I don’t like the labels ‘alcoholic’ and ‘addict’. They don’t resonate with me or my experiences, and more than that, I think they are derogatory, loaded with negative connotations, and have the potential to prevent a person from fulfilling his or her true potential in life once the addiction to a particular substance has been overcome.
In the last few years I’ve thought a lot about addiction; what makes some people become dependent on a drug or bad habit? And of those of us who’ve struggled in this way, what exactly are we looking for? What’s missing in our lives?
When I first quit drinking alcohol, I considered religion in a way I’ve never done before. I am a devout atheist but was overwhelmed with a desire to fill up my life with a force much greater than I. The booze had obviously been satisfying a deep emotional yearning and without it, a vacuum yawned open leaving me hollow and empty and totally craving something. But what that something was, I don’t know, and I’ve still yet to find out.
I wonder whether this feeling I often have that something is missing is what propels certain people into addiction. There are many factors at play with regards to developing addictive behaviours, such as genetics and childhood experiences, those who we socialise with during the impressionable teenage years, and life events such as bereavement and divorce. But even taking these things into consideration, I have often thought that this emotional emptiness may not be experienced by all of humanity, and that for some reason, there are particular people who are more aware of it than others.
When I was a teenager I suffered from an eating disorder for many years. I smoked and took drugs and tried very hard to satisfy the inner hollowness, without much success. When I grew older, I put an end to those behaviours and concentrated purely on alcohol, continuing apace in my efforts to satisfy myself, to feel complete. It was only when I quit drinking that I became fully aware of just how much of a vacuum there was inside, and it was then that I began considering religion in a desperate attempt to feel what I thought others must feel – completeness, a sense of belonging and of being human.
I couldn’t get behind religion, although there are strands of Buddhism and Taoism that resonate with me and which I have found comfort in. My pragmatic side has tended to focus on fixing all that is wrong with my world in the hope that by living a more fulfilling life, that silent but ever-present emptiness will be eradicated. And for the most part, I’ve been successful.
However, every so often, a familiar sense of something missing arises, leaving me feeling deeply unsatisfied and emotionally hollow. And it’s then that I wonder, is this what it means to be ‘an addict’ (if we are to utilise that term)? Is there a special quality to those of us who have been drawn into substance misuse? Do we feel an emptiness that others don’t? We’ll never know what goes on inside other people’s hearts and souls – we can only surmise by talking and listening, by sharing our stories, and by opening up and being honest about the way that we feel. In that way, we can discover whether our own experience of being human is mirrored in that of others.
There is still the eternal optimist inside me, who believes that once I have happened upon all the correct components of my own personal life jigsaw and put them in the right place, the hollowness will disappear; at that point, I will feel complete. Maybe there is no such thing as the condition of being ‘an addict’ – perhaps it is simply that we are yet to get everything right in our lives, that we have still to work out what our individual recipes for perfection are. And when we get that right, the emptiness will vanish. For the time being, I am still choosing to believe in that.