And while she tries to help them get on with their lives, she knows, better than most of her colleagues, that there isn’t much help she can provide. Until they’re ready. Until they’ve already begun to move on, or at least to imagine moving on. That’s when a little nudge can go a long way. The Biology of Desire, Lewis, 2015, p.69
The she above refers to a woman named Natalie whose story is shared in The Biology of Desire, written by Marc Lewis, wherein it is explained neuro-scientifically why addiction is not a disease and shares the personal accounts of several people who have battled addiction. The book is fundamental.
When I started work in the field of addiction treatment I was brand new to the topic. I’ve seen people addicted to substances and behaviors, I’ve experienced addiction-like behaviors myself, and I’ve studied psychology. General psychology doesn’t cover addiction much, however it did allow me to study the brain and social psychology. When I started planning for a Master’s program I narrowed it down to Industrial/Organizational psych or substance abuse counseling. I went with I/O. I provide this background to make the case for the evolution of theory I have experienced.
My first job in the field was as a clinician at a medication assisted treatment facility for opiate dependence (I’ll use opiate though there is a technical difference between opiate and opioid; I think opiate is more generally recognized). Medication assisted treatment is directed by a doctor who prescribes Methadone or Suboxone (Buprenorphine plus Naloxone) to treat the withdrawal symptoms of the individual who is experience opiate withdrawal. I’ll get into MAT in another post. I have some thoughts on that topic. For now I’ll say that working in that environment I was exposed to the theory that addiction is a disease, and only that theory. I accepted it at first. It made sense.
Until I started thinking about it, and read and watched videos on YouTube from Gabor Maté and Marc Lewis. I changed my mind. I no longer believe addiction is a disease any more than I believe playing guitar is a disease. Imagine Moving On isn’t about defining addiction though, so dust off your flux capacitor because we are headed back to the topic!
I like Back to the Future references, a lot, so you’ll see them often in my writing, and sometimes they are more relevant and obvious than others. Since the topic is future related, I think this one landed.
Imagine Moving On. This phrase popped up a few times in The Biology of Desire and ever since I read it it has been bouncing around my brain. I think it is a very pure and simple statement on how to start overcoming an addiction. If addiction is an unhealthy pattern of behavior, then it stands that imagining a new behavior would be the start to change. Addiction thrives in sameness and routine. I’ve taken to calling it being comfortable in discomfort. That is adapted from someone I read recently, but I don’t recall who so I can’t cite it. Addiction becomes the comfort zone. The bond with the substance or behavior, as unhealthy as they may be, represents safety.
But it isn’t safety and it isn’t comfortable and it isn’t healthy. Spending the day hustling money or drugs in order to obtain the drug of choice only to use, have at most a few hours of supposed comfort, and then repeat the process is counterfeit safety, comfort and health. It becomes familiar, and that’s what gives the sense of safety, comfort and health.
In my experience it seems that this uncomfortable comfort zone is so powerful that it becomes difficult to imagine any possible difference, like really truly believe something different is possible. At least early on, and then over time with maturation and other changes it becomes more possible to see a different future.
Here’s another quote from a book, a different book than the last:
The addict dreads and abhors the present moment; she bends feverishly only toward the next time, the moment when her brain, infused with her drug of choice, will briefly experience itself as liberated from the burden of the past and the fear of the future – the two elements that make the present intolerable. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, Maté, 2008, p. 272
“The burden of the past and the fear of the future” are what make imagining moving on a difficult and necessary part of overcoming addiction. I haven’t taken good notes on all the books I’ve read in the last year, so again I don’t know where this idea comes from, but I think it is Lewis’ …Desire. The perception of time changes with the neurological changes in the brain which result from addiction. With this perception of time change the past becomes a giant monster chained to the individual while the future appears as a tiny pinhole of light on the horizon ahead. Maybe it was Maté, not Lewis, that I draw that from, because it fits so well with the “burden of the past” and “fear of the future” phrase. Whatever it is, that’s the situation. A large monster following closely, chained to you, while you make your way to some barely seen unknown future.
The first step to change is to identify what needs to change. That’s easy to understand. We often hear how a person in addition can’t be helped until they decide they need help, etc. Um, duh? That’s what imagining moving on is all about. You think ‘I need to change this’ and then you start to imagine what that change will look like. Maybe you want to learn an instrument so you picture yourself sitting behind a drum kit banging out a rhythmic beat. You likely imagine the drum sticks, the color of the drums, the pulse of a beat and the hours of practice it will take to get there. You create a narrative vision in your mind of how you will get from point A to point B. And then you go to work.
Imagine Moving On is understanding the problem, making a plan, and going to work. It is acknowledging your discomfort in your current comfort zone and then deciding you want something different. This is the first step. It starts with imagining. If you can’t imagine moving on, find someone to talk to and ask them to help you. Seriously, find someone you trust, or hope to learn to trust, and ask them to help you imagine moving on. Their vision will be presented through their perception, but it may be enough to get you started.
This concept is generally known as visualization and in some circles as the law of attraction. There are many different methods for putting it into practice, each person needs to find the way they feel most comfortable with, which may take time and effort. I recommend starting simply with closing your eyes and creating a mental image of you after whatever change it is you want to make. Then work out from there the changes in your daily activities and relationships. If it helps, write it down in narrative, as though you are telling the story of someone else, when really you are telling a possible future for yourself.
Addiction is a pattern of behavior. Patterns can be tough to break, but they can break. It is important to remember that addictions don’t form over night, and often they persist for many years, even decades, so they don’t often go away quickly. Sometimes they do, every situation is different. It took years of practice to become “good” at addiction, so it’s going to take some