Imagine you are walking through the park on a sunny day and you come upon a friendly looking dog sitting there. As your mind fills with warm fuzzies, you reach down to pet the dog, but it bares it’s teeth and snaps at you. Your warmth and kindness is immediately replaced by fear and anger. Even resentment. But upon closer examination, you see that the dog’s foot is caught in one of those steel claw traps and is severely injured. You realize the dog is in pain and afraid. Suddenly, your own anger and resentment is replaced by sympathy and compassion for the dog and it’s situation. People may similarly act out irrationally from fear or pain when a situation creates a “fight or flight” response. But the people around them may be completely unaware of that person’s triggered internal plight.
When faced with a situation that makes us afraid, our minds have to make the decision to stand and confront, or to run to safety. This often creates a war within, because it’s not always clear which is the best path to take. Plus every person is a singular blend of inherited genes, born-with personality traits, and childhood experiences that are unique to each individual person, so each person is going to have their own special response to any given situation when they are confronted with fear or anxiety. There are all kinds of situations that can make a person afraid. It can be an obvious life-threatening fear, or it can be more simple and subtle things like social anxiety, for example. But when someone is afraid, they often act irrationally towards other people.
When someone is in pain, they are also not themselves. Someone who is pain may desire to avoid social situations and would just prefer to be in the comfort of their own homes and beds, if possible. It’s the same thing for mental pain, which can be equally, if not more, miserable. Mental pain can be caused by some traumatic event that just occurred in their life, or it can be caused by the trauma of events from childhood that are perpetually carried forward into adulthood. If a person was the victim of childhood abuse, for example, they may act irrationally to situations that arise in adulthood that mirror those events from childhood, because their minds are just following an old neural pathway (mind road) response to that situation. When someone is in a state of mental pain, they may not act rationally to people or situations that triggered that pain.
When confronted with fear or pain, it is not always as simple as just confronting that fear or pain. Because many people are not be able to confront things that cause them fear or pain, so they automatically desire to run to safety. Drugs and alcohol seem to provide a clear, simple solution because they take away the fear and the pain, and they do it very quickly. So it is a natural path to walk on for people unable or unwilling to fight or stand. If a person is afraid, in pain, or both, the drugs and alcohol mask those things and provide temporary relief, but the fear and pain are still there, and come back even stronger when the sedation wears off, requiring more sedation. When drugs and alcohol flow into someone who is already filled with anxiety and anguish, it will overflow and they will begin drowning in their addiction and despair.
I have complex post traumatic stress disorder as a result of childhood abuse. As a result of that trauma, fight or flight slowly became a natural response to most situations I was confronted with, exacerbated by a general all-or-nothing mentality spawned by the abuse I suffered. Situations would often happen in adulthood that mimicked those events from childhood, even if it wasn’t apparent to me at the time. So when those adult events would happen, and a fight or flight response was triggered, my insides were in complete turmoil, fear, anxiety and misery, even though I appeared to be in control on the outside. I was able to put on this charade of having the ability to stand and deliver for years and actually had significant success in my career. But I gradually became heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism for my true inner inability to stand and confront. I was losing the war going on in my head and began to drown in my addiction and in my own shame, guilt, blame, self-hatred and despair. I wanted help, but I was afraid to lose the drugs and alcohol that I felt were my only safety net. When I first entered therapy and recovery, the first thing a therapist said to me was “It’s alright to be that frightened little boy, but it’s ok you’re safe now”. Those words burst open the dam that was holding everything back in my head and allowed me to reach back to the helping hands that were being extended to me.
Let’s say there is a woman drowning in a lake. People are standing on a dock shouting at her to swim to safety, but she is unable to because she does not know how to swim. There is a coiled up rope sitting on the dock, but rather than throw the rope out to her, the people just yell at her, telling her that when she is ready to stop drowning and swim, she should swim over to the dock so they can hand her the rope and she can pull herself to safety. That’s the imagery when someone says about addicts “When they are ready, they will quit. If they’re not ready, they won’t. And if they die, they did it to themselves.”
A person who is in full blown addiction might be aware that they are drowning, but they feel trapped and their hijacked minds believe everyone has backed them into a corner. The thought of quitting makes them feel in danger, because they feel threatened with the loss of their only escape from the despair they’re carrying around in their heads, plus fear of withdrawal. Their minds are in fight or flight mode. An addict must be offered a lifeline, a rope, so they can pull themselves out, but they need to feel that there is safety at the other end of that rope, not just confrontation, demands and accusation, so they feel compelled to take hold. Addicts can never be “enabled” because that is like pushing the drowning addict’s head under the water. But people can educate themselves on the multitude of ways and solutions for helping an addict recover without “enabling” them. The addict needs to feel safe letting go of the drug of choice that they feel is their “life preserver” and take hold of something they believe will pull them to a safe space. If they’re offered help in a way that does not trigger a fight or flight response, they may be compelled to reach out, take hold of the rope and pull themselves out of the addictions that they are drowning in.