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Addiction – Disease or Coping Strategy?

I’ve been doing some more research recently around the topic of addiction for the new website, it’s something that is close to my heart due to my own issues with addiction in various forms and guises, but also because I have concluded that we approach addiction in all the wrong ways…

Addiction can manifest itself in a variety of ways, on the outside some appear more destructive than others. For example, you are far more likely to die a young death as a heroin addict as you might if you were addicted to gaming or shopping. However, the underlying truth is that both addictions are one and the same thing. Both the heroin addict and the compulsive shopper are running from the same thing.


My most personal and difficult fight was with the prescription drug Tramadol for seven years, and as a younger man, I was very partial to spending money on designer clothes, expensive cars and enjoying what I thought back then represented my success in life - a good job, with plenty of money. It didn’t matter back then that I hated the soul sucking environment that is corporate sales, it only mattered that it paid well.

So, I feel well placed to have an opinion these days as 46-year-old man who has both escaped the hell of opiate addiction and chooses a more simplistic life, I buy clothes from the charity shop, but more importantly, I let go of the idea that my addictions were just a disease that I had to manage and live with.

Which leads me back to the question - is addiction a disease, or is it a coping strategy?

A disease is something you manage, if it is uncurable, or, recover from, if it is curable, typically through the introduction of a prescription drug, and often for anxiety, depression, or withdrawal symptoms, like in the example of methadone for the heroin addict.

Methadone treats the symptoms of withdrawal, but it keeps the addict addicted regardless, if the methadone runs out, they will go straight back to heroin. Addicts who are imprisoned (often for crimes committed to feed the addiction) are given Methadone to ‘help’ with the withdrawal symptom – or a more cynical way of looking at this would be to keep them ‘docile’ whist they are in prison, and therefore ‘manageable’…they are then released as addicts 12 months later, with exactly what they went in with, addiction and no way of funding it…and so it goes on…

Given the alternative is trauma-based therapy for all addicts, you can see why this ‘cheap’ alternative remains the preferred solution, and indeed in the absence of funding to provide the right services, then perhaps it’s very understandable and possibly in some way compassionate to stick with the status quo.

That said my personal opinion is if we jotted up the total cost of the impact of addiction first and foremost to the lives of the people both addicted and the mental health of those around them (which should be the starting point), and add that to the cost of crime, impact on the NHS, funds invested in the police force to fight drugs (drug addicts need a drug dealer) it quickly adds up to…well lots of money I imagine…billions of pounds (cue Doctor Evil impression…)

Maybe then there is an argument to take a different approach, and to invest some ‘funds’ (its taxpayers money after all – ergo, yours…) in at least trialling different things?

But let’s save politics for another day…

We need to stop treating the addiction as disease or symptom, and we need to start treating the pain that is driving it.

In order for this transition to take place, the addict must do the one thing they are most afraid of doing, and that is look inside themselves and face the pain (often hidden in the subconscious) that is making them feel so low, that the only escape from that is to both reach for fleeting moments of happiness (highs) or become so numb and detached from yourself, and your body, that you no longer feel the pain, it is nothing more than a dull distant ache that follows you around, you have accepted your disease, this is a good as it gets.

Taking drugs, drinking too much alcohol, compulsive overspending, gambling, overeating, gaming, social media, sex and even love addiction (co-dependency) are all a way of coping with pain (and emotional loneliness)

It is not a disease, it is a maladaptive coping strategy to both conscious and unconscious mental pain, usually from the past, we could also call this trauma.

Everyone has trauma, you will find it very difficult to find any adult on the planet that has not suffered in some way throughout their life. And not every pain results in trauma, but many do.

Humans will do almost anything to escape mental pain, especially when they are alone…

One of the things about being an addict is the painful sound of silence and being alone dissipates when indulging in your chosen addiction. It provides a momentary relief from the sound of your own thoughts.

The idea of being alone to listen to your own self sabotaging thoughts and pain is so unbearable, you have probably forgotten (or more likely never knew) why you became addicted in the first place. You just run-on autopilot now, looking for the next moment to escape.

It is widely accepted that the ‘addict’ will not accept change, until they accept themselves, until they are ready to make change, and this was true for me, and I believe it to be factually correct. Change is something that must come from within.

What we can do is provide a platform for change to take place, to promote a different way of thinking, to provide tools and services that offer the opportunity for people to at least have a choice and consider something different. There is no doubt addiction is a selfish behaviour and it can do a lot of damage to the addict and the people close to them.

But most addicts I have met and spoken to underneath the cloak of addiction are decent people who are suffering and want to change, but simply don’t know how to or where to get help, in fact they don’t even understand why they are addicted and what it is they are running from.

And when they do reach out for help, it is often through doctor, and although it is wonderful that through the NHS you can get access to counselling services, and prescription medication when needed, it’s not enough.

6 sessions of counselling and a prescription for some benzodiazepines isn’t working…

And maybe the long-term solution isn’t just fixing broken adults, perhaps the long-term solution is through educating young people, before they become addicts?

If addiction is rooted in pain, or trauma, and from the past, we can help the long term addict be working to heal those past wounds, or even better, teach young people how to feel better about themselves, to provide their own sense of self-esteem, to love and accept themselves as they are, to feel confident about themselves and to learn to experience being happy in their own company and that alone does not have to mean lonely, and something to escape from.

How to understand the mechanics of anxiety and find safety in themselves, have personal boundaries and respect for their own opinions, to teach them that it is not selfish to love yourself, and that to feel accepted by your family, peers, or the wider community and even society, you do not have to self-sacrifice to gain validation and recognition.

We teach them how to feel connected to themselves and provide them with robust coping strategies, for example, mindfulness, and create a space where they can look inwards and face the things about themselves, they would like to change.

I’m sure if we can do these things, and we create an environment and a culture that supports it, we have less addicts as adults.

We should continue to help people as best we can and if right now the best, we can do is give Methadone to heroin addict then so be, people shouldn’t have to suffer.

But we should also be looking forward and exploring new ways of thinking, and for that we need more compassion, less stigma, more funding and open minds.

And everyone benefits from that, and, given after all we are just riding this rock together, maybe we should all start pointing in the same direction?

For everyone out there who is fighting their addiction or has overcome it, you have my respect and, you are a fucking warrior, and you’ve got this…

Much Love


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