I am a former addict. In my previous circles there was a saying:
“Once an addict, always an addict.”
It didn’t exist to belittle addicts, or to convince us that we could never get better. It was a reminder that we could not safely use addictive substances ever again. It served to keep us on track in our recovery because in the back of most addicts’ minds, there is this belief:
“One day, I’ll be able to use my drug of choice without any consequences.”
Letting go of that dream creates the possibility for real recovery to emerge. Real healing can come when we let go of our fantasies and accept our reality. The reality for all addicts is that they’ve lost the ability to alter their consciousness “normally”, so in recovery, they accept “once an addict, always an addict” as a way of saying “There’s no turning back, I have to let go, and move forward”.
“Once an addict, always an addict” means that the brain will always be an addict brain, sober or not: The trauma will always be there. If you have an “addictive personality” you always will, and you can’t change that.
But this isn’t the whole story. Not for all addicts.
Most addicts will forever be fighting a part of their brain that requires large amounts of pleasure to feel satisfied. But this isn’t always the case. Some addicts find true recovery and relief from addiction.
In this article, I address the idea that an addiction can be healed with the right recipe of inner work and environmental conditions. It certainly can happen, because it does happen.
What is addiction, really?
Addiction is a state in which you essentially throw your life away – piece by piece – for a substance or a process (common process addictions include gambling, sex, or video games). You lose control over the decision making part of your brain. Strong compulsions push you to seek the drug or process, then once you engage it, you find it very difficult to stop, despite the consequences piling up (loss of job/money, trouble with relationships, damage to your health). When you finally do muster up the energy to quit for a while, you go through withdrawal, which is a process where every cell in your body tells you to use again. If you weren’t second guessing your decision to quit from the very beginning, you definitely are once the withdrawal kicks in.
Recovering from addiction is no easy task. In fact, many do not get out of addiction alive or without serious setbacks. Kicking an addiction is not the same as quitting gluten, or coffee. These are habits – or in the case of coffee, a dependency – they don’t pose the same difficulty as quitting an addiction. The patterns of true addiction are so deeply wired in the brain, that most modern addiction doctors believe that addiction it is rooted in adverse childhood experiences or trauma, which occur when the brain is still forming. The reaction to the trauma becomes part of our core programming, dictating how our pleasure centers are governed.
Simply put, addicts end up with a brain that experiences the world as dangerous, volatile, threatening, lonely, and unsafe. Pleasure and comfort soothes the wound and provides safety. The stronger the substance or experience, the better.
Some people have memory of their trauma, and some don’t. For many, birth trauma, or a lack of bonding in the post-birth phase is enough to disrupt attachment pathways and lead a child to grow up feeling unsafe and disconnected. Even in utero, the mother’s mental and emotional state has a dramatic effect on the fetus and is highly predictive of the child’s need to self medicate as the years go on.
Why do addicts use in a way that destroys lives?
The primary reason addicts use, is to escape the pain. On the surface, this isn’t what the rest of the world sees. They see a life out of control, an unmanageable lifestyle, lying, stealing, and an unhealthy body. What is underneath all that is the pain, and the deeply rooted mechanisms for soothing it.
We have a habit of treating the symptoms – the behaviour, but to really access the addiction at its root, the trauma and the pain needs to be addressed.
Recovery has two main stages:
Addiction Treatment – Symptom Treatment & Stage 1 Recovery
Most addiction treatment treats the above symptoms for a few weeks, as an introduction to sobriety. Participants ideally get a change of environment, regular meals, exercise, and they learn basic life management skills. The focus is on getting clean, and getting basic functions online, like nutrition and exercise. Good treatment programs have group and individual therapy, which begins the process of uncovering the wounds that fuel the addiction, but this usually barely scratches the surface. There’s just not enough time or space to safely to go all the way.
Treatment is a chance to get clean from drug use, change environment, heal the body, and change behaviour. Stage 1 recovery is where the more surface level concerns are addressed. After initial treatment, many addicts will attend 12 Step Groups or other support groups, and build a new social circle that reinforces recovery and greatly increases the chances of long-term growth. Community support plays a crucial role in creating success in sobriety for the first few years.
At this point, life seems to be on track. Observably, things are running smoothly. But just like the source of the addiction was hovering under the surface at the beginning, it is often still there despite the outward change. Many addicts will stop here, satisfied with all the positive changes, and now surrounded by a supportive community. If they don’t engage in deeper work, their growth can plateau and stagnate.
With alcoholics, this stagnation is called a “Dry Drunk” – someone who has cleaned up, quit using, but has halted the healing/growth process.
The next stage has to be engaged on purpose, with intention, and without the consequences that were propelling the person towards stage 1 recovery.
Addiction Healing – Stage 2 Recovery
Some people see Stage 2 recovery as an advanced learning and integration phase: Learning to manage habits, deal with life changes, handle success, and have healthy relationships. This learning arguably continues as long as a person lives. Earnie Larsen has informative and useful information on this sort of advanced recovery, but I see this as a continuation of Stage 1.
In my opinion, stage 2 recovery occurs when one engages the primary driver behind the addiction: the pain. This process involves deconstructing ego walls, getting vulnerable, and addressing core wounds. This is easier said than done in the case of trauma, because re-engaging trauma tends to trigger all the same anxiety and terror that came with the trauma in the first place.
Stage 2 is engaged much less often than Stage 1, because the immediate consequences of the addiction have worn off. After initial treatment, the person is living an observably better life, free from the substance/behaviour that once chained them, so they might feel resigned to deeper work: “Why should I dig deeper and spend years in therapy? I’m clean and sober and I live a good life.” The truth is that IF addiction is a result of a deeply rooted wound, and a dysregulation of the reward system, then an addict is not safe from relapse until the root cause is addressed.
A recovering addict who does not engage stage 2 recovery will always be battling with his/her core wounds. There will always be an unconscious part of the mind that seeks comfort in oblivion or escape.
An addict IS always an addict, until deep healing has occurred.
People are healing.
Trauma is being treated successfully by professionals and medicine carriers from other cultures. People are addressing their core wounds and their trauma, and they are recovering. The result of this deep work is a gradual diminishment of the compulsion to soothe pain. The underlying cause of the addiction begins to lose its grip. True recovery begins to emerge.
How do you heal an addiction?
In order to heal the wounds that underlie an addiction, some basic environmental ingredients are needed. Once the environment is set, therapeutic methods can be used to do the healing work.
Think of the environment as a set of pre-existing conditions that set the stage for healing. They need to exist if there is to be any possibility of deep healing. The conditions for deep work are:
- Stage 1 recovery. A level of stability and health has returned.
- A supportive community – not just one therapist or counsellor – a whole community of people who can support the healing.
- External safety and acceptance – in the support community and in the external environment (especially the home).
- Internal acceptance and total surrender – removal of an agenda of healing, no expectation for outcome. This is a paradox but crucial to the process. Patience is required in the healing process, because there truly never is an end to the healing process.
The methods for healing addiction vary from person to person, but many of them involve an altered state of consciousness. Some are substance induced, and others are not. It does, however, seem necessary that normal operating consciousness be altered in a way that interrupts the normal state of being in the world. Even the 12 Steps in Alcoholics Anonymous asserts that a spiritual awakening or a spiritual experience is essential to facilitate recovery. Inducing an altered state through the use of a substance may sound counter-intuitive, since addicts seek to be altered as a means of escape, but this is entirely different. Altered states can be used either for escape or introspection. The environment sets the tone.
There are numerous therapies that create an environment for deep work. They include trauma release, EMDR, holotropic breathwork, transpersonal therapies and shadow work. These all have the potential to be powerful in addressing core wounds under the right conditions.
Substance induced therapies are more controversial, but their results are undeniable. They include MDMA assisted psychotherapy, plant medicines such as Ayahuasca, Psilocybin Mushrooms and Ibogaine. There are also healers and scientists working together with LSD, Cannabis, and Ketamine to engage the healing process for various other conditions like depression.
Each person must find the combination of healing methods that work for them, but there is no magic pill. The healing process is long, and requires patience and integration. Any large breakthrough as a result of one of the therapies above requires an integration in to the person’s life, which can take years. The right recipe of inner work and environmental conditions must be in place.
If the right conditions are met, real healing can emerge. An addict can be released from the need to escape the pain, and feel the freedom of 2nd stage recovery.
Addictions can be healed.
It is happening every day.