My writings on the theme of addiction trace their origin to my experience as a substance abuse counselor, as a clinical supervisor to addictions agencies, and to my own family background in which substance abuse has claimed many lives. This is not an unusual situation: addiction has shaped — twisted, torn, broken — almost every family I’ve known. And it’s not the addicted who call for help in moments of crisis: it’s the family, overwhelmed and panicked and utterly unaware of how to deal with someone who has been swallowed by the monster. The family cannot understand how it has come to be that love and support and care are insufficient to the task of rescuing the parent or child or sibling who wanders in the fugue of alcohol, the flurry of cocaine, the paranoia of crystal meth. Typically, families are paralyzed by the dawning awareness that the primary allegiance of any addicted person is to the substance itself, to its rituals and urgencies and kaleidoscopic logic. This is just unbelievable: that someone would choose illness and dishonesty and the furtive ingestion of toxins over the readily available assistance of friends, family, and the many community services designed specifically for the purpose of helping people through addiction.

But chronic substance users — indeed, addicts1 of every ilk — are not responsive to such inducements. They’re looking for something else: a destination, a secret, a bright, still center at which all the contradictions will make sense. Most don’t know they’re searching for it. They just try to get away from the intrusions, the futile interventions, the hassles from people who want to divert them from the inescapable quest for getting high.

And yet, there is much we can do to help. There are clear reasons for the strange, disturbing behavior of the addicted. They have wandered far from themselves, perhaps, have meandered in endless, fruitless, fractured spirals of duress — but they are not entirely lost. Addiction is not purposeless; it has a trajectory, a momentum that is neither random nor impenetrable. And this trajectory, despite all appearances and evidence to the contrary, is directed toward healing. It may seem strange to think of addiction in this way; after all, its trappings are destructive and debilitating. But addiction does not begin this way. It starts with the search for joy, wonder, and human connection. Addiction is a positive urge thwarted by negative circumstances. It is not a character defect, or simply a matter of chemical dependency. In fact, substance use is not even the central feature of addiction. People can be addicted to an endless swath of things: exercise, work, food, sex, technologies of various kinds. But always the core is something else, something behind: an unfinished constellation of impulses and dreams.

The story of healing — which is almost identical in every addicted person — is a narrative of descent into the labyrinth, of challenge, confrontation, and, sometimes, the eventual return to wholeness. This is the arc of the hero and heroine told in countless tales; it is a mythological journey with consistent stages and turns. Many addicted people (and their families) believe their situation to be particular, perhaps even unique; but the stages of addiction could not be more plain and predictable to those familiar with the cycle. Addiction levels people, treats them all the same, places them on tracks identical to those who’ve gone before. These tracks lead to one of two destinations: death or healing. In a way, the final stages of addiction embody the essence of sacrifice: something has to go, and one hopes it is not life itself.

Addiction is a war like all the others: terrible and heroic and with a profound meaning hidden in the pain. I’m interested in survival, and the meaning of that struggle, and the recapturing of human connection. I am not drawn to statistics about the success of various modalities or the politics of addiction or the reasons why there never seem to be enough treatment facilities. Addiction is a personal journey, an odyssey deep inside the self. My reflections upon that journey derive from my work with individual people over many, many years. It is the person who heals, who grows, who knows. Allies can be of help, but the shadow path is always taken alone.

That path begins early. Experiences in childhood provide the most common nudge toward later difficulties with addiction (and toward many other challenges as well). The connection between childhood trauma and subsequent struggles with drugs and alcohol is almost a universal law of addiction.2 It is a kind of gravity: persistent, implacable, and difficult to avoid. Much can be done to inoculate, so to speak, children against the vulnerabilities that lead to addiction. Parents cannot, ultimately, prevent addiction in their children; but they can become aware of risk factors and respond to them, so that our descendants might be better resourced than we have been.

Untangling the roots of addiction is a long and difficult process, mostly because those roots lie farther back in people’s lives than they realize or care to admit. The slow rebuilding of damaged or shattered relationships, the restoration of physical health, the work of insight and planning and new directions: these and the many other steps require between many years of consistent and dedicated attention. The medical and recovery communities typically speak in terms of months, because their resources are limited and their incentive, in a highly competitive market, is to offer clients and their families immediate and tangible hope. But among those who’ve managed to reconstruct the totality of their lives, most report that the work of recovery continues long after the substance (or the addictive behavior, in the case of gambling, gaming, and similar dependencies) is discarded.

The illuminated path meanders beyond relapse — almost everyone goes through a series of these — beyond the final surrender to assistance, beyond detox and treatment and whatever type of recovery people choose. Until finally they emerge blinking into the sunlight, without a clear sense of confidence, dogged by a sense of how much of their life was occupied in running and hiding. Feelings of loss and hope and freedom all wrapped up together. But when they get this far, they’re already most of the way home, though the actual homecoming — to themselves — is always the great and final challenge. And not only for the addict: this homecoming is the core of all human development.

The buried wound must be explored, mapped and known. Inside the wound lies our deepest wisdom, our illumination.


[1] Some people don’t like the word addict. I understand the objection; in the general public, the word has a stigmatizing connotation. But for those of us who work in the field of addictions recovery, addict carries a different connotation. It is often a word of joining, of solidarity, even of pride. Its use has meaning, resonance, and purpose. It is not a word to be carelessly discarded.

[2] Almost a universal law. I have met addicts who claim to be free of childhood trauma, and I commonly hear assertions from parents that their addicted kids are free from earlier emotional injuries and other travails. Some of these people may be correct. Most are not. The tendency to discount or minimize trauma and mental health problems is the most common means by which addictions spread within families and across generations.