Addiction and the Search for Wholeness

Addiction and the Search for Wholeness

A Story of Another Mother and Her Son

Beth was worn down. She hung her head, resting it on the knuckles of her right hand as she told the story of the last several months to a group of friends gathered for a friendly festive dinner.  Her body spoke of the burden of the unspoken stress and worry that she carried. Her youngest son, Bobby, was out of control yet again and raging at the world. And again, she was caught up in the crossfire.

Bobby had a difficult and challenging life. As a young boy, he was inquisitive, curious and very bright. His bright blue eyes were opened wide with the adventures of life. Now in his early 50s, life, unfortunately, had beaten his spirit down. Bobby was fated to be born in a family where his father was angry at lost opportunities. Bobby’s father would tease and mercilessly bully him. His use of substances to escape the pain started early. As a teenager, Bobby hooked up with the wrong crowd and found solace initially in alcohol, and later, marijuana. For most of his teenage years, while his brain was still forming, he was often stoned on something.

Bobby raged at the world for most of his adult life. He was oppositional and belligerent. Life met him with the same energy. Consequently, he never got what he wanted. He adopted a rigid and uncompromising attitude towards life and then descended deeper into the grips of addiction. Beth told the gathering how she found out that Bobby was now smoking crack cocaine. His small government assistance cheque went into supporting his crack habit. He ran out money much earlier in the month and had no money for groceries. While Beth refused to give him money, she dutifully would take him food shopping. But Bobby would direct his rage at her and verbally attack her when he didn’t get what he wanted. Beth was at a loss. As his mother, she couldn’t help but feel responsible and blamed herself. In her words, she said it was hard on a mother. “We used to be so close. It breaks my heart to see him this way.” She felt powerless and helpless.  

The breakthrough for Beth came when a friend suggested that she seek the comfort of a family support group offered by a local treatment center. Week after week, she found relief through hearing similar stories of people contending with addicted loved ones. She was able to be open and share her experiences and found the source of empowerment within herself and was able to act. Beth decided that she would write Bobby a letter to tell him how much she loved him and how much she enjoyed his company. However, she made sure to include how dismayed she was when he was using crack cocaine. She put up boundaries and told him that she would not accept any verbal abuse. She hoped that this would a new beginning to their relationship. Regardless of what would happen to her son, it was a new beginning for her.

Bobby did not receive the letter well. In fact, he barely acknowledged it. In his first contact with Beth, he demanded money for food.he demanded money for food.  When Beth reminded him of her letter and that she had asked him to agree to an anger-free relationship before resuming her support, his rage kicked in.  The barrage of voicemails and emails started, riddled with hateful and abusive language. Beth held her ground and her resolve. She resisted the temptation to enable Bobby and buckle under his attack. After a couple of days of relentless emails, Bobby wrote a final email to his mother saying, “I don’t think I want to ever see you again.” At last report, this is where it stands.

The Faces of Addiction

So much has been written about addiction – its causes, its treatment, and the variety of approaches towards it. Some maps of addiction are clear, and some are not. It is not my intention to offer a comprehensive view of addiction but to offer a glimpse into the hope and the despair that surrounds it. The story of Bobby and the story of Danny capture the mystery of the human psyche and opportunities to healing. Danny’s mother traveled across the country to find him. This is a story of hope and faith, the mysterious confluence of events that brought a mother and son together in a transformative moment. After a month in treatment, he has found purpose again and the regained the connection to this mother. For Bobby, his addiction declined deeper and deeper into the demonic despair that substance abuse causes for far too many people. Now, he has estranged himself from his mother, possibly for the rest of their lives. Beth might end her days never seeing her beloved son again.

Two mothers and two sons with very different endings.

Addiction has many faces – work, sex, food, alcohol, or drugs. Whatever the vice, it is the same beast. According to a 2002 study by the Canadian Centre for Substance Abuse, the “societal cost” of substance abuse, in terms of health care and the criminal justice system, is about $40 billion annually. Canada is in the midst of an opioid crisis, which is resulting in many deaths and shattered lives. It is estimated that the rates of substance use disorders are higher than the rates for mood disorders. About 6 million Canadians met the criteria for substance use disorder in 2002.

Jung and Addiction

Carl Jung was instrumental in the founding of alcoholics anonymous and a range of self-help 12 step groups. It was through his work with an American named Rowland H. for alcoholism in the 1920s that contribute to Jung’s understanding of addiction. The use of alcohol or drugs are “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements”. Jung believed that it was necessary to replace the addictive substance with a transcendent experience that the individual finds more satisfying.  Rowland H eventually had a spiritual experience, which released him from his need to drink. He relayed his miraculous experience of inner change to his friend, Ebby T., who then carried it to Bill, who co-founded AA.

Addiction and Suffering

Addiction within a Jungian perspective is a symbolic response to profound suffering. Jung recognized that the use of mood-altering substances changes what happens in the inner world. The profound emotional split that is inherent in psychological suffering is dissolved and removed by the substance temporarily. The fragmented inner worlds become one and therefore drugs and alcohol create a false and temporary wholeness.

Jungian Analyst David Schoen writes in The War of the Gods in Addiction and describes addiction this way: “the addictive substance, activity, or behavior takes over complete and total control of the individual, psychologically. That is, it must take over control of normal ego functioning—thoughts, emotions, perceptions, motivations, judgments, decisions, actions, and behaviours. And the second part of this definition is crucial: the addiction takes over control in an inherently destructive and ultimately life-threatening way. It is not an addiction unless it is a death sentence—not life in prison, not 50 years, with probation or time off for good behavior. It is a death sentence of the mind, of the emotions, of the body, and of the spirit”.

Symbolically, the addiction becomes a reprieve from doing the psychological work that is necessary to bring all the disparate parts of the psyche together into a sustainable wholeness. Once the person has experienced this sense of wholeness, they likely drive to experience it again and again. Intoxication gives an immediate access to wholeness but alas it is only illusory.

Symbol of Addiction and Search for Meaning

Symbolically, addiction is suffering looking for meaning and looking for an answer to a deeply spiritual question of meaning and the connection to our inner wholeness. Psychologist James Hillman phrased it more simply: “You don’t really want the alcohol. If you can find out what you really want, if you can find your true desire, then you’ve got the answer to your addiction.”

In a Jungian process of healing, a conscious and alive connection to an authentic center must be established. Recovery means a confrontation with the false god in the form of the addiction, the demons that live in the shadows. By working through the shadow, we can find inner meaning and a more active and engaged relationship to life.

Question for Reflection

Looking at your life, have you ever been addicted to anything (money, sex, gambling, alcohol, food, drugs… anything. Reflect on the symbol of what you were addicted to – food = comfort, alcohol = spirit and sit with what you were really looking for. What did you replace your addiction with if anything?

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