BY SOFO ARCHON
Globally, tens of millions of people are addicted to drugs.
Because of their addiction, many of them lose all that they have: their health, their wealth, their relationships, and often their lives. Yet nothing can force them out of their addiction. Although they know that drugs are harmful, they still keep on taking them. So, the question is, why do they do that?
Our society considers drug addicts as irresponsible, stupid and immoral. Psychological research, however, shows something very different: that they are deeply hurt individuals who are trying to find relief from their suffering. They are people who were abused — sexually, physically or emotionally — usually during their very early childhood. They are mostly men and women who were unloved, neglected or abandoned during their formative years.
As a result of their traumatic experiences, drug addicts feel a sense of inner lack — a lack of love, joy, meaning and purpose — and try to fill it through substance abuse. Whether by drinking alcohol, sniffing cocaine or injecting heroin into their bodies, all they try to achieve is to experience a sense of comfort, a sense of inner peace, a sense of control over their lives.
The problem is, the exhilarating psychological effects of drugs are always short-lived. While they last, it feels incredibly good, but within minutes or at most hours, they start to fade away. And then the pain returns. In fact, it never returns — it was already there, hidden yet present. And it feels unbearable.
When this happens, drug addicts feel drawn to psychotropic substances again. But no matter how many of them they take, they’re never enough to satisfy their needs. Hence, they inevitably lead to the exact same result. And the cycle of addiction repeats itself one more time.
The reason why drugs don’t work in the long run is because they don’t address the root cause of addiction: the sense of emptiness inside. On the contrary, they only offer an external substitute of what the addict is really looking for: to feel worthy and complete.
The Buddhists have a mandala called Wheel of Life, which divides human existence into six different realms — each representing our various ways of being. One of those realms is the Realm of Hungry Ghosts. The inhabitants of that realm are depicted as creatures with long scrawny necks, tiny mouths, skinny limbs and big, bloated, empty bellies. “This,” addiction expert Gabor Maté says, “is the domain of addiction, where we constantly seek something outside ourselves to curb an insatiable yearning for relief or fulfillment. The aching emptiness is perpetual because the substances, objects or pursuits we hope will soothe it are not what we really need. We don’t know what we need, and so long as we stay in the hungry ghost mode, we’ll never know. We haunt our lives without being fully present.”
A monk prays for a hungry ghost. From the Kyoto National Museum.
Now, when we talk about addiction, most of us tend to think specifically of drug addiction. But addiction can be to anything: food, money, possessions, porn, video games, social media and so on. And whether we realize it or not, many of us are addicted to at least one of them — some more, others less.
Food can provide us with a fleeting sense of fulfillment. Money can provide us with a fleeting sense of power. Possessions can provide us with a fleeting sense of security. Porn can provide us with a fleeting sense of intimacy. Video games can provide us with a fleeting sense of adventure. And social media can provide us with a fleeting sense of connection. But, again, no matter how many of those things we consume or acquire, in the end they always let us down, because they can’t give us what we truly deep down long for.
Often, we try to deal with addiction by fighting against it. We restrict our caloric intake, we renounce money and possessions, we repress our sexual urges, and so on, not realizing that addiction is merely a symptom of an underlying disease, and not the cause of it. Hence, we can’t get rid of it. On the contrary, we usually find that we crave even more what we deprive ourselves of. In other words, our addiction becomes stronger, not weaker.
When it comes to drug addiction, we collectively try to deal with it by waging war against drugs and their users. How exactly? By legally punishing those we find to possess them, in an effort to control their circulation and consumption. But we never ask: Why do people get hooked to drugs in the first place? If we did, we’d see that drug addicts are mentally ill people who need help, not criminals who should be locked in jail. We’d also find out that our society is structurally breeding mental illness and addiction through systems that lead to oppression and social alienation.
But those in power don’t want us to know about that, afraid that otherwise we’d kick them out of power, and dismantle the systems that brought them into it. So they choose to misdirect our attention. By demonizing drugs and drug addicts, they make us forget what truly matters. It’s no wonder, therefore, that so many people are addicted to drugs, regardless of the harsh drug laws in place in most countries around the world.
To treat drug addiction, or any other form of addiction, we need to stop fighting against it and instead try to understand it. In addition, we need to stop judging or punishing those who suffer from it, and instead start treating them with respect and compassion. Then and only then will we be able to figure out where addiction really comes from, as well as το support addicts in their journey to recovery and healing.