Last week we talked about how failures of trust and reliability in the earliest relationships predisposes a person to addictive behavior. Chemical addictions impose a whole other dimension in terms of the physiological changes that occur in the body. But addictive behavior, whether it be gaming, gambling, shopping or any activity that take over a person’s life can function as a substitute for the continuing unpredictability of human relationships. When relationships have been shaky and unreliable for too early and too long a person reaches out for something in the non-human world that can provide some measure of certainty, some degree of control.
Gaming is a likely candidate because it mimics the human world in uncanny ways. We can play with other people—other gamers. We can fight battles and win maidens, accumulate money or resources, achieve fame and notoriety. But when we are completely caught up in addictive behavior, even in the most amazing game ever, an essential activity of the mind is not really working. Gaming, like other addictions, does something strange to our human experience: it leaves gaps in the data that we are accumulating about life! When a world of fantasy becomes a seductive alternative to the ongoing experience of living, it creates a break in the biographical narrative that each of us is creating.
It goes something like this: we have an experience say, of putting on a child’s birthday party. (After all, this is a parenting blog.) Say we have 16 four-year olds and our spouse has been called away. (Yeah, right!) The children arrive and the parents leave. We remind them to comeback in an hour—just in case they have forgotten. We play some games; open some presents; break up a tussle over who gets to keep the presents; serve the cake; clean it off a child’s party dress; comfort her during her meltdown and think about the possibility of disowning our own child who is being a major jerk. (Why do they get upset at their own party? Never figured it out.) Now the party is over; spouse has mysteriously reappeared; children are in bed. We lie on the couch thinking over the day. Hmmmm!!! Not too bad. I didn’t kill anyone. My child gave me a huge hug before bed. My spouse thinks I am awesome. Now the story becomes a chapter in the book of your life. It’s a pretty good chapter. Could have been better but not too bad.
Our lives are full of moments like this and we recall them and process them. We evaluate how we did and think about what we could have done differently. Perhaps it is a meeting at work or a date with someone special. How did it go? We put the moments together mixed with incidents from our childhood and over the years we create a story, a narrative of who we are. Research is beginning to tell us that even children in traumatic situations can survive relatively intact if they are able to build a narrative—an opportunity to reflect on what has happened.
But addictions break that pattern. They become islands of experience with no connection to the ongoing story of our lives. Remember we talked about the movie Inside Out and how the heroine had islands in her personality—like family, hockey, honesty, goofball and friendship. We all have islands like that but it is essential for healthy psychological functioning that the islands are connected to each other; communicate with each other. But addictions of all kinds break the chain of our life experiences. They are islands unto themselves and no one can reach us there. They don’t connect to the human world that we inhabit.
If we recognize our own addictive behavior or if a loved one points it out to us our task is to recognize that we are alone on an island and that we need to reconnect to the real world. If we are dealing with someone who is an addict we can attempt to provide a loving and supportive environment to which he or she can return. Of course it is challenging to do this with someone who has been disconnected for a long time. It can take as long to come back as it did to leave. But it is important to remember that an addiction is not just a behavior or a disease but a response to unbearable pain that a person has felt sometime in life. An addicted person has found an island in which to feel safe. He or she must feel safe enough to return.
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Ellen Toronto is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Spring, Texas and has been practicing since 1980. In 2017, she was elected a Fellow in Psychoanalysis by the American Psychological Association. In 2016, Dr. Toronto's practice was recognized as one of the top Ann Arbor Psychology practices. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Michigan. Dr. Toronto is married to Robert Toronto, Ph.D., and together they have four sons and eleven grandchildren.