In his highly influential book, “The Addictive Personality,” author Craig Nakken compares the condition to cancer. Upon first reflection, this may seem incongruent, but he notes that the commonality lies in the basic causes of both and the many forms that foundation can take.
All cancers, he writes, share a similar process: “the uncontrolled multiplying of cells.” Similarly, all addictions share an “out-of-control and aimless searching for wholeness, happiness, and peace through a relationship with an object or event.”
While that cellular cascade can manifest in the lungs, colon, brain, and other organs, the basis of an addictive personality can manifest in alcohol, drugs, food, sex, shoplifting, spending, gambling, and overwork. Addiction even shares with cancer the unfortunate possibility of relapse, yet also the chance for recovery.
If you have an addictive personality, all those emotional and mental crutches have in common the desire to produce a mood change, one that will make you feel better, Nakken writes, and temporarily relieve a feeling of inadequacy or lack of self-esteem with a “high” that amounts to a state of intoxication or
In an equally influential and pioneering book, “Craving for Ecstasy: The Consciousness & Chemistry of Escape,” the authors describe three “addictive highs” that attract people to counterproductive behavior: arousal, satiation, and fantasy. Arousal and satiation are the most common, followed by fantasy, which is part of all addictions.
Nakken refers to arousal and satiation as “attractive, cunning, baffling, and powerful” highs. “Arousal comes from amphetamines, cocaine, ecstasy, and the first few drinks of alcohol, and from the behaviors of gambling, sexual acting out, spending, stealing, and so on,” he writes. “Arousal causes sensations of intense, raw, unchecked power and gives feelings of being untouchable and all-powerful. It speaks directly to the drive for power.”
“Arousal makes addicts believe they can achieve happiness, safety, and fulfillment,” he continues. “Arousal gives the addict the feeling of omnipotence while it subtly drains away all power. To get more power, addicts return to the object or event that provides the arousal and eventually become dependent on it. Arousal addicts become swamped by fear: they fear their loss of power and they fear others will discover how powerless they truly are.”
He describes the satiation high as attractive to certain types of addicts because it “numbs the sensations of pain or distress.” The problem, predictably, is that this state lasts only as long as you remain in the mood change created by the “addictive ritual,” and that, in turn, attaches you to a grief process.
All this circular, negative behavior is, ultimately, a replacement for or avoidance of nurturing yourself, all the while pulling you deeper into the addiction cycle and the pursuit of your addiction, whatever that addiction may be. So, really, the underpinning of your addictive personality is a lack of fulfillment from within, with a resulting urge to achieve fulfillment through substances, objects, or events that relieve the inevitable pain – for a while.
A permanent solution to your problem does not exist because, as Alcoholics Anonymous has said for decades, you are always a recovering addict, and the process of recovery is life long. That does not mean you need to despair. Life, for anyone, is a constant series of realizations, decisions, and adjustments in an attempt to maintain psychological and emotional balance – that feeling of self-nurturing and fulfillment from within.
People with an addictive personality are different only in that they do not possess the self-awareness and tools that those without it do.
As Nakken puts it: “Addiction is a process of buying into false and empty promises: the false promise of relief, the false promise of emotional security, the false sense of fulfillment, and the false sense of intimacy with the world.”
“Like any other major illness, addiction is an experience that changes people in permanent ways. That is why it’s so important that people in recovery attend Twelve Step and other self-help meetings on a regular basis; the addictive logic remains deep inside of them and looks for an opportunity to reassert itself in the same or in a different form.” You never really lose, he adds, that desire for a trance-like state induced by your addiction of choice.
Besides so-called twelve step programs or others that can help you acknowledge your problem and learn ways to deal with it day to day, Nakken believes you need to develop supportive, nurturing relationships that help you grow emotionally. This is imperative because, he believes, “addiction is an illness in which the addict’s primary relationship is with objects or events and not with people (and) the addict’s relationships with people change to reflect this.”
Nakken boils down a script for recovery by reminding you that healthy interdependencies – give and take with family and within safe friendships – a decision to accept your powerlessness over the addiction and look to a higher power, nurturing a healthy relationship with yourself, and developing a “community” through which you can reach out and develop natural relationships with emotional connections, are the keys to recovery.
“Addiction,” he writes, “is based on emotional isolation.”
March 20, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA