In a conversation I was having with a friend today about addiction he made the comment that in his experience his addiction had arisen from the desire not to have to feel the pain of being disconnected from others. To avoid the pain of feeling isolated and disconnected he turned to porn as an addiction to numb the pain of feeling alone. It could as easily have been sex, or drugs or work. In my case I’m starting to think I am addicted to sadness! By turning to our addiction it gives a sense of the familiar, and being able to loose oneself in this.
This reminds me of the teaching of the two arrows, where the first arrow is the immediate experience of suffering as it impacts on us: breaking up, an injury, loosing a job, ill health etc. The second arrow is what we fire by resisting feeling the first arrow: resentment, anger, sorrow etc. The first arrow we cannot avoid, it’s already struck us. We either stay with this primary pain or we fire the second arrow by resisting being with the first arrow and in doing so add to our suffering. Looking at it from this perspective one might say that addiction is the second arrow, arising from the desire not to feel whatever the first arrow might be, one possible cause being the pain of isolation.
Isolation, social exclusion and addiction
In a fascinating study from 2013 it was found that rats isolated during adolescence were more prone to addiction to amphetamine and alcohol as adults, and once established it was harder to extinguish.
A section of the study makes for fascinating reading:
On observing the rats that were isolated it was seen that “They are more anxious. Put them in an open field and they freeze more. We also know that those areas of the brain that are more involved in conscious memory are impaired. But the kind of memory involved in addiction isn’t conscious memory. It’s an unconscious preference for the place in which you got the reward. You keep coming back to it without even knowing why. That kind of memory is enhanced by the isolation.”
The rats in the study were isolated from their peers for about a month from 21 days of age. That period is comparable with early-to-middle adolescence in humans. They were then tested to see how they responded to different levels of exposure to amphetamine and alcohol
The results were striking, said Mickaël Degoulet, a postdoctoral researcher in Morikawa’s lab. The isolated rats were much quicker to form a preference for the small, distinctive box in which they received amphetamine or alcohol than were the never-isolated control group. Nearly all the isolated rats showed a preference after just one exposure to either drug. The control rats only became conditioned after repeated exposures.”
This repeats the evidence of the impact of isolation from previous studies looking at heroin addiction which suggest that the cause of addiction may have more to do with isolation and loneliness than the drug itself being inherently addictive. Rats that were in a cage alone soon became addicted to the heroin laced water rather than drink the clean water that was also available, returning to it until they died. Rats in a communal cage with plenty of food and play mates did not get addicted to it despite occasionally drinking the heroin laced bottle, preferring to go to the clean water instead. Thus although they were exposed to heroin and drank it, that did not lead to addiction. Isolation seemed to be the core reason determining if the rats became addicted. Seen in this way people who are addicts may need to have this primary pain of isolation and loneliness addressed in order to help them rather than be punished or made to feel a social failure thus pushing them further into isolation and deeper into addiction.
Any of us who have experienced our teen age years as a time of social exclusion and isolation will know this feeling of separation, and the tendency to be more prone to addictive behaviour and for gay/bi men and women it suggests one aspect of why people in our community are more prone to addiction.
.To read the article on loneliness that these are extracted from click here.
Healing Through Connection
In addressing his own addiction my friend remembered when I discussed the example of the rats in a previous email and started to explore his addiction in relation to feeling isolated. He was able to shift his attachment to the addiction by building on his connections with others and with himself: through giving time to his friendships, going to groups that provided a community, and therapy which helped him connect more deeply into himself so that he could bring into conscious awareness what had been unconscious. His meditation practice was essential for this process, but in itself was not enough. He also needed the therapy, connections to others through social groups and friends.
As a young man first learning to meditate I had a desire for my meditation practice to take me out of my pain. But in fact it seems meditation is really more about creating the opportunity to hold what is here and to become more whole through opening fully to what is presenting itself rather than trying to transcend the pain and float off into an Enlightened state of bliss. Through turning in and fully opening the heart then there may be a freedom that is amazing, but it is a freedom that arises form a deep inner connection, rather than a dissociated rejection of oneself. And this deep inner connection requires rich outer connections through friendships, community and someone who can hold one fully, with unconditional kind regard and without judgement – a therapist or if we are fortunate a very well balanced partner or friend.
Making what we don’t know we don’t know conscious
It has been said that there is what we know that we know, what we know that we don’t know, but also what we don’t know that we don’t know. It’s this last one that is most destructive, for it may be what everyone around us can see as part of our character or motivating impulses, but we are totally oblivious to it.
What we don’t know that we don’t know seems to be the cause of so much suffering as it keeps us going into familiar patterns that we then blame on outer circumstances. One way I’m starting to think I can see what is in this blind spot of the psyche is to look at what patterns of suffering keep repeating. For they are like a mirror through which I can see reflected back to me what is creating this habit pattern of acting in familiar ways so that I have familiar experiences. In a sense the outer event is the second arrow arising from my unwillingness to turn in and see the first arrow buried in the unconscious.
An example of this for me is my tendency to go for unavailable men. I was reading my diary recently and was reminded of yet more examples of men I had fallen for who then pulled away – time and again! The excitement of meeting, the thought this could be it, then a week latter the sorrow of writing about how they had not been interested after all. With one we got as far as spending the night together, only for him to come back into the bedroom the next morning saying he couldn’t look at himself in the mirror as he stood in the bathroom because he felt so bad. He returned to his church and I saw him a few more times but he was going full speed back into the closet as the ‘gay support group’ in his church helped him to go fully into denial.
For a long time I felt that I had bad luck in dating, then that gay men are just flaky and I’ll never meet anyone who will want to commit which led to a rejection of dating and a preference for more casual meetings. But more recently I’ve started to wonder what is it that this experience of going for unavailable men, of being rejected, gives me? It is a sense of drowning in the familiar experience of sadness, longing and abandonment. This then gives me something to fight outside of myself, the thought that if I can make the other person like me enough, or be good enough that they will want me, then the pain will all be taken away. But this ignores the source of the pain and recently I felt more deeply what this was: the unconscious belief that I am unlovable and bad.
It is this first arrow that I can do something with, rather than wanting the other to take away this feeling of being unwanted or make it better. By seeing in the reflection of the outer world my own inner dynamic there is a chance to bring ‘what I don’t know that I don’t know’ into conscious awareness. To realise that this is a choice I am making rather than just bad luck. It’s a choice I make to stay in a familiar place of longing through feeling not good enough rather than turning to this belief and feeling the pain of it, and then letting it go. It is a reality created by a child to try and make sense of the world, a reality made at a time when it was easier to feel I was wrong than feel angry at my father for not being there (he left when I was born and I never knew him). So although it is locked away and marked “danger do not enter” as an adult it is not really the devastating monster the child thought it to be. But to feel it I have to go through the wall of fear the child created. Even if this turns out to be more of an illusion than real it is still easier to keep turning away than face it.
For this reason this turning towards the primary pain of core beliefs cannot be done alone. I need support. I need friends. I need spiritual companions. And the support of a therapist is making this so much easier, for they hold this process of letting the control strategies fall apart and the feeling of vulnerability from not knowing anymore what is the ‘right’ way for me to behave. As an example of this, at some point I made a reality that to get angry would mean people would leave me. I told myself I had to be very good. In a group therapy situation recently I had it reflected back to me that this was in the hope that my father would come and get me. I’ve spent my life trying to be good and kind and attentive so that people will always be there for me. Of course, it doesn’t work. For the people I feel romantically drawn to feel this silent demand – I’ll be good to you, but you must be here for me – and it puts them off. They also pick up that I am annoyed or angry, but I am the type to say “nothing, everything’s fine’ when asked what’s wrong. So communication breaks down. And as I get attracted to men who find it easy to express their anger they then angrily demand that I talk….but I withdraw into silence.
Thus, paradoxically, the more I try to be good so that people won’t leave me, the more they back off or I feel isolated and alone! I was recently challenged to speak my angry feelings by a man I like and had hoped to get to know better but then that wasn’t possible – another unavailable man! Rather than talk to him directly about the situation and say what I felt I just tried to be nice, and hoped that eventually he would see what a good catch I am and would come and ‘rescue’ me from my loneliness – my dad would come and see I had been good enough to deserve his love once more. It didn’t work – he just got more distant. But he didn’t abandon me. He invited me to say what I was feeling, sensing that I felt some anger towards him. And in a small way I was able to speak this. Instead of pushing him further away, as I feared it would, it seemed to bring us a little closer – as friends at least even if not as lovers. At least he now knows what I am thinking!
What repetitive patterns do you see in your life? Do you have a certain type of man you always get attracted to, which ends in a familiar sense of upset or sadness? Do you follow similar patterns of behaviour again and again even though they do not make you happy? Might it be possible to use these as a mirror to look back at yourself, rather than rage at an unfair and unjust world? What might you see in your own shadow if you use this mirror of the familiar but painfully repetitive life experiences?