Is Addiction A Life Sentence?

“Once an addict always an addict”

During my first few years in the 12 steps program I heard this idea repeated to death. If you’ve spent meaningful time in programs like AA or NA, I’m sure you have too.

The idea of addiction as a “life sentence” is not just a pithy saying, it’s a philosophy baked into the core of the mainstream recovery movement. It’s one that has shaped society’s views of addictions. And defined how patient’s look at their relationship to substances.

The question tugs at the heart of what it means to recover. In some ways it attacks the very idea of recovery itself: can we ever truly heal? Or is addiction, in fact, a life sentence?

I’ve grappled with this question both as a coach and during my time in recovery. After years of investigation in my personal and professional life, I’ve come to the conclusion that the idea of addiction as a “life sentence” is both untrue and unhelpful for people trying to enjoy a happier and healthier life in recovery.

In this short article, I want to share three toxic beliefs the idea of addiction as a disease can create. And pose three powerful ways to re-frame these beliefs to see meaningful, lasting change in your recovery.

Toxic Belief 1: My Addiction And I Are One And The Same

In our society, “addict” and “addiction” are loaded terms.

Misinformation, and harmful depictions in the media have painted an “addict” as someone who is lazy, irresponsible, and untrustworthy.

Many of us in recovery also deal with personal shame surrounding our past substance use. We’ve all done things we’re ashamed of. No one’s proud of their addiction or the actions it caused us to take. Part of the healing process is making amends with these deeds and finding forgiveness for ourselves.

Both society’s stigma and our own inner critics can cast a cloud of shame over us. Does labeling ourselves “forever an addict” help us move forward? Or does it merely heighten feelings of regret we already experience?

I don’t believe we should define or even identify ourselves as an “addict.” Doing so only emboldens the toxic belief there is something wrong with us – that we are fundamentally skewed in some way. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Dealing with an addiction is tough enough. When we add this extra weight, it creates a vicious cycle of shame that gets in the way of self-acceptance, forgiveness, and ultimately healing.

Reframe: I’m More Than My Addiction

Take a deep breath and say the following.

I AM MORE THAN MY ADDICTION!

Yes, we may have used substances in the past. We may still carry scars and cravings from those experiences. But we’ve also taken the courageous step to seek help and begin our road to recovery.

When we detach ourselves from labels like “addict” or “addiction” something powerful happens… We begin to see ourselves as healthy and whole rather than beaten-down or damaged.

This change in perspective frees us from our negative attachments and creates space for consciousness and healing. It allows us to witness our experience rather than identifying with it, and see thoughts and cravings without identifying with them.

I believe these are all critical steps in our personal path. They allow us to move past the trauma and lies we had to tell ourselves to survive, and see ourselves as something larger than our addiction.

Toxic Belief 2: I’m An Addict Because There Is Something Wrong With Me

One of my favorite quotes about addiction is:

“We don’t become addicted because something is wrong with us. We become addicted because things happened to us.”

12-step programs focus on a person’s addiction and how they can manage it. But they fail to ask the more important question: “why does someone become an addict in the first place?”

Addiction does not occur in a vacuum. No one grows up wanting to be an addict. It arises because of abuse or trauma we suffered in our childhood.

This isn’t just speculation, world renowned addiction and trauma expert Dr. Gabor Maté has spent his life confirming the link between trauma and addiction.

Maté sees addiction as a coping mechanism to deal with painful emotions caused by trauma. He believes we can see more profound changes in our life when we shift our focus away from the addiction, and understand the emotions that underlie it.

This explains why many people in 12-steps eventually feel stuck in the program. They may have learned ways to control their cravings, but they have no awareness of the underlying pain that caused their addiction.

Reframe: Treat The Addiction, Heal The Trauma

If trauma is at the root of addiction, then eliminating substance abuse is only part of the puzzle. To see lasting progress in our recovery, we need to treat the pain and trauma which caused our addiction, and develop a healthy lifestyle that makes it easier to heal.

This is why in both my philosophy and coaching, I endorse a holistic approach to recovery. In holistic healing we use every tool at our disposal to address the deep wounds at the core of our addiction.

This includes everything from bringing our bodies into a healthy physical state, finding inner peace and tranquility, and creating meaningful relationships with ourselves and others.

As someone who has helped many people in their recovery, I believe when we take these steps towards healing the traumatic activation in our nervous system, we don’t need substances to feel complete.

To quote Maté:

“The recovery community needs more consciousness.”

Instead of seeing addiction as the source of our suffering, we must direct our consciousness at the inner wounds that caused it to arise. When we take this more expansive approach, true healing and happiness can occur.

 

Toxic Belief 3: All “Addicts” And Substances Are The Same

One of the things I dislike most about the label “addict”, is it groups everyone who has struggled with a particular substance into a single category.

If you fall under the umbrella of “addiction”, you’re told to abstain from a range of triggering activities. There is no distinction between different people, circumstances, and substances.

Someone who once had an opioid addiction can never have a glass of wine. Someone with a gambling addiction cannot enjoy a cigar with friends without spiraling out of control.

At one point, this likely made sense. For decades, the government barred research on psychoactive substances, making it easy to demonize anything that one might label as a “drug”.

However, new research contradicts some of these outdated claims, especially regarding psychedelics like MDMA, Psilocybin, and Ayahuasca.

Recent studies find psychoactive drugs may help people with a range of mood disorders, such as PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

I know this is a controversial subject in the recovery community. It’s something I plan on taking a deeper look at in the future. For now, I want to point out that the traditional view of addiction leaves no room for certain substances that may have positive effects when used for recovery and healing in a therapeutic context.

Reframe: We Can Change Our Relationship To Certain Substances For Healing Purposes

The following comments reflect my personal experience and recent research. There is still much work to be done in the science of psychedelics, and this is not a sweeping recommendation for everyone recovering from addiction.

Full disclosure: I’ve used psychedelics including ayahuasca, MDMA, and psilocybin ( magic mushrooms) in therapeutic settings.

In my personal experience, the use of certain mood-altering substances in a controlled therapeutic setting has helped me gain insight into my personal traumas and aided in my recovery.

I’m not alone in this respect. Indigenous cultures have used substances like Ayahuasca and Peyote for centuries. AA founder Bill Wilson experimented with LSD to help with his addiction and depression. Researchers have even found that some of these compounds can treat serious addictions to nicotine and alcohol.

Again, don’t take this as a full-scale endorsement of psychedelics, or an excuse to use your substance of choice. My point is to open people in the recovery community up to the idea that certain substances, once considered “drugs” can be used as tools for greater introspection and healing.

I’m open to anything that can help people in recovery find joy and peace in their lives. When we treat all substances and addictions the same, we slam the door on tools that may help us on our personal journeys.

Conclusion

Is addiction a life sentence?

I don’t think so. More broadly, I don’t think the question is a useful way to think of addiction and recovery. Believing we will always be an addict amplifies our shame around addiction, ignores its root causes, and groups all addicts and substances into one category.

I firmly believe peace, progress, and happiness are possible when we take a holistic approach and see ourselves as bigger than our addiction, confront the trauma that led us to use, and remain open to new techniques and substances with healing potential.

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