Through the use of these habitual behaviors, a person endeavors to cope with something troubling in his or her life. At the heart of the behavior, then, is the intent to cope. But cope with what? Through psychotherapy we make this inquiry, and often what we discover is that the addictive behavior is an attempt to cope with what is (or is thought to be) dreaded, uncomfortable, distressing in person’s life. That “something” is usually some powerful, underlying feeling of futility, unhappiness, or misery.
The intent in the use of say drugs or pornography is essentially to get high. This person endeavors to replace, substitute, feelings of unmitigated joy or uninhibited freedom for the underlying ones of dread and unhappiness. Of course, this is often not a conscious attempt. Unconsciously (and reinforced through habit) the person getting high wants to escape his current condition. It is a means, as one client put it, of “skipping over” something. In this regard, it’s an attempt to cope by not feeling what is believed to be unbearable to feel.
And to some degree that attempt is successful. When indulging in the behavior, no matter the substance, the person tends to feel a different set of feelings. Usually a person does feel high, giddy, without a care in the world. That feeling is, of course temporary, inevitably followed by the “hangover” (remorse for using this drug; hopelessness when recognizing dependence on it; accompanying depression). The high lasts until the experience wears off and the person comes back to his life; and what exists beneath the surface, these seemingly unmanageable and intolerable feelings which necessitate the need to escape, persists. Nothing has changed substantially. There has been some respite, albeit brief, from the misery. Only now that misery is compounded by the drug use and consequent adverse effects on family, relationship, jobs.
Often clients I have worked with who have been struggling with addiction feel very “stuck” in their lives. They have very strong feelings of inadequacy and incompetence, and they feel that their life is not progressing. These negative feeling are, of course, not easy to feel. In this regard, the use of pornography (for example) can be seen as an attempt to inhabit a space outside of reality (given how miserable reality seems). Pornography is inherently not real; the images one relates to are just that images and not real human beings (who have complex feelings and needs themselves). Use of pornography is fueled by fantasy (a realm that is by definition outside of reality). The escape to a place outside of reality is an attempt to exist outside of the feelings that reality evokes. For others also struggling with a sense of a life squandered and unaccomplished, the use of alcohol and drugs is intended to numb oneself and one’s feeling receptors. To numb out is to not feel so bad, not feel so much pain. The quandary in this approach, of course, is that to be numb is not to feel at all: the good and positive feelings along with the bad are then unavailable. One is left with a numb sense and the repeated requirement of more and more substance (what is referred to as “tolerance”) so as to feel anything at all or to function (even minimally).