Addiction develops when desire goes unchecked. Desire is a fundamental aspect of human life, and learning to manage desire is part of normal human development. Overcoming addiction is a special case of managing desire. Overcoming addiction is managing desire ‘writ large.’
Addiction as mismanaged desire
I leave out of this discussion some Eastern approaches to living, in which the goal of proper living is the elimination of desire. In the Western tradition life is about satisfying desire. Some desires have their own names: hunger, thirst, greed, lust. Otherwise, we speak of desiring (seeking, wanting, wishing for) various objects and situations in our lives. We feel these desires with varying degrees of intensity. We spend our time identifying, sorting and acting on our desires. We attempt to satisfy those reasonably within our reach. We feel lucky when we get something we weren’t sure we could obtain, and disappointed when we miss out on something we thought was within easy reach.
The stuff of daily life is effort expended to satisfy desire. We work or go to school, possibly because we are satisfied by these activities in themselves, but also because we earn or hope to earn money to purchase items and experiences, to satisfy our desires. We seek satisfaction (we might also call it pleasure). What money buys will bring us satisfaction directly, or position us to obtain satisfaction. Besides money making, we engage in many other activities that are means to other ends. Those ends ultimately can be described as satisfaction, or as happiness. There are vast differences in what individuals find satisfying. There are also vast differences in their capacity to accept new satisfactions in place of old. Changing one’s satisfactions is central to overcoming addiction.
Conflict is also the stuff of daily life. Conflict occurs when one person desires this, and another desires that, or the same person desires both this and that (two incompatible things). In addiction a conflict can occur, for instance, between a desire for substance induced euphoria, and a desire for health. Recognizing and examining this conflict are the first steps to managing addiction, just as they are for managing other conflicts. Both sides need to sit at the negotiating table and air their agendas before resolution can be found. If there is no conflict there is no addiction. Under certain circumstances what might look like addiction is not addiction, because the conflict does not exist. “Morphine addiction” in the terminal patient is a clear example.
We can outgrow earlier or excessive pursuits (and the desires that prompt them), by developing equally (even if somewhat differently) satisfying pursuits. At age 5 my favorite food was popsicles. I still enjoy an occasional popsicle, but my tastes have matured. Freud called the process of reaching higher satisfactions ‘sublimation.’ Socrates called it ascending the ‘ladder of love.’ Our goal is to transform desire itself. Otherwise we are, in varying degrees, slaves to it.
Our hard-wired desires, or drives, such as hunger, prompt us to do what we need to do to survive. Our learned desires motivate us to pursue experiences that lead to pleasure, satisfaction, and at times, euphoria. Without desire we would not survive, nor pursue activities. We would have no reason to. However, desire can be unmanaged or mismanaged. Addiction is one form of this mismanagement.
In severe addiction our learned desires (those related to satisfaction) appear to become confused with our hard-wired desires (those related to survival: food, sex, attention from others). Over time our satisfactions actually decrease, but we pursue our addictions as if our survival depended on them. Even though our survival is not at stake, we act like it is! Fortunately it is possible to overcome this situation. Although the path to recovery can be long, getting onto that path requires recognizing that by acting on some of our desires we are not surviving, but perhaps killing ourselves!