What Are You Addicted to?

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Everyone is addicted to something. For me, it’s coffee in the morning and a glass of red wine with dinner, and my brain has now become accustomed to those two small (but crucial) brain chemical alterations — one achieved through caffeine use, the other through a safe amount of alcohol. As mild as my addictions are, the point they illustrate is important. These substances are habitual and affect my mood. Without them, I would not be the same person.

For some other people the pleasure centers in the brain need a whole lot more juice to create good feelings. By the way, all addictions begin as a way to manage or suppress negative feelings. And they do work for awhile. Later on, though, the addiction itself becomes the new problem. And there are so many things that humans like to become addicted to, from tobacco, drugs and alcohol, to shopping, sex, gambling, or even exercise. All things that give the brain an exciting charge.

This week I shot a television pilot called “Love & Relationships” with three other doctors of psychology. Picture “The View” with four Ph.D.’s. Our celebrity guest list included Mackenzie Phillips and Natalie Cole. Both brave women generously gave of their time to openly talk about pain and addiction as a temporary answer to childhood trauma. Their motivation to share their stories is as noble one as any — to help others see that there is another way out of emotional pain.

The route out of the haze of addictive behavior is one well-known to anyone who has attempted it. And it is not for the faint of heart. Removing the stimulus and all the accessories (including the people, places and thrills that were associated with it) is a start. Then it is a long journey through a twelve-step program to finally begin to feel again. Eventually the veil of false euphoria will be lifted and authentic feelings will bubble up to the surface.

I prefer to leave notes about beating addictions to those who do it all day long and would rather get to the meat of what caused those addictions in the first place, my favorite “F” word — feelings. All addictions begin as a way to self-medicate. Sometimes there is a brain disorder that has gone undiagnosed and its confused host is scrambling to find some balance, using trial an error in home medicine cabinets and at various bars and clubs. At other times, emotional trauma with it’s own invisible bleeding wounds, is the force that causes self-medication.

When people tell me they don’t know why they drink so much, I like to tell them something one psycho-pharmacology professor told me, “Stop drinking and very soon, you’ll know exactly why you drink.”

It’s the painful, shameful, and uncontrollable feelings. It’s the confusion over who did what to whom and what part you played in the trauma. (Note to victims of child sexual abuse — YOU DID NOTHING WRONG!!!!) It’s a heavy weight that sits inside your head and heart that keeps you from finding joy in everyday life. For many, many people emotional pain does not cause obvious disfunction. Sweet damaged children get educated, hold down good jobs, even sleep-walk though some semblance of a marriage. But there is a background uneasiness in their life that never goes away. Never becomes clear, pure, happiness. Thus, the urge to grasp onto something to take this pain away.

This is the day I encourage you to face the feelings behind the addiction. This is the day to reach out to a trained professional to hold your hand through personal growth. This is the day to begin to feel better, so you can feel the true in all your relationships.

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