The science of psychology has been attempting, for years, to classify and identify personality traits that would categorize people—especially those with mental-health issues—and put them in specific boxes. There are clear and solid causes of certain mental-health issues, such as specific brain neurology that results in schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, but with addiction things are a little tricky. Not every “potential” addict will end up becoming addicted; we can make predictions and guesses, but at the end of the day, addiction is so complex, so nuanced that it’s impossible to define just by personality traits alone.
As much as this is critical of psychology, it is a commentary on how we humans operate in general, in the world—we want to know things, name them, put them in order, figure out how to fix them, get rid of them, work with them. The illusion is that the more we know, the less we’ll have to fear, the fewer surprises, the clearer the road. We want a map or instruction manual for everything—from diet to marriage to disease to rules of the road. But the joke is on us—very few things in life are perfectly predictable, the exact science is elusive, and no matter how much we know, there will often be something that will go completely against the grain.
Addiction is a perfect example of inaccurate science and faulty psychology. Not all offspring of people with substance use disorder will have addiction, and not all people with early childhood trauma will develop it either. It is true that those of us who are not good with self-regulation (“an inability to maintain a reasonably stable internal emotional atmosphere”) are more prone to end up with substance-use disorder. Those of us who are constant seekers of external sources of comfort are more likely to develop some kind of compulsion, be it drinking or shopping online. And the more we engage in those kinds of behaviors, the more familiar they become, more needed, eventually, just necessary for survival. Addiction alters personality. It strengthens those traits that will eventually indeed put us in boxes of definitions.
But here’s the twist: recovery. Unlike most diseases, addiction is one disease that you can potentially recover from if being diligent about the process. Those personality traits, so set in stone, can be dulled and even altered by the practiced regimen of recovery. The evenings spent in bars can be replaced by evenings spent in meetings. The discomfort and overwhelming emotions can be regulated by talking to someone like a sponsor or a counselor and for those who have faith, by seeking solace in prayer. There’s meditation. There are support groups (such as AA, SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, and others).
We can turn the grim predictions of personality traits and those of us connected to those predispositions upside-down by recovering. The only catch is that recovery has to be a lifelong process. But with time it can get easier; with time we can learn how to self-regulate in healthy ways and we can fight this thing because we now have an instruction manual, which simply manifests itself the longer we stay sober.
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