Facing What Happened | What Lies Beneath Addiction
Karen Horney, a pioneering revisionist of psychoanalytic theory in the 1930s and 1940s, once remarked that in the main what people in analysis wanted was not cure but rather not to be so inconvenienced by their neurosis. In plainer language, and to address this to addiction, what most people want is to ‘eat their cake and have it too,’ to be able to use but for the use to not get so out of hand and produce so much trouble in living day to day. To basically do the same thing and be the same way but a little less.
This is understandable. The addiction is usually I think seen as a valuable, indeed crucial, friend that has a tendency to get a bit wild. But the friend is so valuable and needed that the last thing you want is to go on without him/her. Actually it’s hard to even really conceive of going on without your friend, helper, ally.
In terms of psychological-emotional reality, going on without your friend means you have to actually address the bad things that happened to you that made your friend necessary for the purpose of living life day to day. With your friend by your side (so the speak) you don’t have to do that and actually that’s a big part of what your friend is for. You don’t want to address the bad things that happened because they are very painful.
But you’re seeking professional help or contemplating seeking professional help because your friend just can’t be tamed and you are in trouble. You don’t want to talk about the things you have used your friend not to talk about, but experience has shown you that resolutions to reform do not last and practical techniques you learn from therapists don’t actually work for long. The practical techniques you learn from therapists make sense in the treatment setting, but on your own you can’t seem to diligently and whole-heartedly apply them.
What is it you don’t want to think about or talk about? Usually it’s maltreatment during the course of growing up. Maltreatment covers a lot of ground, from blatant physical or sexual abuse to neglect, abandonment, indifference, hostility, contempt, being parented by people who were themselves too disturbed to provide sane, nurturing parenting, etc. Maltreatment is an omnibus term. Maltreatment does not refer to someone having a bad day; it refers to a sustained regimen of noxious incoming for major portions of the growing up period (‘noxious incoming’ means neglect and indifference as well). It’s what you are ashamed and embarrassed to talk about and what you thought-hoped-believed you could outrun or transcend when you were young (especially in college). It’s what you work not to think about. It’s why you need a ‘friend.’ You made a good run but nobody can run fast enough for long enough. The wave has finally caught up to you. You either realize this yourself or significant people in your life are pressing you to get treatment and won’t take NO for an answer.
Since nothing else really affects your need and desire to turn to your friend for relief, ultimately you have to talk about what happened growing up. I often find that part of the reluctance for doing this is the feeling that it is disloyal and wrong to portray one’s parents in a negative light. This speaks to how much children look up to, need, and love their parents no matter what and the child’s natural tendency to feel bad about him/herself for maltreatment rather than to think of him/herself as a victim of the parents’ personal difficulties as people and as parents (this is not really something a child can do). Such feelings linger on even if as an adult the now adult child intellectually grasps that the parents really had their own problems and were not able to provide a consistently nurturing/affirming mode of parenting. If people grew up and naturally divested themselves of the noxious influences of their past I wouldn’t be seeing clients or writing this.
In short, experiences and feelings and thoughts during the course of growing up do not just fade away into nothingness because you have gotten older and been to college and have a job and an a house and maybe even children of your own. Just the opposite, in fact: the feelings about self and others you acquired growing up constitute the deepest and most influential aspects of your personality. They are what are bedeviling you in the present. It’s your adult self that is the veneer, much as you’d like to think not. If your adult self was in charge of the conduct of your life you wouldn’t be reading this.
This brings me to talking about what happened. The only thing that can make a dent in the legacy of your growing up (formative!) period of life is talking about it. Not talking about it insures its continuity and hegemony. Why? The big picture is the difference between the static nature of experiences, sentiments, beliefs, etc. over time when they are isolated from dialogue vs. the potential fluidity that is introduced by dialogue. Old wounds left in the (dialogical) dark fester. Talking to another person is not just revealing information; it is that of course but at the same time it is a psycho-emotional-social experience. Talking to another person puts a lot into play: feeling, reflection, perspective, risk, response, exposure, connection, support, understanding, and more. I will draw upon the philosopher-turned therapist Eugene Gendlin: talking about feelings and so on puts them in motion and has the potential to unfreeze them. That’s why everyone has had the experience at one time or another of immediate relief when talking to a trusted other about something that is emotionally important. That’s the big picture: the difference between old wounds festering in the dark vs. feelings and thoughts in motion when they are put into play in the dialogical-interpersonal field.
I cannot emphasize too strongly that disclosing old wounds to another person is a very multifaceted psycho-emotional-interpersonal experience. This is to address the frequently heard objection (to therapy and to discussing what happened) that the past is the past and there is no use talking about it. First of all, the past has not gone away psychologically. Your total experience in life is why you react the way you do to things in the present, e.g., your total interpersonal and conversational experience in life enters into whatever the present conversation is. It is indeed impossible to imagine how this could not be the case. The past is gone chronologically but not psychologically, which is why it makes a difference to talk about it (the ‘it’ being what is very much alive and present in your psyche right now). It is true that no one can undo what has already happened, but that’s not the point of therapy. The point is to bring old experiences, feelings, convictions, beliefs, expectations, etc. into play now by talking about them so that everything (psychologically) does not remain exactly as it was before.
I have to again emphasize the core point (no one to my knowledge brings this out more clearly than Eugene Gendlin): Talking about experience brings it out of the freezer and has the potential to alter not what happened in the past but you (so that you are less sensitive, suspicious, reactive, grief stricken, etc.). The point and hope of therapy is not to alter what already happened and cannot be changed but to alter you. Only talking about what happened can alter the effects of what happened on or to you.
As long as we are alive we are impacted by our experience in living. But outside of therapy there is little or no opportunity to talk in depth to anyone about injurious growing up experiences. They stay in the dark where their injurious effects cannot be ameliorated. In short, in the main injurious past experiences can only be addressed and ameliorated by bringing them into the dialogical light. Injurious growing up experiences cannot be ameliorated by discussing how the Chargers will fare this season or if Barry Bonds should be kept out of the Hall. You have to talk about painful stuff. It’s not pretty but if you are reading this you probably are getting the idea that the alternative is worse. Outside of therapy basically no one wants to listen and even if they do want to they don’t know how to listen and respond in a manner that will benefit you. The experience of talking about painful stuff to a person who is prepared to listen and interact in a certain manner can beneficially impact those hidden and frozen experiences you don’t want to talk about and maybe manage to mainly keep out of awareness and memory. Ultimately you have to talk about what happened if you don’t want the future to be the same as the past.