Through the decades of my working with people suffering from the disease of addiction, I have found a common experience expressed by most. As the disease of addiction progressed, the individuals eventually became isolated not only from their family and friends, but also from themselves.
The consequences of their actions and, for many, the loss of their value systems while in active addiction leads to a feeling of isolation as they endure the loss of family, friends, and employment.
In an attempt to cope with significant loss, they tend to turn inward as a defense mechanism against further emotional pain.
The deeper the emotional pain, the greater the tendency for people to lose their sense of self-worth and the further tendency for them to withdraw from those they loved and society in general.
In their weakened states of emotional self-deprecating, being around those whom they are hurting only adds to the reality of the sense of worthlessness.
The personal recognition of guilt and shame becomes more apparent, and they perceive themselves as unworthy of love. It is at this low point that the depth of the isolation becomes apparent, and they believe that not only are they unworthy of love, but also they are not lovable.
In the early process of recovery, the clinician needs to address this isolation and reframe the sense of worthlessness in order to bring the clients into a feeling of connectedness with themselves and society.
Our thoughts and internal beliefs influence how we perceive ourselves, others and the world around us. This perception, whether fact or fiction, is our personal reality and truth.
Therefore, when people begin the process of recovery, they need to be guided in how to change their thought processes in order to learn to view their reality in line with the true reality.
In working with my clients I often use this quote attributed to the Talmud:
“We do not see things as they are, we see things as we are.”
In other words, if I feel disconnected and isolated, then my view of reality will remain negative. The solution, therefore, is for people to change their view of themselves so that they will begin to view the world around them with a positive mindset.
“… (P)eople with addiction tend to be concerned with spirituality, forgiveness, and guilt, each relating to the human conscience as the person struggles with who they are, who they ought to be and the meaning of life. These are the existential aspects of living with addiction.” (Langman & Chung, 2013)
By using the term “spirituality,” the authors are not referring to the practice of a particular religion, but rather as a way of understanding that there is a power greater than ourselves at work in our lives.
How can we help people heal and reconnect from their isolation? In my clinical practice, I teach mindfulness as a way to live in the present moment, thereby reconnecting from the isolation.
One of the pioneers in the mindfulness movement, Jon Kabat-Zinn, defined mindfulness as a “means of paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” (Kabat-Zinn, 2006)
As we focus our thoughts on either our past mistakes or our future concerns, we tend to feel a loss of control in the realization of our powerlessness to affect change.
This feeling of powerlessness triggers a stress response as we attempt to cope with the loss of control.
Focusing our thoughts on the present moment reduces our stress, for it is in the present moment where we have control over our situations by changing our thoughts and our beliefs.
As we feel a sense of control in our lives, reducing our stress, we begin to perceive ourselves in a positive way, thus viewing the world around us in a similar positive manner.
The philosopher, Victor Frankl, wrote:
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms … to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.” (Frankl, 2011)
This new positive outlook opens the possibility for a reconnection with the inner self, and thus a likely reconnection with society.
As I previously mentioned, perception is a person’s reality; therefore, it is imperative that as clinicians we work to change the thought processes of our clients.
Teaching techniques of meditation or active breathing is among the first step in this process of learning to maintain a focus on the present moment. The tendency to dwell on the past in a judgmental way is not beneficial; instead, learning from our past is beneficial as we choose our actions in the present and make plans for the future.
The Power of Words
Semantics, or the meaning of words, is important to teach the client because words possess power and meaning; therefore, the use of words influences how we feel about ourselves.
Changing the words used by our clients will influence their perception of themselves. Teaching clients that they have a medical disease of addiction, which is unlike other medical diseases, reframes the perception of them as an addict or alcoholic, which defines their personhood based on past behaviors.
For example, people suffering from the disease of cancer do not perceive themselves as cancer or tell people, “I am cancer.”
If asked about their health, they reply by stating they have cancer.
The clients need to understand that while they were in active addiction, their core being remained the same as before their active addiction. They continued to have the same values and morals with which they identify.
This perception shift provides the clients with a feeling of hope in the knowledge that they have not lost themselves to the disease. The same is true of the disease of addiction. It is a part of who they are, but they are not their disease; they are people who have the disease of addiction.
This shift in perspective and thinking is the beginning of a reconnecting with self as well as a reconnecting with society. Through the process of maintaining a healthy balance of learning from, not dwelling in, the past, clients maintain a recovery based on the present moment. They are particularly aware of their feelings, desires, and coping mechanisms as they non-judgmentally treat their disease.
Frankl, V. E. (2011). Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning. Random House.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (2006). Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. Hyperion.
Langman, L., & Chung, M. C. (2013). The relationship between forgiveness, spirituality, traumatic guilt and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among people with addiction. The Psychiatric Quarterly, 84(1), 11–26.
Addict photo available from Shutterstock