How do we relate to what is young, and tender, and fragile – including what is young, and tender and fragile in us? This is the question that addiction asks of us.
Recently, a friend of mine quit a chewing tobacco habit. Chewing was something he’d indulged in for years, and he was at a point where he wanted to stop – even though he dearly loved his chew. When I asked him why he decided to quit, he said with a lot of fire, “I don’t want to feel controlled by anything.” His cravings for tobacco felt out of his control, and that felt intolerable to him.
I’m not condoning the use of tobacco, nor am I saying he shouldn’t have quit. In fact, his story reminds me of my own experiences with sugar addiction. But what I find interesting about his reply is that it suggests that there’s something else going on. It’s not that he doesn’t want to feel controlled by tobacco, but by the pain or discomfort or restlessness or agitation that arises in his body, seeking release in the form of a plug of tobacco.
My guess is this is what is so intolerable in him – these feelings (and his inability to control them) – and not the tobacco itself.
This is the human conundrum we all face. I see this dislike of our addictions and compulsive habits over and over again. It often manifests as a very virulent, righteous fight against our addictions themselves, the addict (us or another), or the side effects of the addiction (in the case of sugar and food, obesity/fat/extra weight.) We see our cravings and our addictions as an enemy to vanquish, to overcome, to eradicate.
But what we’re really trying to eradicate is the painful feelings our cravings, compulsions, addictions, and vulnerability arise in us. Our compulsions are an attempt to control what feels unmanageable.
We can never control our addictions enough to eradicate these feelings. For one thing, our compulsions are clever and tend to move. We stop smoking, and we turn to food. We stop eating, and we find ourselves online, on our phones, out shopping. I even became addicted to spiritual growth and self improvement. (The irony is not lost on me.)
The biggest addiction of all may be control.
In the moment of seeking relief from the intolerable, we’re simply trying to feel different.
If we don’t see this, we may see healing as simply cutting out the addiction – the binge eating, the smoking, the overspending. But healing means turning towards those feelings that we believe are intolerable, opening to the unlived life, the outcast parts of the self that live within us.
Life, in all its mercy, will bring up these very feelings that we’re trying so hard to outrun, that we’re trying so hard to control. Like a river, it will flow, finding a way to bring this energy up to the surface, even if it has to chart a different course. We can’t outrun these feelings.
We aren’t meant to.
There’s something intrinsic in you that longs for wholeness – to be what you are. This part of you is bringing this unfinished business up to the surface in any way it can. I see this as the call and pull of the soul, the psyche. It is based in deep, abiding love.
So whatever feelings feel intolerable in you: they will arise. Even if you “cut out” the addiction. Somehow. Someway. You can’t control them; you aren’t meant to. You’re meant to complete the cycle.
Whatever addiction or compulsion is causing you suffering is an opportunity – an opportunity to turn towards these intolerable feelings and care for them, one by one, with the infinite mercy of your heart. It’s an opportunity to complete the cycle: to welcome home the outcast parts of the self.