“I’m on a drug. It’s called Charlie Sheen.
It’s not available. If you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body.” By Charlie Sheen
Addiction is all-consuming. Brilliance is lost to the twisted, distorted perspective that says, “I am the essence of brilliance.” Audacious self-importance keeps a person stuck. Now in reported recovery, Sheen may well speak from a different place than he once was.
I remember watching Charlie Sheen on 20/20 television show when he said, “I just didn’t believe I was like everybody else. I thought I was unique.” The public self-destruction of Charlie Sheen was painful to follow in the news. The descent from being the highest-paid American television actor on primetime ($1.8 million per episode on Two and a Half Men) to being HIV positive and suspected of threatening to kill a former fiancée all was very sad to his most loyal fan base.
Addicts are an odd lot. Rapacious, loner, renegade, charismatic, luminary, chic, and disgusting are among the many adjectives that describe those who suffer from addiction. During my professional experience, I have treated individuals who have squandered hundreds of millions of dollars dedicated to escaping what they don’t want to feel. I have listened to a medical professional describe having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner numerous times and confessing that they cannot get enough of what they really don’t want. Some have spent millions of dollars on a cocktail of experience with sugar daddy prostitutes, alcohol, and opiates and then blew their brains out! I have spent time with workaholics who literally experienced tremors, excessive sweating, nausea, and diarrhea from simply withdrawing from the rush of adrenaline that comes with the art of the deal. The merry-go-round lifestyle of most addicts is dumbfounding and would make anyone dizzy just listening to the staggering story of out-of-control behavior.
Why? Gabor Maté has been so helpful with this question. He suggests rather than why the addiction, why the pain? A simple question that requires the courage to go deep under the surface and examine family-of-origin, social mores, economic conditions, etc that promote escape through addiction. This post will focus on family of origin.
As a kid, I always wondered if I was crazy. I created a make-believe friend who would walk alongside me and I could talk and feel safe as I walked up and down the railroad tracks of the Illinois Central. I once printed fliers warning of the end of the world and tried to give them to people I cared for and loved, fearing they would perish in hell. When my Little league coach was killed in a train/car crash I literally put my ear to the ground and thought I heard his screams in hell because when he died he was a Catholic! I was taught that Catholics weren’t Christian. I ran out of a minor league baseball stadium believing that it was going to blow up. And once I cut a 12-inch gash on the top of my right arm from my wrist to my elbow. I learned to soothe myself each night with masturbation. It was my only constant soothing source.
Later in life, I learned to hide and minimize these earlier childhood experiences by focusing on pleasing others, by being zealous in my Christian faith and by working harder than anyone else I knew. My work addiction and sex addiction flourished to a point of being out of control. Once I worked 120 hours in one week and averaged 80-90 hours per week as a minister “serving” God. Sex addiction became a way for me to medicate the crazy work schedule for which I was complimented for sacrificing for the sake of God’s kingdom.
Depression was never felt because I was too busy and tired to feel it. I used work and sex to be a way of holding back depression. However, like trying to hold a beach ball underwater, inevitably depression sprang forth and debilitated the existence of my life. Paralyzed with depression and unable to function, I had lost 48 pounds in six weeks and was suicidal. Hospitalized I found myself in the proverbial padded cell contemplating how I got there.
I thought about all the crap that my family and I had gone through in the church, and a wave of rage came over me. There were memories of a lot of sexual abuse. I felt the shame that manacled me and all of my siblings. I thought of the complexity of everything I knew about the church and its abuse. I wanted to throw up, but I did not. Rather, I began hitting my Bible with my bare fists. I struck my Bible again and again until my knuckles were bleeding. When I finished, I was exhausted. Not from the physical act of hitting but from tapping into all the rage, hate, and shame that had enveloped my life like a wet blanket for so many years.
Soren Kierkegaard once said, “life is meant to be lived forward but it can only be understood backwards”. Since being hospitalized for major depression, I have launched a lifelong exploration to understand why I suffered such debilitating depression. Somehow I had to make sense of the physical, sexual, emotional, and religious abuse I experienced. I wanted to know why I was an addict. I never signed up to be one! Learning about my family’s dysfunction helped me to convert and integrate unbelievably painful and abusive behaviors, perpetrated to me and from me, to a healing experience that made sense to me. This pursuit imparted wisdom which promoted self-compassion and empathy toward others.
It made sense that I would have a make-believe friend as a young boy. Being the youngest of five boys in a family of nine, I never experienced fitting in or acceptance by my older brothers. Every attempt to impress was thwarted or sabotaged. Any win I ever achieved in sports over an older brother was derided and shamed. If I didn’t want to play I was criticized for being a big baby. I once pitched a perfect game in baseball and was criticized for that! So fantasy became my refuge. Having a make-believe friend who was nice to me made all the sense in the world. Figuring out that I grew up in an evangelical cult helped me understand my over-the-top evangelistic fervor and fear. Think about it. If you were a young kid and sat week after week listening to a preacher tell you horror stories about people who died and went to hell, and that the world would end any day, you would probably do some type of crazy behavior.
Paradoxically, cutting myself felt soothing. It relieved tremendous emotional pain inside. It was a way of telling someone I was in distress, and cleaning myself up was a manageable problem, but the craziness in my life was not. Masturbation became a constant predictable source of relief in a world of chaos when I was a kid.
Listed are a few considerations to unravel your own craziness:
- Listen to your feelings — they are the voice of the universe talking to you about your life imbalance. Shame, hate, anger, depression, and resentment are powerful feelings you tend to want to avoid. Rather than run from them, embrace them. They will tell you what you need and your wise mind will suggest how to meet that need if you will but listen!
- Look backward for understanding your addiction behavior. You might find the meaning that could save your life. Nothing changes until it is real. Careful examination of your family of origin can help you make sense of your current destructive behavior. Actions and behaviors that seem crazy from one perspective will make sense from another. Understanding will help cultivate adult insight and compassion which creates acceptance and meaningfulness.
- Trying to fill the empty hole inside with a cocktail of experience (performance, work, alcohol, drugs, etc) from the outside is like a little kid who can’t get enough sugar. There is never enough! Unmet developmental needs from childhood are wounds that must be scrubbed. When ignored they create a pool of pain that triggers destructive behavior to sedate the emotional pain that exists. Grieving unmet needs from an early age is a way of discharging the suffering that gets locked in childhood. If the wound is not scrubbed and cleaned then the infection of arrogance, wanting what I want when I want it, contaminates and spreads through selfish myopic behavior. Adults give their power to the immature child within to make decisions and run the show. You will need to grow yourself up, take the reins from the small child, and enable your wise-mind adult self to make the decisions and empower you to sit with painful discomfort and resource your healing.
When you look underneath the addictive behavior, it’s never crazy and always makes sense. It is not healthy sense but nonetheless, there is rhyme and reason to what seems crazy-making. Only when you unravel what’s behind your own crazy-making behavior will you be able to answer the question “Why the pain?”