What’s your addiction recipe?

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The idea for this post came from a discussion on Collette’s blog, (Wine to Water) about Gabor Mate’s view that addiction is always rooted in childhood trauma (In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction). My friend did not see herself as having been traumatised as a child so this idea didn’t work for her. I’ve not yet read the book but I will. Whilst I happen to think a lot of mental health difficulties including addiction are rooted in childhood experiences I also think it can be reductionist and unhelpful to have linear cause and effect models for complex processes. The important thing about however you conceptualise a human problem is that it makes sense and is useful to the person with the problem. So this is an attempt to show the complexity of addiction using myself as a case study. These are my ingredients.

A cup of susceptible genes I come from a long line of alcoholism and problematic drinking on both sides of my family. My mum, my paternal uncles, cousins, paternal grandfather, maternal grandmother. That’s as far back as I know but I suspect it goes further. Animal modelling and heritability studies suggest large genetic contributions but epigenetics tells us that which genes get switched on depends on the environment so we can’t really solve the nature/nurture debate other than to say it’s both. There is also the question of how families ‘transmit’ things to each other – is it a genetic propensity to drink, a learnt behaviour or cultural? How our bodies deal with alcohol certainly has a genetic contribution. My ability to hold my drink and still function probably meant I could drink more for longer than some and didn’t have the physical reminders that it wasn’t good for me early enough to stop it becoming a problem.

2 cups of early trauma I did have quite a lot of trauma in my childhood. A prolonged separation in toddlerhood from my mother due to a sibling’s illness, then neglect from her drinking and intermittent unpredictable violence between my parents and sometimes my mum and older siblings. I think the separation probably led me to learn to shut down at times of threatened loss; whilst the violence meant I was physiologically primed to be alert to signals of threat and be ready to fight or run away. My nervous system was either over active or under active meaning I’ve never found it easy to relax. I’m restless, easily bored and easily wound up a lot of the time; and at others I’m flat, demotivated and miserable. Substances have been one of the ways I’ve regulated myself for years – controlling the ups and downs rather than being at their mercy. I have friends who manage themselves by running marathons, doing yoga, working too hard, cleaning excessively etc though so there are other ways to cope with early adversity than addiction.

A pinch of anxiety Its not obvious to many but I’m quite socially anxious and alcohol helped enormously. Once I’d had a few I’d be garrulous and slightly manic. I wasn’t really paying much attention by then to how I behaved or what people might have thought. It got me through that early discomfort. I also struggle being around drunk people – particularly women – clearly linked to my mum. I dealt with this by being the drunk woman myself. Strange but true! I am still triggered by this which makes socialising difficult at times though I’m realising most people my age don’t get drunk routinely. The pandemic has meant I’ve not had to confront this recently and I’ve enjoyed seeing friends on walks more than going to the pub.

A generous splash of stress I have had a stressful job since my early twenties. Life and death stuff and sharing others pain. For many of those years I was also raising my children and running a household. Like many women of my generation we seemingly had it all though it often felt like doing it all instead. I realised last week when I struggled to unwind on a Friday night and the wine witch came calling that my evening drink and smoke were how I switched off from all of it. Numb my brain and relax. Of course it makes it harder to actually deal with the issues but the short term gain seems worth it at the time and it quickly becomes a habit and learnt response.

Cook in a culture of acceptability As a society we have become much more tolerant of substance use and abuse. When I was a student we prided ourselves on drinking the lads under the table and the advertising industry have deliberately targeted women since that time. Alcohol is the accepted lubricant of society and it’s your fault if you develop a problem is the prevailing narrative. In my social circles other drug use is also acceptable and wide spread. I know plenty of people who have it seemingly under control but I’m aware I would have looked like that on the outside too. Increasingly I think it’s a way of keeping us all compliant with a society and system that doesn’t function to meet most people’s needs. We are cogs in the machine and if we get drunk and think we’re having fun at the weekend we’re less likely to complain about the unreasonable demands made on us. The reluctance to tax alcohol is about more than the power of the drinks industry I think. It’s a means of social control and what often starts as a rebellion – like the rave culture, becomes commercialised and sanitised for profit. The memes doing the rounds during the pandemic show this. The associated rise in alcohol related deaths is less publicised. Here’s one sent to one of my group chats recently about the easing of lockdown.


The more a drug is available and acceptable the more people will have problems with it. Anyone can become addicted to anything if they have enough of it for long enough.

So addiction is not just an individual problem; but is rooted in our family, work social and political context. Change starts with ourselves but there’s a lot that could be done in the wider spheres to help others not get to this point in the first place. What are your ingredients? I’d love to hear them.


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22 Comments

  1. great analysis…not even sure i could pin down my recipe. You’re correct , it’s different for everyone. Totally resonate with all of this though, especially that last but . I often get so angry when i see people posting these things on social media..the same people in our circle who have watched our friends die from the abuse.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I get angry too Lovie and come over all antisocial but I think that’s because I was so like that about drinking and also because I get anxious about seeing these friends even though I really love them – for me that’s the hardest part of being sober 😘😘

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great post!
    I’ll have to think about this!
    Sometimes I wonder if it’s just our luck. Some people do develop an addiction others don’t. Genetics, social anxiety, medical trauma, and increased pressure of being a teacher, all factor in mine. But so many people have this and don’t become addicted.
    xo
    Wendy

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Wendy – I don’t think it’s luck though maybe circumstances is part luck? I do wonder if there’s something about sensitivity to the world and almost excessive consciousness that means we have to switch it off? 😘😘

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree, reductionism will always end up leaving out people who don’t fit in tidy little boxes.

    I think Gabor Maté’s view was very much influenced by where he worked, which was an ultra-low-barrier supported housing project in Canada’s poorest postal code. I worked in that neighbourhood and have been in that building, and the concentration of trauma per square mile is almost unimaginable.

    I remember seeing someone express frustration on Twitter that people assume that everyone with BPD has a trauma history; she had BPD, but no history of trauma. Boxes suck. Recipes are far more interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. My ingredients are very similar

    Family history of alcoholism
    Unbearably narcissistic mother – me codependent pleasing child
    Severe social anxiety from a young age. I was always very shy and my mom either never encouraged or berated me
    Episodic depression

    I used alcohol in me teens and young adult years to gain love and approval. Sexual attraction was an easy way to “prove my worth”, which only made me feel worse.
    Overachieving, perfectionism, eating disorders and alcohol abuse follow.

    I really like Gabor mate. I also think everyone has trauma. Some learn resiliency and healthy coping, Kanye because they have better support systems, maybe because their nervous system is less overwhelmed.

    Anyone can fall into addition.

    Anne

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Thanks Anne – I also think anyone can and maybe there are some key ingredients – I do think some trauma isn’t recognised as such (but I’m wary of imposing my truth on others as a psychiatrist coz of the power differential) – only one of my 4 siblings drinks too much and he can stop/start whereas I couldn’t. I would say they had more trauma than me for various reasons and I wouldn’t say any of them are healthy/resilient psychologically – my question is really anyone can but why some and not others? Thanks for sparking more thought about this! 😘😘

      Like

  5. I’m putting the book on my list of things to read.
    This has really fascinated me and I spent the evening thinking about my “ingredients” yesterday.
    I think mine are
    Addictive gene in family (dad was a heavily drinker, uncle died of a heart attack related to drugs)
    Childhood trauma (dad left on my 10th birthday, contact was on and off then he rejected all contract with me from 13, but maintained contact with my sisters seeing them weekly)
    Narcissist mother (gaslights, emotionally manipulates, never happy, has a favourite).
    Then low self esteem and confident led me to some questionable situations in adulthood, which make me cringe now.
    I think I drank to forget, I drank to numb, I drank to fit in and I drank because I was bored.
    Soon i turned 30 and all my friends has stopped getting wasted had good careers, lovely homes and partners. They were happy. I hadn’t grown up and drank more because I jealous and discontented. I got counselling at 32 regarding family relationships.
    Things started falling together when I turned 34 and the missing piece (sobriety) happened when I was 36.
    Theres still a long way to go but I’ve never felt so at peace.
    Great post sorry for the over sharing

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Not over sharing at all! Lots of insight there and so pleased you are at peace with yourself – that’s a wonderful thing isn’t it? I feel more whole now than ever in my life but I do regret not stopping sooner. I think I was scared it would end my marriage and I didn’t want my kids to experience divorce but then it happened anyway! History repeating itself but I’m sober now and even as adults I can see the benefits for my daughters 😘😘

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post! You have me thinking on my recipe. I get jealous as my husband can pick up a drink and put it down at any time. He has a past recipe like me. When I did Dry January last year he had no problem going a month without alcohol and doing it with me. I struggled, but never gave up.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. DGS this is a great post! I fully believe we all have our own addiction recipe. I’ll have to come up with mine. Lord knows I spent years perfecting it. And you are so right about not one single ingredient being the predictor of whether someone will have a problem. It is much more layered and complex. That’s why I also believe that everyone has to get sober in their own way. Definitely not a one-size-fits-all problem or solution. I think you are right on with your own recipe…It’s too bad that all of those ingredients came together in your life, but I’m so glad to see all the work you are doing creating your recipe for sobriety, and a life where you can thrive instead of merely survive. Much love. Xx

    Liked by 1 person

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