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Addiction as Self Supplementation not Medication

Updated: Jan 1, 2023

Becoming an adult is a very specific yet abstract concept and a hard thing to define. There are just so many ways one can choose to describe this complicated process. All attempts will be incomplete but choosing a good lens to view if from makes it easier. One useful lens or definition for describing becoming an adult emotionally, at least from an experiential stand point is the slow progression from simple single emotions into complex nuanced and often conflicting emotions happening simultaneously.

Children are chaotic af. Yet they see the world in a simple and orderly way. As they grow into adults the simplicity and all-consuming nature of emotions we experience is almost never matched again. At least without drugs anyway. When a child see’s a butterfly it isn’t saddened by knowing its habitat is dying. It’s just happy to see the beauty of its fluttering wings.

Think about a young kid getting so excited at something that they can’t contain it. They feel so much joy they clinch their fists curl their toes and SCRRREEEEAAAAAAM just to cope with the overwhelming joyful sensations he or she is experiencing The feeling is complete, uniform and all-consuming the first time we experience it.

This is followed by a slow progressive desensitization from those sensations as we age until the day that same joy experienced becomes a just a smile due to the complicated nature of the observed world.

It’s no secret that as we mature in age our lives become more complicated. So does our emotional landscape and therefore our emotional intelligence. We eventually learn to name more complex emotions in our selves an we learn how to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling as well.

But what happens if for any reason your mom is emotionally erratic? The simplicity in which young children experience life is unable to be so simple. Because the human that keeps them alive is unpredictable. The child’s mind is always having to ask Will she be sweet? Will she be upset? Will I get the food I need to not die?

In order to navigate the waters of a childhood with an unpredictable mother we learn emotional intelligence very quickly. We have to. It behooves this child to constantly read the room in an attempt to prevent or avoid the next outburst. Which means the child is more focused on everyone else’s emotions than their own. This can make it hard for them to feel what they feel rather than just picking up on the room.

This is the Empath. It also means that they must develop the ability to read other older people’s thoughts at a young age. Older people’s thoughts and emotions are more complicated and tainted as their lives are more complicated and tainted by their experiences. So the inquisitive child’s mind understands the complexity before it has a good grasp on simplicity.

The simplicity that its designed to experience at a very specific early age. A Feeling of complete safety is necessary for so many things and if this happened to you you will struggle with memory learning and social bonding. All things that require a feeling of safety.

This is the kid that gets told they’re an old soul. The kid that get compliments for their thoughtfulness and advanced intellect for their age. This is also the kid that becomes an addict. The degree of addiction and drug of choice will change but the course is set. This is where you should raise an eyebrow to ask me “why?”

I really try to move conversations about mechanistic understandings in neuroscience and biology to something more experiential. I think this is the best way to get people to understand anything that you want to communicate. We don’t experience dopamine as a phenomenon we experience desire. Dopamine and other neurotransmitters are just the mechanisms by which we experience. So why are we talking about dopamine instead of the more tangible experience of desire. But I digress.

This is one of the situations that often leads to addiction. This child begs for simplicity. Simple things make them happy. A simple smile can make their day. Their experiences while very young were complicated and rich at a time when they should be simple. At first you may say so what? Rich experiences are good right? They’re like… well, rich! Well yes and no there’s is a time and place for everything. Rich experiences later in life are awesome. But that’s not the problem.

Richness isn’t the problem. It’s the lack of safety.

There are a few emotions that are extremely important to feel throughout life. The big one today is safety. If a child learns too early that all safety is temporary at best. They’re in for a world of hurt during development as well as later in life. This is because memory learning and social bonding require a feeling of safety as a prerequisite.

The feeling of complete safety is so fundamental to our well-being without it we eventually short circuit. Safety for the human is really just predictability. If we can predict something accurately, we can plan for it and can therefore make ourselves safe. If we feel unsafe for any extended period of time its stressful. If its stress that we want it is exciting. If it’s stress that we don’t want then its just stress.

Just think about being on a really long drive or an international trip. There’s lots of exciting things that can happen but the returning home provides a sense of relief because the comfort of safety and predictability has returned with your arrival.

How awesome is that feeling? The feeling of coming home, putting your stuff down on your own floor and knowing you don’t have any where to go or anything pressing you must attend to. You don’t even have to put away your luggage until your damn good and ready. That breath the predictability of home provides is such a deeply rewarding moment. Or so I hear. I don’t actually experience this due to my own early experiences with lack of safety in a home. Still it’s a well-documented phenomenon. And I'm working on creating it for myself.

I like so many others in my shoes have found approximations for the feeling of safety as an adult. Numb is pretty close to safe. That’s why I liked alcohol so much that we can’t be friends anymore. Heroine too, there’s another approximation that feels like a warm hug from a soft blanket. Or so I hear.

I must admit I have never tried it due to my long standing, deep desire to. Knowing what I know about everyone’s first heroine experience I always knew if I ever tried it that would be the end of me. I would seek the safety and peace of oblivion for the rest of my life. I had a hard enough time quitting drinking I’m glad I never went that route. I’m extremely lucky that I came from a place in the world it just wasn’t available in my lowest moments or I might have.

No matter what your drug of choice they’re all trying to provide the user with an approximation of the safety, predictability and comfort of a better childhood. But they can’t. They can feel close but they can never replace the experiences we should have had when young. Yet we keep seeking them. We keep seeking safety.

I used to say my favorite drug was “more.”

It was never about one drug or the specific high that a drug provided it was about the feeling of ease and simplicity I felt when I was high. Alcohol was my favorite like most people but only because it was the easiest to get a hold of.

The high or buzz I got was always about chasing something simple. A simpler moment. Beer 30 meant time to turn off my brain. Since our brains are built to predict when we turn them off the prediction turns off no prediction means no future which is about as close enough approximation to predictable future as one can get as an adult.

Any human being denied consistent access to genuine safety will subconsciously seek it their entire lives due to its foundational nature. If we view adulting as a type of or even associated with emotional maturity it becomes clear why kids with less than safe childhood environments seek drugs. They provide an approximation of safety.

We’ve all heard that addicts are self-medicating. But what is it that we are medicating? Each addict and human has their own story, life and past that comprises who they are. The details of these peoples’ lives vary so greatly how can they all be doing the same thing intuitively? And with different drugs? What exactly is it that they are medicating?

As an addict I believe we all medicate to approximate safety and peace.

I don’t really like the term medicate for this because it has a connotation to me of suppressing something undesirable. Instead, its more like we are supplementing. We are supplementing for ourselves the baseline of safety and security that most people have stored deep inside themselves as a memory. Even if they can’t recall it. Each and every one of us are seeking safety. We are also seeking other things. Those other things affect us and the details of our addictions but at the center of it all addicts are trying to approximate of a single basic positive emotion, which they were previously denied, that is also foundational to functioning well as an adult.

Maybe it’s not exclusively safety, maybe it’s something else too?

Maybe safety is where I landed because it has always eluded me and I’m projecting. Yet, a feeling of safety and security being foundational to almost all positive experiences and adaptive behaviors seems like the best place to start since the science behind it is already well established. As science progresses the kinds of questions I hope they start asking, will address theses experiential issues.

I hope they start asking what are the fundamental emotional states that must be accessed in order to facilitate positive adaptive things like learning, memory, social bonding, sex, self-regulation and other phenomenon that are necessary for a well-adjusted fulfilling life.

If we can find the answers to these questions, we may begin to understand what needs an addict has that isn’t getting met that their drug of choice provides. If we are able to do that, we can find other approximations that are less devastating on the lives of the users.

From there we can build an entire system. A series of programs based on accessing fundamental positive emotional states prior to exposure to those basic processes of life like learning, memory, social bonding.

Drugs that provide more feedback than is naturally occurring in the body like meth and heroine can be titrated down to smaller and smaller amounts then less dramatic drugs. Then teach the users how to access necessary emotional states on their own. Building upon that teach them how to frame the concepts of their emotions

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