the symptom we’re trying to free ourselves from.
Read that last sentence again. Addiction often starts as a means of dealing with difficult, unpleasant, or overwhelming feelings. Substance use and behaviors usually start getting problematic when we use them to cope with these feelings instead of learning to deal with them ourselves. When we talk to ourselves in ways that exacerbate our shame, we’re feeding our shame—and our need to deal with it with addictive behavior.
Your Addict’s Job
Here’s the deal. All of us have parts of ourselves, almost like a bunch of members sitting around a conference table on the committee of our own minds. And in a healthy mind, each committee member is granted a say, a seat at the table, and is included in decisions. Members work together in an integrated, harmonious way that’s really, well, beautiful.
Committee members that are deeply wounded (a childhood self, perhaps), gets loved on by older, wiser parts of ourselves (and maybe therapists like me). We work patiently through that pain until which time our pain is transformed and, oddly, useful.
Addiction starts when one wounded committee member isn’t allowed to say anything. She’s hurting so badly that other committee members may not know what to do and look for a way to soothe her.
At the first hint of emotional pain, when the wounded committee member is “triggered,” your addict does just what your committee elected her to do. She steps up immediately and says, “I got this.” Enter your powerful urge to drink, use, or act out sexually. She steps in to anesthetize the pain, and she’s very good at it.
The Real Conversation
From this perspective, then, it doesn’t make much sense to tell the addict to shut up when she wants something. And neither will it do to “white-knuckle” it through the urge to use or act out. Any way of dealing with addiction that doesn’t engage directly with your “addict” and opts for managing him instead is bypassing the real work of healing the emotional wounds under the addiction.
This is especially important as the emotional wounds and trauma that addictive behavior is charged with soothing are unconscious. If we repress the addict or simply are content to manage him, it may be that we’re bypassing the roots of our addiction entirely.
Instead of turning away from our addictive urges and trying to manage them, the key is to turn toward them. Turning toward your “addict” is difficult and requires first learning not to act compulsively on what he’s telling you to do. But with practice, we can ask questions that will help us be curious about what’s going on under the surface:
- What does the urge want?
- Why are you feeling the urge to drink or act out now? What triggered it?
- What are you feeling that you’re wanting to use or act out?
- What do you really need?
Honestly reflecting on these questions can provide critical clues to our unconscious pain and help us to give a voice to long-forgotten, wounded parts of ourselves that we’ve probably tried very hard to forget.
So talk to your addict, folks. After all, it’s only doing its job. After learning to manage what he wants you to do and make other choices instead (which I don’t mean to say is easy, by the way), a different conversation entirely, one that facilitates healing and wholeness, becomes possible.
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