A lot of individuals come into therapy wanting to "deal with" addiction, because they see themselves as having some kind of problem with a substance. I approach things from a different perspective.
It's not earth-shattering to hear that people use substances as a means to self-medicate, or alter their reality so as not to feel or deal with whatever is present in the usual one. What may come as less of a common conclusion is this:
What if self-medication is o.k.?
And beyond that,
What if it's actually INTELLIGENT?
Let's take a detour for a moment here. Two of the more significant cognitive revelations that have come from my professional training have been as follows:
1. In addition to the fight/flight responses we have to stress as humans beings, we also have a freeze response.
2. Shame kills.
Allow me to explain how this is relevant, and how the two are related.
As I'm sure you can imagine, fight and flight are both intelligent responses to stress and danger in the environment (whether perceived or actual). Sometimes it's best to stand up tall and make noise when face-to-face with a wild and dangerous animal; at others it's more sensible to make haste and retreat.
Well, the same goes for freeze. A tiny rabbit, frozen dead in its tracks, might blend into the scenery for the snake, thereby saving it's own life.
I want you to really hear that. Our nervous systems evolved for us to be able to save our own lives!
Then again, there's always the other side of the coin (thank god! But more on the necessity of opposites another day). This is where we see the deer freeze in the headlights in the middle of the road, directly in the path of the oncoming speeding car that has not time nor choice to safely avoid hitting it.
So hear this, too: The intelligent act of freezing - just like when we fight or flee - can also go awry. And this brings us around to my potentially inflammatory claim that shame kills.
When human beings experience shame (I won't speak for other species, but it would seem to me others experience it, too. Think: well-trained dog left inside too long, ultimately peeing on the carpet) we begin to shut down.
One quick distinction before I go on, between shame and guilt. Guilt is feeling bad or regretful for something we've done. Shame is feeling that way about something we are.
When we feel badly about who are, we begin to turn up the defenses and do our best to hide. The only problem is, since shame also activates our nervous system and limbic/reptilian brain - signalling "I'm not safe here. I am not ok" - we also begin to feel stupid.
Let's take a moment to be with all of that. When we do something we perceive as shameful, we
-Feel bad about who. we. are.
-Shut down (both the good and the bad aspects of ourselves, mind you)
-Hide (i.e. don't say anything to anybody about how we're feeling. Spoiler alert: herein lies the antidote!)
-Feel stupid on top of it all, thus further inhibiting any other intelligible responses to the situation. We no longer trust ourselves.
Yet when we speak to our fear, our pain, and our problems, shame actually begins to dissolve and melt away. Things normalize. We begin to realize we're not alone in our humanity, plain and simple.
... and would you look at that! It turns out that our "detour" into the realm of shame - and back again - was actually the road all along.
Of course, there's endless territory to further explore in the realms of addiction, self-medication and so on. But for now let me leave you with this:
If you have problem - with substances, or one you're using substances to address, or both, or neither! - one of the worst things you can do for yourself is to keep it to yourself.
Similarly, if someone you know and love has a problem - with substances, in general, both or neither - the single worst thing we can do for them is shame them for the medicine they are choosing to use. Whether it works or helps or hurts them is really none of our business. What is our business, if we choose to make it so, is supporting them on the road to wellness and wholeness, whatever path they may choose to take.