Addiction is something many of us have experienced, whether we ourselves have battled with addiction, guilt and shame, or we know a loved one, friend or family member who is dealing with addiction. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 19.7 million American adults (aged 12 and older) battled a substance use disorder in 2017 alone!
When it comes to addiction, whether we are talking about addiction to drugs, alcohol, food, sex and so on, people are often faced with conflicting messages: they are damaged goods with little or no hope of overcoming their addiction, or it is all their fault and they are just “bad apples”. Yet reality is far more complicated, and, thankfully, far more hopeful: it is possible to take responsibility for our lives while recognizing and dealing with the negative consequences of addiction.
Addiction means to be consumed by something, which is why I think it is important that we learn to see addiction through the lens of the latest neuroscientific research. Addiction involves the desire to suppress an issue or trauma that is causing you discomfort and pain. We are not just controlled by our “chemical hooks” and defined by our biological predilections. Rather, we are constantly changing in response to our environment (through neuroplasticity, or the ability of the brain to change. Addiction is a response (a signal) to life, to some underlying issue that needs to be addressed. Indeed, the latest scientific research also shows that up to 85% of people get out of addictions through choice once they begin to work on the underlying issues that led to their addiction, as I discuss on this' week's blog and podcast with Adi Jaffe, Ph.D.
Dr. Adi Jaffe is a nationally recognized expert on mental health, addiction, relationships and shame. He was a UCLA lecturer in the Psychology department at UCLA for the better part of a decade, and was the Executive-Director and Co-Founder of one of the most progressive mental health treatment facilities in the nation. He has been interviewed on several national TV shows, including Dr. Oz and Larry King, has been featured in many documentaries on addiction and has his own TEDx talk. His work and unique approach to addiction has also been published in numerous journals, and he is a regular contributor to Psychology Today.
Dr. Jaffe's work and research focus on changing the way Americans think about, and deal with mental health issues. He is passionate about the role of shame in destroying lives and aims to greatly reduce the stigma of mental health and addiction in this country. He has used both his personal and professional experience as an incredibly effective inspirational and motivational tool.
Although he grew up in a loving home, Dr. Jaffe always felt uncomfortable with who he was, and started drinking and using drugs to hide his anxiety and depression. Over time, he developed a meth addiction, which led to drug dealing to pay for his habit. As Dr. Jaffe notes, “he wasn’t learning how to deal with discomfort; he was only learning how to mask it, but he always felt alone.” Eventually, he was caught and spent time in jail and rehab; however, when he was released he still battled with drug addiction and had several relapses. True change, after all, is not instant; it is a process.
Dr. Jaffe eventually realized that he had to find another way to recover—the traditional system was not helping him. He had to take accountability and responsibility for his own life; he had to believe that he had it in himself to change. And, when he realized that he was not just “damaged goods” with no hope of recovery and that he could change, began to take charge of his life and go back to school, which put him on the path to where he is today: helping people overcome addiction, mental health and shame. Through his book, The Abstinence Myth, his work and his organization, online program and podcast IGNTD, he helps people recognize that we need “guidance and understanding, not judgment and stigma, and the sooner we realize this, the more lives we’ll be able to save.”
His unique take on addiction, mental health and shame has changed thousands of lives for the better, and can help you or anyone you know who is battling as well. His method, although unconventional, is truly unique and transformative, as it focuses on:
1. Dealing with “you” as a person: As Dr. Jaffe notes, you first have to deal with what is right in front of you, and “you” are the first thing that is in front of you. You need to recognize where your strength and weaknesses like, and plan for it to help you manage them and recover. You need to accept that you used certain tools to cope with issues for a while, and now you need different tools. Don’t feel bad about your shortcomings, as we all have them! Deal with your reality, and move forward in the best way you can. Accept who you are right now.
2. Start where you are: you don’t have to quit something to recover from addiction, you have to start where you are. Although traditional ways of treating addiction begins with the assumption that you have to be ready to quit, this is not the case, and often sets people up for failure, which is why the industry ends up turning away 90% of people who need help. Yet, in many cases, people don’t necessarily want to give up the thing they are addiction to, such as sex, food or alcohol; they want to learn how to control their use of it and just want their life to get better. As Dr. Jaffe notes, the abstinence requirement is a huge barrier for people who need help. You don’t have to want to quit to get better, but you do have to want your life to get better to get over your addiction. If you are committed to a better life, then you are more willing to put in the hard work and effort it takes to overcome any addiction.
3. Deal with the root of your addiction: what is making you unhappy? What substance or thing are you using to mask your discomfort? Do you like your life? Oftentimes, we use substances and things to escape our lives or cover up our distress, which can lead to addiction if we do not stop and ask ourselves what we want and how we would like our lives to look, or do not take the time to deal with the problems we face.
Indeed, addictions are often the symptom of the undealt with issues in our lives, not stand-alone “conditions” or labels, which is why we need to be careful of using more traditional terms like “alcoholic” and “drug addict” without first understanding where that person came from, what their unique story is and what is causing them pain.
Instead of letting the confirmation bias of a traditional label like alcoholism define someone’s story, looking backwards and seeing everything through the prism of an addiction, we need to understand where they came from and how they ended up where they are now. We should never let an addiction define someone’s past, present and future. We need to stop just giving people solutions and start asking people questions, such as “why does drinking this make you feel good?”, “why are you unhappy”, “how are you feeling inside” or “why do you feel that this helps you?”. We even need to take a good look at ourselves and how we may have contributed to someone’s behavior. By doing this, we not only eliminate people’s barriers that prevent them from getting the help they need and we start asking the questions they want us to ask, which helps them honestly explore and share their stories, hopes, dreams and failures in a non-judgmental, caring and safe environment, which is critical to the recovery process.
As I constantly say, we have to face and analyze our emotional and physical warning signals and find the why: what is the root of our mental and physical distress? This is one of the first steps to any kind of recovery, and is one of the reasons why I designed my new app SWITCH, which is a great tool for helping people deal with their issues and overcome addictive thought patterns and behaviors through the mental process of reconceptualization.
The “why” defines the process of healing and transformation, which will look different for everyone as we each have our own unique story, so don’t think just because something worked for someone it will work for you, or for someone else.
Of course, when it comes to overcoming addiction, it is so important to remember that change is a given. As Dr. Jaffe notes, it’s not that you can’t or won’t change, because you are changing all the time, but you can either choose to take charge of what that change will look like, or let it happen haphazardly and allow the world to dictate what those changes will be. You can take control of your life; you got this!
For more on how to overcome addiction, guilt and shame, listen to my podcast with Dr. Jaffe (episode #125), watch my YouTube episode on addiction, check out Dr. Jaffe’s website and his Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, as well as his organization and online program IGNTD and his book The Abstinence Myth.