An Emotional Model of Addiction
Although there are many different ways of looking at addiction, we have developed an emotional model of recovery. We believe that emotions and feelings are at the core of every addiction and understanding emotions allows us to see the reasons why addicts behave the way they do, even when they are sober. When we first started work in the intervention field, it became pretty obvious that everybody in the family had their own “model” of addiction and in most cases weren’t ever on the same page. Having a model that everyone agrees upon allows us to work together as a team.
I’ll give you a little insight into an average family group that attends an intervention so that you understand exactly what I’m saying.
First, there’s Carol, the mom. Mom believes in the disease model of addiction and can actually describe the various alcoholics in the family tree going back a couple of generations. She’s also a big fan of clinical processes and thinks that a proper therapist can do wonders for her drug addicted son.
Next, there’s Mike, or dad. Dad absolutely does not believe in the disease model or therapy for that matter. He’s a believer in the “Get a damn job and quit doing drugs” model of addiction. For him it’s pretty simple. Make a decision, be responsible, quit acting like an idiot and just grow up.
Over there is brother Steve. Steve believes in a punitive model of addiction. In other words, he feels that most of the problem is because his drug addict brother is being enabled by the family and no one makes him accountable for anything. His model is pretty simple…quit enabling brother and kick him out and then he’ll change.
Uncle Joe is next. Joe has over 20 years sober in Alcoholics Anonymous and still attends daily meetings. Joe is a hard core AA member and believes that the problem is a separation from God, and only through working the steps of AA to let God into his nephew’s life will he then experience a spiritual experience which will grace him with a daily reprieve from his addiction. He believes that his nephew is powerless over his addiction, that he has no choice, and only a spiritual way of life will grant him any degree of success.
Cousin Bob is here as well. Bob has 5 years clean in Narcotics Anonymous. Bob believes we decide on a daily basis not to use, no matter what circumstances happen in our life. That it is a choice and through making that choice and attending daily NA meetings will his cousin find success. For Bob, it is the support group and meetings that are the solution.
Grandma is here. A devout Christian, for her it’s pretty simple. Spiritual warfare against the adversary, or Satan. She knows in her heart that if her grandson would humbly accept Jesus Christ as his personal Lord and Savior then he could fight this thing. But she knows the devil is tricky and prays for her grandson’s salvation each day.
So there we are…an ordinary family gathered together to help their loved one who is struggling with addiction. Everyone knows there is a problem, but most people look at it in a different way. Different problems and different solutions. And, in our example, many of the different “models” contradict each other.
Some say it’s a choice, others do not. For some a religious solution is the answer, for others, it is support groups. Therapy in some cases, toughing it out in others. So many different ways of looking at it.
For many years, addiction was looked upon as a moral weakness or mental defect. In other cases, it was looked upon as a spiritual failing. In the last century, there have been other models that describe addiction as a disease. And some tend to look at addictions from a cognitive behavioral perspective. And more recently, there are new studies looking at the genetics or neurological reasons for addiction.
A model is simply a way of looking at something so that it makes sense. It’s a description that helps you to understand why something behaves the way that it does.
In looking at the variety of models of addiction, there is a Hindu story called the Six Blind Men and the Elephant that I believe can help us to understand where we are going with this. It goes something like this:
In a kingdom of India, there were rumors of a great beast that was wandering through the forest (an elephant). The king of the land wanted to learn more about it so he sent his six wisest men, who all happened to be blind, to go and discover more about it by feeling different parts of it.
All six wander off into the woods and encounter the elephant. Each of them surround the elephant and reach out to determine what it is. The blind man who feels a leg says the elephant must be like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the trunk says the elephant is like a tree branch; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a hand fan; the one who feels the belly says the elephant is like a wall; and the one who feels the tusk says the elephant is like a solid pipe.
Upon returning, the six blind man present their findings to the king. It’s only a matter of time before an argument begins as each of them feels that they are right in their descriptions.
Fortunately, the king is a wise ruler, and explains to them:
“All of you are right. The reason every one of you is telling it differently is because each one of you touched the different part of the elephant. So, actually the elephant has all the features you mentioned.”
Looking at models of addictions is a lot like the story of the Six Blind Men and the Elephant. Each does it’s best to describe a part of addiction, but rarely do we find a model that actually describes everything. I wish that I could give you a wonderful “all-inclusive” model so that you would be able to understand everything about addiction, but this book is really just about “a piece of the elephant” or one particular way to look at one particular aspect about addiction.
Although I may mention other models, I am going to focus primarily on what I refer to as the Emotional Model of Addiction. So, for our purposes here we are going to talk a lot about emotions. For I believe that in understanding the emotional aspect of addiction, you can understand more clearly why it is that your loved one behaves the way that they do, even when they are sober. Understanding the emotional aspect also helps and empowers you to understand why some of the things you have tried have actually had an opposite effect, and why different family systems almost usually end up doing identical things in terms of dealing with someone who has an addiction.
Essentially, what you are going to find in this article is a focus primarily on emotions. Emotional development in terms of addiction and recovery, emotions in regards to addiction, and emotions that occur within family systems surrounding an addiction. For I believe that understanding emotions in regards to addiction helps families understand addiction much more fully than many other ways that are out there. Essentially the Emotional Model of Addiction is really just a model for families. It was written and developed primarily with them in mind. In other words, it should work and apply to anyone who has an emotional connection to someone who is in the grips of addiction.
This isn’t to deny other models, for they have their rightness, depending on your perspective. It’s just that I have found that many models accurately depict an aspect of addiction, but when families learn about them, it doesn’t actually help or empower them to deal with their loved one who is suffering from addiction today. In other words, in explaining the Disease Model of Addiction to a mother, she may understand what I am saying in regards to the progressive nature of addiction and its group of symptoms, and how it’s chronic and often fatal, but at the end of the lecture she looks at me and says, “Yeah, that’s great, but how does it help me now?”
Or more recent scientific models of addiction that seek to understand how genetics plays into why some people may be more likely to become addicts than others is great for the laboratory, but doesn’t really help a brother who wants to know why his sister won’t get better.
In early days of AA, addiction was really described as a separation from a Higher Power, and how oneness with a Creator was the only way to restore someone to sobriety. It has since become more secular, but it is essentially a more spiritual model of addiction. This may help someone of a faith, but those that don’t are often left frustrated.
There are many different sides to the elephant.
Again, I don’t intend to rewrite or contradict any of the current science or philosophies of addiction, only to show you a different way of looking at things…our Emotional Model of Addiction. Looking at addiction primarily from an emotional perspective. And if this model works for you and empowers you, excellent.
If not, there is always a lot more to the elephant than what you’ll find here. I would suggest not to limit yourself to one way of thinking.