By Scott Kiloby
If you could take a pill right now and erase all of your addictions and all of the anxiety, trauma and self-esteem issues that underlie it, would you take it? I suppose many would say “yes.” And I wouldn’t blame them. At one point in my life, I would have said yes also. But not now. Looking back at the gradual falling away of addiction through the years, there have been so many gems of insight, so much repressed pain that has come to the surface and also so much joy and peace surfacing as each layer of the pain shed itself from the proverbial onion of my conditioning. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. To take such a pill would be to live a life unexamined, to fix oneself with the swallowing of one synthetic dose that eradicates it all immediately. The sacrifice for such a magic bullet would be to miss the dance of life altogether and to try and bypass absolutely everything that created that onion in the first place.
About the only thing I know for certain these days is that life is meant to be lived – all of it, the good, the bad and the ugly. Those of us who have struggled with addiction most of our lives were dealt quite a crazy hand. We were placed on this whirling ball of mud called earth, given a survival mechanism that is never quite satisfied no matter how much we ingest of our favorite pleasure-inducing substances, and then left to figure it all out somehow. We are left to continue using even in the face of immeasurable and untold damage to our minds, bodies and our relationships. That’s a royal flush of suffering, to say the least.
The multi-layered onion of my addictive conditioning was not built in a day – not even in a week, a month or a year. It was a slow – almost snail-like – process that started genetically before I was born and continued through my early development and well into adulthood. With each trauma that I faced, each difficult relationship, each rejection from a loved one, each unsatisfying moment, my addiction gradually accumulated momentum like a tiny snowflake slowly gathering density as it rolls down an enormous mountain and turns into an avalanche. I’m not being overly-dramatic here. This is what it felt like to be me, a soul that seemed to be still-born at birth and hell-bent on a downward spiral to death. Addiction, for me, was chronic, progressive and almost fatal.
But somewhere in the midst of all that pain, a small light switched on inside me. And just as addiction had slowly gathered momentum through the years, this very small light began to illuminate the way to a gradual dissolution of all that addictive seeking. Recovering from addiction was neither sudden nor explosive. Sure, there were wonderful spiritual experiences along the way. And they seemed to sweep much of that conditioning away. But they were just experiences, coming and going like everything else.
It wasn’t as if one day, all those addictive urges just dissolved immediately into a bright and liberating light. It was painful at times – often actually. There were layers of denial, rationalization and self-deception. There were so many stops and starts – so many substitutions of one substance for another, one activity for the next. I thought that the end of the drug and alcohol addiction was the end of it all. I was so naive. Following on the footsteps of drugs and alcohol, there were addictions to tobacco, food, sex, gambling, TV, internet, caffeine, and just about every other substance and activity that you can imagine. The light revealed itself in tiers – in layers. I eventually saw that my mind was really like a storehouse of ghost images fluttering repeatedly, one after the other, telling me to smoke this, drink that, go here, get more of that, eat this, spend that . . . . And nothing satisfied me except for a short moment of pleasure after indulgence, before the cycle of withdrawal and craving began again like clockwork.
Today, I hear the addiction experts say that addiction is all about a lack of connection with others or that its all about pain, low self-esteem, anxiety or trauma. Sure, that’s all part of the mix. It all needs to be examined along the way. But in the end, it’s much more basic than all of that. It’s about wanting – something, anything. Even as the flotsam and jetsam of pain, low self-esteem, anxiety and trauma had been mostly cleared away from my nervous system, there was still a basic wanting that could not be explained away by neatly packaged theories of child development, human connection or brain science. This wanting seemed to come from something much more primal. It was all about the restless desire to survive. It was about me – the very experience of being a restless, separate self. That restlessness reared its head again and again, even once the psychological rumblings and theories went quiet. It was there when I felt connected and when I felt disconnected. It was there when I was completely ignorant of how the brain works and there when I learned about how the brain works. It was there when I felt not good enough and also when I felt good enough. That’s what the survial mechanism does. It out survives everything. It takes a moment by moment looking at this mechanism to put it gently to rest. There is simply no magic pill for this restless desire to survive. Addiction is not really a disease like cancer. It is a DIS-ease with living itself, working in conjunction with an insatiable desire to survive, to keep on living. It’s a deep desire to be at home in the present moment, coupled with an even stronger desire to escape the moment. No pill can fix that kind of circular madness. This is a condundrum that can only be solved by being aware of the entire mechanism as it unfolds in our present experience.
When clients come to the Kiloby Center, I see they are in different places. They have different beliefs about why they are addicted. They have different genetic makeups, different childhood stories. They have different diagnoses. They have different theories about what causes addiction or what underlies their particular addictions. And they each seem to want something different. Some want to be done just with the drugs and alcohol. They have no interest in stopping smoking or quieting the perpetual reach for sugar. Some want to stop shooting heroin but don’t mind spending hours in front of a computer watching porn images flash up endlessly. Some feel proud of having beat alcoholism but can’t understand why they can’t take their face out of the light of their cell phone. There is no judgment in any of that. Each of us is free to go as deeply as we want to go . . . or not.
Some want to be free of addiction without ever facing that core existential restlessness. But then they wonder why that doesn’t work. Addiction is so tied to survival that is does not respond to anything but a relentless examination of that core restlessness. It’s that restlessness that helps replace the alcohol with the cell phone, the heroin with the sugar, the cocaine with the caffeine. It’s not really about any of those substances or activities. It’s not even ultimately about the pain, the low self-esteem or the trauma. It’s about that core restlessness, that need to survive moment by moment by looking for the next fix, the next bit of relief, the next ANYTHING.
But . . . every now and then, I meet a client who is truly ready to look at this restlessness, to meet every tentacle of it, in every thought, emotion and sensation that arises. And in the moment I see that readiness in a person, I feel so grateful to be in their presence, so happy to see that someone is ready to address the core issue. I tell them that this is what it takes. It takes this courageous openness to let everything be as it is in the here and now, to see it all and to watch it all fade away. As I see their eager eyes open to this process of unfolding, I have this to say to them: “You had a front row seat to the painstakingly slow development of your addiction. Now you get a front row seat to its falling away. You’re going to love much of it and hate a lot of it. Watch closely . . . you’re not going to want to miss a second of it. And you won’t miss any of it if you are looking from awareness. The beautiful simplicity of recovery through presence is that is happens right here and now and all you have to do is watch. The great and gradual falling away happens on its own, in that restful watching.”