Addiction and the return to childhood

I continue to be obsessed with this problem of incompatible self-narratives. So, permit me one more rant on the subject. In this post I want to tell you about the dissociation I experienced myself, during my days of addiction, and the child-like freedom it brought me. I also want to compare what I experienced then to what I’m hearing from my psychotherapy clients now.

In re-reading my last two posts, I still see value in recognizing that we have discrepant versions of ourselves, discrepant self-narratives. And that trying to mash them together into a single coherent self-narrative can be more trouble than it’s worth (even though that’s considered the principal task of growing up). In fact, for addicts, it can be agonizing. It can generate much more stress than it resolves. And that’s simply more fuel for the addiction. Rather, I suggested that we try to accept each self-narrative, e.g., the “addict self” and the “good self,” on its own terms, and allow them to cohere in their own time.

The most extreme version of separate, distinct self-narratives is what psychiatrists call dissociation. And the most extreme form of dissociation is a bonafide multiple personality syndrome. While multiple personality is very rare, dissociation is not. It can be quite common for people with addictions.

When I was seriously addicted (during my 20s) I had two distinct selves — I can only call them that. By day I was an industrious graduate student in psychology. I was attentive in seminars and determined to excel — which I generally did. Then as the day drew to a close, my anxiety grew. Things were not working out in my marriage — my wife and I had radically different needs and expectations. I’d anticipate going home, dismissing my own needs, and catering to hers. Really I was going back to my “false self” — a term borrowed from psychoanalytic theory — which means being fake and imagining that the fake you is the real you. I tried being sensitive, solicitous, responsible, accommodating. I felt trapped in this role — a third self-narrative? I couldn’t see a way out. So I managed to change selves. I’d get those first glimmerings…why don’t I get some drugs and get high and of course hide it, not only from my wife but from everyone. It will be my secret — it’s always been my secret. Except when things went really wrong, like the time I woke up on a sofa in the student union lounge suffocating on what seemed poison gas. That unholy smell was burning upholstery. The sofa was on fire from the cigarette I’d dropped while nodding out. Or the times I got busted, fired, or kicked out of school.

So much for war stories. You often pay tenfold for whatever freedom your addiction earns. I did. But the solution isn’t to ignore what it’s telling you — about yourself…or your selves.

Here’s my point: when I switched to my drug-taking self, everything changed in my emotional world. I felt free and I felt real. I knew that I was in deep shit in my life, in my marriage, in every index of adult functioning. But! In this self-narrative, I was a bad boy who would get away with something, as I had before, as I would again, until…maybe until I got caught or until the rules changed. I willingly went after the freedom I gained from “being bad” — which is pretty much the label I attached to my drug-seeking.

People dispute whether addictive drug-taking is a choice or a disease. For me, as you know, it’s a choice, but it’s not a rational choice. It can certainly be a compulsive choice. It can be a very effortful choice to stop, which means it can be a relatively easy choice not to stop. (Choice is momentary. Anyone who’s ever been addicted knows the feeling of surrendering to the impulse — the relief of it. But the fact of that relief does not contradict the fact that you’ve just made a choice.)  So what are we choosing when we choose to get high? Not just the feeling of the drug (or activity — as in porn, sex addiction and gambling) or the excitement of anticipation. We’re choosing freedom from the restraints of being who we’re supposed to be. We’re choosing to become the child and throw off the sense of being judged and held accountable.

There’s a lot more to say about this choice. We know that most addicts had difficult childhoods of one kind or another; they could not be the children (or teens) they really were yet fit the world of adult expectations. In the dissociation of self-narratives that comes with addiction, we become those unruly children once again.

I’ve got roughly 10 clients in online psychotherapy right now — all of them struggling with addiction or moving beyond it. For perhaps every one of them, the addiction is a portal into a revamped childhood. They each give up the “self-imposed” rule of abstinence for the release of using (or doing). Several are coke addicts for whom coke is the thrilling invincibility of the rebellious child. Two are porn addicts who find in porn a secret world where they can watch the forbidden and desirable…and pretend. Two are heroin users who give up the loneliness and boredom of adult life for the cookie jar of pure pleasure, stolen rather than earned. For another, it’s food. Why should I have to stop eating? Why should I obey?! For all these people — and they are people I like and respect — addiction isn’t primarily about the substance or activity. It’s a portal to another world, where they can be another self. And here’s the crux: that other self feels more real, at least for a while — I mean more authentic, more pure — than the obedient, responsible self they return to afterward.

I wonder whether the “addict self” and the “good self” can only converge thoroughly, peacefully, when we allow ourselves to be greedy and selfish and needy or defiant, day to day, moment to moment, honouring the child who still lives inside us, at our core. When we grow to that stage (maybe with a little help from our “uber self” or our therapist or mindfulness meditation), when we achieve that degree of self-acceptance, then we won’t have to go to such lengths to feel comfortable in our own skin.


44 thoughts on “Addiction and the return to childhood

  1. Mark Gilman April 24, 2019 at 6:50 am #

    Marc. I have really enjoyed these last blogs. They describe my situation very well. I have been reflecting recently on how I have managed to get to nearly 63 years of age in quite decent shape (well relatively speaking) despite a lifetime of substance use and periods of ‘recovery’ (2.5 years this time around). I am now wondering whether my survival is due to the fact that I accepted from a very early age my attachment to substances as a necessity to survive and avoid suicide. I chose alcohol as a primary substance because of its social acceptability (had I been Iranian it would have been opium). Much to think about. Thank you

  2. matt April 24, 2019 at 8:44 am #

    Hey Marc

    It has been a long time…but not for the reasons you may think. Keep an eye on your email queue for an elaborated explanation. I’ve been swamped.

    I get that connection between “dissociation” and the rebel yell of the little guy who was led to believe he was a bad person or didn’t matter…who became disconnected. The self that uses the forbidden substance or activity as a functional coping tool that is adaptive, till it becomes a dysfunctional focus and maladaptive. It can be an exceedingly rational behavior until it becomes hyper-habituated, and then ceases to be.

    I think “recovery” involves acceptance of the dissociated self-narratives, and then their consolidation and conciliation. I don’t think it’s possible unless the hyper-focused habit undergoes sustained redirection, allowing the consolidation and conciliation to happen…at least in my experience.

  3. Denise April 24, 2019 at 9:10 am #

    What about when the “addict self” is the “good self”? Now sober in my late sixties, I look back on the me who used to drink and take drugs which made me more: sociable, fun, loose, easygoing, less perfectionistic, compulsive and critical, and of course, relaxed. I’m still trying to get used to the current me who is more like the pre-addiction me, describable by a list of adjectives opposite from the ones above.

  4. Nicolas April 24, 2019 at 9:13 am #

    Misaligned at the fence line
    The mixed herd stares blankly.
    Winding through with feed bag and shovel,
    Each cathartic beast
    The same and different
    As any two breaths
    In the open
    On the other side.

  5. Annette Stewart April 24, 2019 at 9:41 am #

    A very coherent post, Marc. Thanks for sharing! Let’s re-integrate that lost child into the wounded adult, but it takes time and good therapeutic help: ideally someone who’s been there! Self-care is #1 in it, despite the world telling us that’s selfish. We can’t operate in a 24/7 always on mode – it’s impossible.

    I think we need to find FUN again in our lives, with healthy outlets, rather than unhealthy ones. Gradually, we can retrain our brains to see the new habits/rituals as fun, because we’re conscious at the end of it and can remember every minute, or second even, of it. Less lusting, indulging, then relief; more anticipating, enjoying and coming out on a natural high, with photos we’re not ashamed to show others, if needbe!

  6. Donald Hunt April 24, 2019 at 10:12 am #

    Martha Stout wrote a book on dissociation called ‘The Myth of Sanity.’ Really describes what you wrote above. Practically everyone learns to dissociate at an early age in response to perceived trauma. I say perceived because some events may be actual abuse and some just a traumatic response to circumstances. ‘Healing Developmental Trauma’ is another great book that gets into how we develop ‘survival strategies’ early in life that serve us well then, but become problematic later in life.

    Enjoyed your post. Very insightful


  7. Janet April 24, 2019 at 11:07 am #

    Hi Marc,

    That’s not a rant, it’s knowledge. What you write makes so much sense. To reconcile ourselves… Your last paragraph speaks the truth. I believe.

    And Nicolas… I love your poem.

  8. April 24, 2019 at 12:57 pm #

    Hi Marc,
    So when the addict chooses to abstain, their good self is actually in turmoil: how long will this last? I ask because I am in the middle of chaos right now trying to quit alcohol, I have been a binge drinking drunk, almost every weekend for 30 or so years, with some periods of sobriety, which I find peaceful at times, but I always choose to go back to binge drinking.

    • Marc April 24, 2019 at 8:46 pm #

      Note (after the fact): Sorry, but this response might have been meant to follow Danny’s subsequent comment rather than this one. Putting Humpty-Dumpty together again after the comment bug…has been a real headache. But…it’s working!

      Yes, that can be a real problem. It’s not only booze that’s a habit. It’s also a tendency toward shame and self-blame….and the anxiety that goes with them, as you describe. So quitting doesn’t feel as free and light as it might. I think this is what I meant about the merging of self-narratives not working. If only we could relieve ourselves of the baggage of “the other guy” when we’re not that guy. Then the rigid finger of blame wouldn’t make us suffer all the more when drinking, and the shaky finger of anxiety wouldn’t haunt us so badly the rest of the time.

      Of course, the anxiety is realistic. We might indeed fall off the wagon yet again. But that’s the worst possible pep talk any coach could give his team. To really “be here now” means a fresh start, looking at the future of the calm, peaceful adult self you say you find at times.

      At those times, the child self can be felt as present without your having to submit to it…or drown in it (literally and figuratively, in your case). You can soothe that confused child, without rejecting him or else submitting to his rash impulses. When the binge is over, you can say to yourself, “well, that’s enough of that. Boring! Time for a change,” in a sort of light-hearted way, rather than the familiar “you’re such an asshole, you had to do it again, didn’t you! Now look where it’s gotten you!” Try doing it without recrimination, and you’d be surprised how much that lessens the pull, the emotional rebound back to the rebellious, binging child self.

      • Christine April 27, 2019 at 9:43 am #

        Wow! I find everything about this topic so fascinating! You have really nailed it Marc. I relate so much to everything, especially “We’re choosing freedom from the restraints of being who we’re supposed to be. We’re choosing to become the child and throw off the sense of being judged and held accountable.” But then we come back to are normal self and begin, all over again, the process of shame and self loathing. If we would just accept this aspect of ourselves in conjunction with all the other aspects, some good, some not so good. If we (I) would just accept and not try to reconcile the two, because they aren’t reconcilable! They just aren’t. We would save ourselves a lot of agony. Because those two selves are both a part of who we are. I always try to remember this simple equation: Pain x Resistance = Suffering. I’ve been working on this acceptance over the last couple of years.

        I still struggle with it however. I’m a 45 year old mother of 4 children. I live a very nice life. I exercise, do yoga, eat organic, my children all do well in school, great athletes, we have a great social life,m. But every so often I will drink myself into oblivion. I wake up the next day in the depths of despair, completely ashamed and embarrassed, hating myself, feeling shame and anxiety about what a looser I am. At this point I can not see any of the good aspects about myself. It’s a terrible place to be, I’m sure you know the feeling. Yet, just a couple days ago, I liked myself. I’ve been driving myself crazy for years trying to reconcile how this awesome, pretty, athletic, intelligent, funny kind woman can be the same person who is trashed out of her mind acting like a complete looser.
        So, I guess all that to say that I find your perspective comforting. 😊❤️

  9. Rochelle Sumeray April 24, 2019 at 1:48 pm #

    Incredible post, Marc. I often relate my drug taking periods as those times when I would go to my “child” self. It is indeed an incredibly child-like thing to do. We just check out with our deviance. What if the people we were hiding it from were okay with? Would we want to keep it secret yet!??? The defiance is the key. This is rather different from the physical dependence which has its own timeline. I coped with my marriage and the boredom of whatever it was I could face head-on with drugs. Any drugs. Heroin, Coke, alcohol….Sobriety for me now is my chance to Grow Up. Literally, not even metaphorically. It’s my chance and my challenge to grow up and face the pain and beauty and boredoms of this colourful and sometimes mundane life.

  10. Lew G April 24, 2019 at 2:35 pm #

    one sex addict that I counseled years ago explained it this way to me. he said it is like he has a phone that has two (2) lines. Line 1 is the number that everyone knows and calls to talk with him. but line 2 is his addiction line. If he is talking on line 1 when line 2 rings he would immediately hang up line 1 in order to pick up line 2. Until or unless line 2 rings he was just fine only using line 1. But when line 2 rings and he answers it trouble almost always followed. At the beginning of the addiction process, he was able to choose whether or not to answer line 2 but it rarely ever rang. Later in his addiction, it rang often disrupting his life horribly. He wrote to me from prison where his sexual acting out landed him. So, Marc, which one was his true self?

  11. Larissa Goruk April 24, 2019 at 3:04 pm #

    Good post Marc, it speaks to how I really feel inside when food bingeing takes over. When I’m facing responsibilities I feel so anxious but kicking the traces and going for pleasure feels so good, for a little while.

  12. Walter Haas April 24, 2019 at 3:08 pm #

    Marc, the answer to your question is, NO: human life and the primitive animal within are incompatible. Only one can be the master and there is no coming to terms. Coming to terms with it is precisely what the animal wants: eternal dialogue keeping you confused enough to be unable to seize authority over your behavior. What you call the child self I call the animal self. The animal self loves that you call it a child self because it disguises that the animal self is deadly, primitive, and utterly narcissistic. The call of the high is the call of the wild, but not in a romantic return-to-nature way, in a thoughtless, destructive, self-centered way without regard to whether the human self lives or dies. The part of you that wants to get high cares for nothing you love. In the words of Jack Trimpey, “Tried everything but quitting?”

    • Marc May 19, 2019 at 8:35 am #

      Walter, this is pretty intense — sounds not only animalistic but satanic. But I don’t see it that way. Whatever we call that want-to-get-high self, yes, it’s selfish and hedonistic, but people who become addicts (myself included) almost always start from a place of feeling out of place, scared, depressed, isolated. These are not natural conditions for us humans. So the wish to “just feel good” isn’t essentially destructive. It doesn’t want to hurt anyone. It just wants to feel better.

      The works of Bruce Alexander, Gabor Mate, Maia Szalavitz and others spell this out in tremendous detail.

  13. Donnie Mac April 24, 2019 at 3:36 pm #

    Ohh Good Day ehh :

    Irvine Welsh ( Trainspotting ) said on Charlie Rose :

    “I just want to life a life where I’m not worried sick about everything or give a fuck about nothing ”


  14. victor April 24, 2019 at 5:56 pm #

    This is a test comment to make sure they’re working. Did it work?

  15. Terry April 24, 2019 at 6:22 pm #

    my experience is that even after many years of ‘therapy’, now discontinued some time ago now, and manageability in life. I find little about the inner me has changed. I simply do not allow that ‘addict’ self which still very much exists to dominate. But it never goes away, always in some way in every day it is present. and I wouldn’t;t want it gone because it is all the good and the bad that makes up me, my personality. Nowadays I do not spend endless hours analysing myself. I just get on with surviving in this life as best I can but what I can now do is exercise my choices and not simply be a mindless compulsive robot in and out of bottle shops and consciousness

    • Marc May 19, 2019 at 8:46 am #

      What a helpful, matter-of-fact way of seeing this. Please see April’s comment below. She expresses something very similar, and she gives us a personal glimpse of her journey, which ends up much like your own.

      • Terry May 19, 2019 at 6:51 pm #

        Yes Mark, April says it very well – the part we let out at times and hide at others – and as we age it seems to rebel you gets more locked away in favour of a sensible practical less risk taking you, but underneath angst still grumbles and difference remains – I guess one comes to terms with the feeling of being different and we melt in with all others
        who seemingly also feel the same – I feel normal these days

        • Marc May 20, 2019 at 2:34 am #

          Yes, I believe it’s agnsty BECAUSE it’s locked away. But if you’re feeling fine, then I guess you’re letting the different selves each get some acceptance if not actual air time.

          • Carlton May 20, 2019 at 11:11 am #

            Following this thread I felt it important to jump in.

            Although creating two personas may help many Addicts, for others it can set up an eternal personal battle which can lead to life-threatening despair.

            The reverse of this is realizing you are a single person.

            Realizing you are the plaintive..the defendant.. witness, victim, judge and jury, can profoundly change the paradigm of a persons struggle with an addiction.

            It is easy to say in words, but when felt and realized, this type of realization can be a major transformation point when regaining ones freedom from an addiction.

          • Terry May 20, 2019 at 8:34 pm #

            there is a different angst that also comes into play – that of maturity, the seeming intolerance and impatient with the young who exhibit the things we did – there is also a frustration that parts of me have not been ‘cured’ and still raise their heads at times and this is if nothing else annoying – those things relate to anxieties – the trait of the older who get ‘set in their ways’ – and who dislike change – in some ways this whole ‘recovery’ thing just mimics growing up; only with a delay of some years – I guess there is an acceptance of self finally but never a complete satisfaction, the wounds made to the psych never disappear fully no matter how much self development nor self compassion occurs – the imprint of (perceived) rejection made its mark in youth

  16. Danny April 24, 2019 at 9:33 pm #

    I came to this website because I was interested in the choice model of addiction as opposed to the addiction is a disease theory. I still believe addiction is a choice I have always thought that way , but what I have learned reading these posts and other articles on the subject is how complex it is. I have another question pertaining to alcoholic’s, there has been science indicating alcoholic s process alcohol differently than non alcoholic people. If this is true how can addiction in this case be a choice? If the alcoholic is pre -disposed ; because of genetics where he has a huge tolerance , it might start off as a choice but overtime it becomes a full blown addiction, , I believe at this point the alcoholic chooses to quit, which makes his affliction a choice, it is really so complicated. I am just finding out about inner self and shame and guilt, which while drinking I completed ignored , along with all responsibility, acting just like a child , never realising the true self had any significant say in the control of my life, whereas now I am battling the inner child to stay sober everyday.

    • Marc May 19, 2019 at 8:52 am #

      It sounds like you’re learning some really valuable lessons. But I don’t think the issues are quite as complex as you think. Choice is certainly easy to see at the beginning…and at the end of the addictive cycle. In between, when it is so hard not to drink, choice hasn’t disappeared but it has become many many times more effortful. When I work with clients who are at that stage, I try to see if they can cut down and control their drinking, not just quit. That way the choice “muscle” starts to get strengthened. Once choice starts to feel familiar again, it becomes easier to just say no.

      As for genetic predispositions and all that….I think these have been grossly overstated. The main predictor of addiction is emotional pain, as in depression and anxiety. The rest it minor in comparison.

  17. Gary April 26, 2019 at 9:52 am #

    For me, I learned early on that a person who uses alcohol used it for one purpose only and that was to get “Drunk”, all or nothing. This was a similar attitude I had with other drugs as well. However, “for me”, it was the thought that was much more captivating than the reality of using. In other words, the party or the thought in my head never ever existed or unfolded in the way I fantasied about it. In many respects, when I would used I felt like a warrior while the next day, perhaps even waking up in jail I felt so deflated, defeated and deeply ashamed. It was a cycle where I would repair the damage I caused only to tear it all down with my next binge. It was one of the hardest as well as one of the most important thing I ever had to do and that was to LOOK at myself but! without the judgment in order to get that damn part out of my head completely.

    • Marc May 19, 2019 at 8:55 am #

      Your story is so evocative, and pretty familiar too. I also believe that the “thought” is the big problem. The anticipation, the momentum, the sense of it filling up your empty space…all that. My next post deals with this issue in more detail.

  18. matt April 26, 2019 at 2:39 pm #

    I think it’s important to recognize our different parts, different personalities, but it’s not about letting them out to run wild and free every so often by returning to consequential habit behaviors. Behaviors that may have been constructed as adaptive coping mechanisms that became maladaptive.

    We do need to process them with acceptance, conciliation, and consolidation that forms a new whole, a collocation of our various personae that we can build on top of. That can only happen with sustained, intentional redirection of our hyper-focused habit behavior to a meaningful new one that gives us purpose. It’s not about what we do, but how and why we do it.

    • Marc April 27, 2019 at 5:13 am #

      Matt recommends a “sustained, intentional redirection of our hyper-focused habit behavior to a meaningful new one that gives us purpose.” I agree that this is hugely important, very often, but there’s a qualifier: Sometimes “sustained” isn’t the best policy. It can be too strict, too “parental.” Sometimes gentle acceptance of the “addict self” can also be helpful. And only then go back to the house-cleaning that we also need to do as fastidiously as possible. I mean deleting our dealer’s name from our smartphone. Asking the guy at the local bar to please not serve us after three drinks. Getting our partner to help us switch off a specific routine… getting the booze (or weed) out of the house. Whatever makes it easier to redirect.

      It may sound strange, but it’s possible to be too severe, too rigid, in our attempts to remain abstinent. This is a key issue in the harm reduction movement, and it’s why total abstinence isn’t always the best policy… Because it can provoke defiance, the infamous “fuck it” response. Or make us — make the child self at least — feel smothered or ignored…or reviled.

      One route out of addiction relies on boredom, or let’s call it gentle disgust: I just can’t keep doing this…it’s too stupid!

      • matt April 27, 2019 at 6:45 am #

        It is possible to be too rigid and severe in our attempts at abstinence. This predisposed me to relapse more than a few times. I don’t mean “sustained” in the sense of “Go to three meetings a day, or you’ll relapse.” Making recovery a punishment like it’s a negative consequence of addiction doesn’t work. It should be framed as a privilege, and and an opportunity to get control of one’s life back. If I want to replace my addictive behavior with a positive habit like mindfulness meditation, planning to do it for 2hrs on Saturday, and 90 minutes on Sunday will not be as effective as the regularity— the “sustained” effort— of doing it for 15 minutes every morning. And I should remind myself that I’m making a different choice than my addictive behavior. “Not this…that. Not this…that.” At a certain level, it’s like dog training. It’s that simple. The requisite gentleness comes in my attitude and orientation to persevere.

        But being gentle with myself by saying, “I’m doing so well, I can chip on the weekends every once and a while to reward myself,” will not work. We need to replace the habit and replace the reward. At least in a consistent way for a “sustained” period until the new habit is established. When Marc says, “One route out of addiction relies on boredom, or let’s call it gentle disgust: I just can’t keep doing this…it’s too stupid!” it’s very true, that necessary realization. But there have to be “thats” we are experimenting with to replace the unwanted habit.

        Interesting sidebar on disgust:
        Did you know that we produce oxytocin, the pleasant, prosocial “cuddle hormone” when we see someone making the facial expression of disgust? That’s because it’s purpose is for survival (“Mongo ate that berry and made that face. No thanks. I’m all set”), not necessarily “gentleness,” per se.

      • deborah j barnes April 28, 2019 at 10:56 am #

        What about understanding ? I was taught to think some things were bad, don’t do them. There is some truth there. However, bad, as in stealing a loaf of bread to feed a starving child has a greater context that can change the application of the “bad label” The complexity of choices sets up the diversity that seems necessary for creativity and curiosity to thrive. What if the narrative we inherited were expanded? Expanded by appreciating the “now” it gave us and at the same time pulling out the rotten threads of false reals that are threatening the entire fabric of life? It is all connected.

  19. Peter April 27, 2019 at 3:05 am #

    Hiya Marc
    I really love this post. I love the honesty and the fact that that honesty really resonates with both my own lived experiences and many of the experiences that the people I work with share with me. A long long time ago, a guy once said to me that the journey of recovery is all about getting to know the addict part of me, accepting it as an integral part of my personality and learning to love it. He then went on to say that all it had ever done was try to protect me and show me the shortest and easiest way to sooth myself. Avoiding responsibility, emotional immaturity, selfishness, childishness and a “king baby” way of dealing with things are all part of it.
    I’m tending to think, even after many years of recovery and associated self work, that this part of me will always be there. There’s a metaphor that they use in acceptance and commitment therapy called passengers on the bus and it’s all about this. It describes us as being the driver of our own life bus. All those parts of us that converge in the addict self, self doubt, self hatred, emotional immaturity, responsibility avoidance, etc. are seen as passengers on your bus. Sometimes you pull up at a bus stop, some others may get on and some get off but the key is to learn to accept that they are there, learn to carry them lightly but ensure that you are focusing on the road ahead. Personally I think that this kind of therapeutic work is so important because of the vulnerability that people who have been addicted experience when, eventually, they decide to quit. It’s very rare, in this work, that I come across someone who hasn’t experienced some kind of trauma in their lives, myself included. Often they will have spent their lives, doing the best they can with what they’ve got, trying to find ways and means to deal with it. Only the other day I met an ex-military guy who had shot and killed a 12 year old kid in Bosnia and, a few short weeks later, was blown up in a vehicle by an IAD which killed his friend. His solution was to spend the next 25 years in a daily pursuit of oblivion. Like you say, there is a certain amount of liberation to be had from this and, the longer it goes on, the less boundaries you have and it feels like you can be who you want to be. Unfortunately this lack of boundaries will, ultimately, lead to a lack of freedom as the trap of addiction takes over and, for some, incarceration in one way or another, looms large.
    I’ve found that for some people, who may have invested a substantial amount in creating a very powerful persona often propped up by an allegiance of faithful followers, change becomes very difficult indeed. I’ve worked with several gangster types, some highly qualified professionals and a politician who had real difficulties finding the ambivalence and humility needed to accept that they probably need to change.

    • Marc May 19, 2019 at 11:26 am #

      Peter, As usual, your writing is enlightening. Learning to love “king baby” seems so counterintuitive to many people, at least at first, but it is critically important. Contrast this with Walter’s comment, above. It is tempting to revile that part of us and view it as fundamentally destructive, when in fact that destructiveness is really just an unfortunate side effect of taking the shortest route to feeling okay. Like the toddler who breaks lamps and can literally trash most of a house in his efforts to find something to connect with, play with, suck on. The kid is just incredibly clumsy and “delayed gratification” isn’t in his vocabulary.

      Then, your example of the tormented war vet takes it to a whole new level. This is where the addiction is almost entirely symbolic, as I write about next post. For him the symbolic meaning was self-flagellation. We hear a lot about that from addicts, and it needn’t be the whole show. Self-punishment can join up with other elements to complete a complex and highly personal “diorama” — a rotating set of images that become far more addictive than the substance itself.

      The bus metaphor is extremely helpful. How difficult it is to focus on the road ahead, when your passengers are this noisy crew of careless, greedy, and sometimes vindictive children. It seems that ACT has so much to offer.

      Thanks for this contribution. Hope to hear more…

  20. matt April 27, 2019 at 9:12 am #

    I do have that little guy who wants to shriek his rebel yell at the world, who was conditioned to feel like he was always doing something wrong, was a bad person, was less than, didn’t deserve to be happy, etc.. as many people with addiction problems do. He’s still in there tapping his foot, waiting for me to throw him a bone…but now I let him feel like he’s getting his way along more productive avenues. Everybody has got to let off steam some way. Modern life is way too complicated to not have a stress/anxiety release. If “recovery” is just about “staying sober”? F**k that.

    • Marc May 19, 2019 at 11:32 am #

      Right on, Matt. That is such a practical tip: to give that internal child some slack and feel the relief that comes with releasing the locks on the playpen. See April’s comment below — exactly the same sort of wisdom.

      I didn’t realize this theme would attract so many “me too” stories. It’s amazing how similar many of us are in this way.

  21. deborah j barnes April 28, 2019 at 10:28 am #

    What if the self-narrative has itself been framed in a story that is off track?

    I know as a woman I thought I was, what? A good student, popular enough, a girl set up to pursue the ring, the child, the dream job. And i challenged authority when it seemed necessary😊

    I was teased for being chubby which led to a time of anorexic behavior. I discovered panic attacks before they were labelled then relabeled as anxiety disorder. I spent some time modelling to prove I was finally “ok.”

    I stopped the panic attacks by using an arsenic poisoning narrative, survived the 15 minutes and each time I survived, it added to the “not going to die” story. The anorexic thing went to a bulimic thing and then I started gathering information about food and nutrition. I discovered that the drop in nutrients started with monocropping and cash crops of the 1930s. So i questioned how additives, poisonous pest control, industrial waste as fertilizer all might contribute to a body’s distress. This prompted more questions about progress and growth.

    All of this was enhanced by various drugs, I see it as part of my search for that elusive “MORE.”

    I realized I had been taught to see the world through a lens that was fairly toxic in its own right. Many good intentions gone bad. Created by a smatter of people who had the voice of authority because they muffled other voices, the poor, the ill, the serfs, slaves, peasants, the masses, the “other”. Then again this too was probably an attempt to be the self they in turn were taught to see as worthy, superior and more deserving. Ai yi yi!

    I rebelled the best way I knew how, crossing boundaries to explore alternatives. That seems a healthy response despite the pitfalls.

    That said, maybe we are all experiencing growth pains. Maybe we are all struggling against the trap of a familiar but now deadly, story. What if that MORE calling is evolution at work?

    • Marc May 11, 2019 at 1:13 pm #

      What an insightful comment, Deborah. Not only a delightfully honest account of how you discovered your own “false” self, but an important model for thinking about where these normative “good” (supposedly) selves come from.

      I agree that power, authority, and privilege are often the most immediate source of the culturally accepted (and suitably distorted) good self. When I was a kid, it was Father Knows Best (a TV show from the 50s and 60s)….and then, ironically, it was Bill Cosby (who didn’t turn out to be able to distinguish any sort of morality from his own needs). The self we’re supposed to be gets fed back, refined, and polished a million times by the mass media — which we absorb and then redistribute. And then along comes The Simpsons (and its descendants) to poke it right where it needs to be poked.

      I also agree that this isn’t just a conspiracy of the powerful, so to speak. It’s a stack of Jenga blocks that goes all the way down. Those serfs you mention were no doubt busy reading their bibles, beating their wives and kids into submission, and trying to reify the good self they thought was relevant, real, proper. So yeah, “Ai yi yi” seems like a reasonable conclusion.

      But y’know, we’ve come a long way in popular culture, partly through the help of illicit drugs, partly through the impact of ironic portrayals, parodies, etc, from TV to Reddit to YouTube. Now, we question and examine the cultural idyll. And that gives us a chance to kick it into the trash — at least I hope it does — and get on with the business of finding out who we really are.

  22. Eric Nada May 3, 2019 at 10:26 am #

    Marc, First, I am so glad that somewhere we are having these more intricate discussions about the addiction/recovery process. It seems as though the general recovery world is afraid to have deep, nuanced discussion, preferring instead to distill its explanations into simple chunks easily digestible by everyone.

    There was a very distinct part of me that I was tending to through my addiction to drugs. My emotional core, the very deepest part of me, responsible for monitoring my emotional safety was not developed properly. But there were other aspects of me that developed very well. I’ve always had a strong sense of what I believe and the integrity to (imperfectly) live a life driven by this sense, for instance. But the effort required to improperly tend to my basic underdeveloped foundational needs—through drugs and romantic attachment—did, indeed, quickly take over my ability to access all my “good” parts. And while I have successfully developed that wounded part of me now enough that I no longer require its surrogates, some of its tendrils remain. So I must, indeed, learn to navigate the world through many different versions of who “I” am, developing the patience to allow the frustration that having different “selves” that will never easily integrate themselves inevitably creates. Certainly, one of the things I sought through my addictions was a reliable and predictable emotional experience of life, but I have had to learn to live without it. I am many different things at different times and all at once!

  23. April May 4, 2019 at 10:52 pm #

    I completely identify, Marc. I was always a perfect supergirl, worked my way through Yale, got perfect grades, did everything right. Layer upon layer of rage at abuse and all sorts of things were submerged under pure drive to win at all costs. The costs eventually caught up with me, and after various traumas I started to drink too much. Gradually, my identity really did split. Never a clinical split, but as I ran the streets of New York and Jersey City, drinking at dive bars and hanging with interesting characters, I was Katy. I had a whole identity. I was a night shift ICU nurse at a New York hospital, which explained why I was drinking at bars at 6 am seeming totally sober. There is a couple who owns a bar there who still call me Katherine. I called them my Jersey City Mom and Dad and still send them cards on Mother’s Day. They drove me home when I was too drunk to walk and I ate Debbie’s homemade pasta when I was too sick to eat anything else. Katy had a whole different voice – she was my rage against the patriarchy, against the rapists, against the double standards and sexism. When I went to rehab and thought I would die, I told her if she’d let me live I’d write in her voice. Some therapists I’ve had tried to integrate the two but I never wanted to do that. I like having Katy in the background. I don’t want her to be a part of April’s every day life, and she is bored by it. Yet when I come close to giving in to unjust authority or giving up on fighting for the disempowered, her voice speaks up. I think she is what connects with the disadvantaged kids I teach in an urban environment. They see that beneath the prim and proper “Miss” there is an edge. I understand more about their lives than the other teachers do, for the most part. I’ve been there. I’ve seen the edge of death and run streets most white people never turn down. And you know what? I wouldn’t trade it.

    • Marc May 18, 2019 at 7:57 am #

      April, this is fascinating. I rarely hear anyone explain so convincingly that a convergent self-narrative really isn’t the answer, or certainly not the only answer. The idea that Katy is there in you, but only comes out from time to time, when needed…that is so intuitively appealing and it resonates with something I often forget to feel. The idea that she’d be bored with you prim life is also…so viscerally true. Yes, this raw, rampant, child self of ours really isn’t interested in all this stuff we have to do. I’ve never heard it told from that one’s perspective in such a compelling way. Thank you.

      And yet there’s Chad’s account, below. Maybe if we patch in the word acceptance rather than convergence…maybe then it all makes sense.

      • April May 19, 2019 at 7:35 am #

        Thank you Marc! Katy does enjoy popping out to play in my writing.

        I’ll look forward to reading all the comments!

  24. Chad Davis May 12, 2019 at 5:47 pm #

    Hello Marc,

    Wonderful post 🙂

    “Why?” That IS the question, is it not? Everything you said, in my understanding, is right on point. I’ll add my own 2 cents of understanding and my own personal evolution and perhaps it will end up leading to “something” lol.

    People always say, drugs made me feel “normal.” Well then, by default, one must have felt “not-normal” to begin with, yes? For me, when I used, I was the person I always wanted to be. I wasn’t the reserved, timid, insecure Chad, I was the Chad who people actually called out to, who had people talking to him, who could talk to anyone or do anything. I was “fearless” as opposed to constantly worrying about everything and everyone. However, in hindsight, the drugs didn’t do anything except allow for an adjustment in my own perception of self. I didn’t get: bigger, stronger, wealthier, smarter, sexier … I just didn’t doubt myself anymore … ???

    So how did I stop? I simply woke up one day, after coming in well after sunrise, and looked around my room from the comfort of my air mattress and sleeping bag, and said Chad, what the hell are you doing … and I stopped. However, reaching this point came after much self-evolution. I had been trying to become a samurai … don’t ask, long story lol. Anyway, in the process of applying certain beliefs about “the-self” and about “truths” in life changed my own personal beliefs about myself and the workings of the world around me. Coming to the apex where, “using” Chad finally came face to face with “scared” Chad … and then they slowly became one and the same (perhaps balancing them out?).

    My story, along with some 1000 personal stories that I’ve listened to in trying to help others, seems to be a common thread among those in addiction. Which leads me to my own definition of addiction ~ when we run from who we really are. When we hate us, or what has happened to us, or where we are in life, or whatever … that’s when “normal” drug use becomes addiction. Why do we constantly use? Because “we” always come back in, so we are forced to fade back out.

    Like you say, two “people” (or identities) trying to fit in the same body just doesn’t work out very well. But when you finally figure out that “you” are an amazing person exactly the way you are, and that you actually already have the power to become anything you want, and that the only thing that has been standing between you and all your dreams … is YOU … well. That’s the most empowering and possibly the scariest thing you can accept lol.

    As you say, you aren’t personally worried about addiction anymore (and neither am I) … why? Because you are good with you, yes? You don’t need to run from yourself anymore? That’s where I personally draw the line between use, abuse, and addiction. Abuse can be running from “life” and stressors but addiction is running from “yourself” in some form or fashion.

    Again, just my two cents. Perhaps not “true” for one and all (but what is) but it’s very true for my own life, and for many that I’ve talked with. When you can look in the mirror and not just like, but love who is looking back at you … “addiction” simply seems to fade away.

    Always a pleasure,


    • Marc May 18, 2019 at 7:47 am #

      Chad, there’s a lot wisdom here. I like the way you tell your story and I think your conclusions are inspiring. Thanks for contributing this.

  25. ?such a mess July 23, 2019 at 8:59 am #

    Yes, I am different on M. And get to hang out with some pretty rough people. Still, I never fit in. I’m called a nut. I’m used for rides.Found I really don’t want to be a part of the circle . I AM TWO PEOPLE. It’s very hard to keep the lives separate and not offend the druggies by not talking to . It has them in public.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *