Does Addiction Stem From How We Are Taught to View Life?
There’s been a lot of debate over the years on what causes a good percentage of us to become addicts, whether that be to illicit drugs, prescribed drugs, alcohol, gambling, gaming, or even food. Why is it that some of us can try an illicit drug in early adulthood, but leave it behind as we mature? Why can some of us have an occasional drink at a social gathering, yet not crave alcohol more and more until it becomes a wrecking ball ripping through our lives? Even with food, why do so many of us in the U.S. get hooked on food and eat ourselves into obesity, early heart attacks and diabetes, while other developed nations like France seem to be at much lower risk for overeating?
Genetics and Epigenetics’ Roles In Addiction
For decades now, behavioralists, psychologists and doctors have attempted to hone in on what makes some of us more susceptible to addiction. Certainly there is a genetic factor. If your parents have struggled with addiction, you have a higher chance of falling victim to the disease. Certain cultures even seem more susceptible to certain addictions, like the Irish or American Indian populations who struggle with alcoholism. And in the United States, certain states seem to have repeatedly higher incidences of drug abuse and overdose than others. Ironically, often topping the list is our capitol, Washington D.C. 
As I continue to research and write books on addiction, I constantly come across more and more information that leads me to believe that this disease is both as highly complex as it is simplistic. In my latest book, The Teen Warrior: Raising Addiction-Resistant Kids, © 2020, I came across the theory of “epigenetics.” Epigenetics is a change of a person’s biological wiring brought on by the way they are raised. In other words, if a child who has no genetic predisposition toward addiction is raised by a parent who becomes an addict, their upbringing can actually increase their biological risk for becoming addicts themselves.
I’ve also had a lot of personal experience with adults in all walks of life and stages of their addiction, from those who have tried and failed numerous times to conquer it, to those who have overcome their addiction and are in recovery. Is there one factor that we can point to that determines if a person can avoid addiction in the first place? And if they are already suffering from the disease, is there one thing we could change in their lives that would enable them to successfully overcome it?
Addiction Crosses All Lines
I can say for certain that addiction is not determined by socioeconomic or even educational factors. It crosses all lines. It can strike the very rich as much as it does the kids growing up in the projects. It can take down a brilliant, Ph.D student as severely as it can a high school dropout. It is prevalent across all types of professions, from professional athletes to school teachers. This leads me to believe that the disease isn’t so much a result of our environment as it is something much more personal.
I have friends who are active in their addictions, and it breaks my heart watching these brilliant, funny, talented, energetic, kind hearted people methodically commit slow suicide. The loss not only in their own lives, but to the potential of what they could have contributed to society as a whole, is devastating and heart wrenching to witness.
The Role Of Social Connection
For certain, one of the biggest factors scientists have determined has an impact on us becoming addicted in the first place, and failing in our ability to get the disease under control, is a lack of social connection. If we grew up feeling like we were flailing around in this world, and we are unable to grow into adulthood without a real sense of self value, it is ripe soil for addiction. Humans seem to have an innate need to feel like we have purpose and that we belong.
Ironically, nothing will disconnect us faster from our critical social connections than feeding an addiction. Addiction itself is nothing if it’s not the very best way to isolate from and alienate those who value us. Also ironic is that when we are pushing through adolescence and trying to figure out who we are and how we fit in, this is the time when we often engage in risky behavior, like trying elicit drugs or binge drinking. If we get addicted, it rapidly leads to a life of further disconnection from who we are. It diminishes our sense of self value within the world.
Warrior Verses Victim
I write a lot about the contrast between being a victim verses being a warrior. I first came up with this concept as it relates to addiction when I was ending a thirty year dependency on doctor prescribed opiates. I describe the spiritual rebirth I had to go through to transform from victim to warrior in my book, The Fentanyl Warrior: How I Got Off Opiates and Stayed Off. © 2018. And I certainly see the victim mentality as a pervasive factor in the numerous people I personally know today, who are either active in their addiction or who have repeatedly failed at getting and staying clean and sober.
One such sufferer is a wonderful man in his mid-forties who lives on the mountain where my sons and I reside. He is a college educated, well-traveled, kind, hard working guy who the boys and I just adore. He is also a severe alcoholic and opportunistic drug addict, meaning that when he can get a hold of drugs and use them, he does. He is homeless, floating from one garage or sofa to the next, working odd jobs to buy his food and booze.
His addiction is always present, although he waivers between being so inebriated that you can’t tolerate him, to being fairly functional. On those days he is so full of heart, love and positivity that we truly enjoy running into him. Our feelings toward Teddy are shared by many up here. And many of us have tried, and failed, to help him. When he’s good, our heartstrings reach out to him. But when he’s bad, we avoid him and carry on.
The Victim Mentality
I’ve had many genuine talks with Teddy. He certainly is not in denial of his disease. He knows he’s a severe alcoholic and he knows he’s ruining his health and wasting his life. Teddy’s focus is always on all that has gone wrong, all that has broken his tender heart. His dad’s death a decade ago shattered him. His brother, a diabetic, has been in prison for years on charges of theft and fraud.
Teddy will engage in light hearted banter, or discuss with me his favorite literature. He talks about how much joy he got out of being a special education teacher and helping kids with severe disabilities before his addiction took over. But he always circles back to how his life has been irreparably devastated by the death of his father, the fate of his brother, and the mother who was cruel to him when he was small. There is a direct correlation between the level of Teddy’s inebriation and how much he wallows in his self pity.
What I’ve come to realize about Teddy is that he doesn’t really want to get sober. He’s intelligent enough to realize that he’s killing himself. He realizes that he’s creating a much harsher life for himself than it has to be. But his refusal to stop being in victim mode over things that happened to him years ago prevents him from getting help.
One day he was helping my sons and I with a strenuous physical job we were doing on the mountain. When lunchtime came, I decided to take the crew back to our home to eat. Teddy was already fairly intoxicated, but still functional and coherent. We were out on the deck, overlooking this beautiful forest, when Teddy started in on how brokenhearted he was over his father’s death, how cruel his mother was, how much despair and worry he felt over his diabetic brother in jail.
I reached my limit with Teddy that day.
“Teddy! For God’s sakes, man! Get over it! We have all had drama and trauma in our lives! You want to hear about the tragedies I’ve faced? The losses I’ve endured? You’d be hard pressed to find any human who’s made it into their forties that hasn’t in one way or another been traumatized, broken or destroyed by something. You’ve got to quit seeing yourself as a victim! The only person traumatizing you now is you!”
Seeing Life As Random Unfairness
While he agreed with me, that didn’t mean he was willing to do anything about it. I realized in that moment that maybe the core of our addictions is the way we are raised to think about the injustices we’ve endured, rather than the injustices themselves. Maybe it’s because we start to believe along the way that we are helpless victims to the tragedies that happen in our lives, and we accept that it is okay to allow them to crumble us.
In my own upbringing, although I suffered my fair share of tragedy and disfunction, I still had parents that constantly instilled in me the confidence that I could overcome anything. I contrast that to a relationship I was in for a couple of years with a gambling and drug addict. I tried everything I could to save him from his addictions. I thought if I could just love him enough, and show him how great he was and how much potential he had, I could get him clean and keep him that way. My reward would be to watch him grow into his extraordinary potential.
It failed miserably. I realized I couldn’t undo his lifelong disfunction that had started with his mother, who greatly favored his younger brother, and the father that had abandoned him early on. His lack of confidence in himself made it impossible for him to escape his need to continue to play the victim. Just like Teddy, this gave him the green light for continuing to live as a victim to his addictions and to his life as a whole. After all, why face life head on and sober if you believe life is an unpredictable, unfair hell ride that you have no control over?
The Fuel That Feeds The Fire
There’s so much that feeds into this complicated disease. Lack of meaningful social connections. Lack of our sense of real value in terms of how we fit into this world. Lack of education and communication. Lack of direction. Lack of self esteem. Hereditary factors. Peer influence. Lack of learning from our parents how to successfully regulate the human condition from the inside, which leads to self medicating life's pain from the outside.
But one factor that seems to dominate in so many of us suffering from addiction is seeing ourselves as victims. After all, if we feel we have little or no control over our destinies, the pain is too much. We will find a way to self medicate and numb out, even if it means killing ourselves in the process.
Redefining The Human Condition
Addiction is treatable, and most definitely preventable, but it must start early. We must teach our children that even though life is often unfair and painful, we can choose the way we respond. We can choose to see ourselves as helpless victims, or we can choose to see ourselves as warriors, capable of overcoming our challenges, reinventing ourselves and conquering our difficulties. I believe this self power, this warrior approach from within, can go a long way to help our kids avoid falling victim to this devastating disease.
 20 states with the most drug abuse and 5 more statistics: The U.S. has long struggled with drug abuse, but its prevalence is growing. The percentage of people who admit to ever using an illicit drug has risen from 31.3 percent in 1979 to 48.8 percent in 2015, according to National Institute of Drug Abuse data cited by WalletHub. (2020). Retrieved 30 August 2020, from https://www.beckershospitalreview.com/care-coordination/20-states-with-the-most-drug-abuse-and-5-more-statistics.html
Elisa Fortise Christensen
Elisa Christensen is an American author, poet and public speaker who writes and speaks on addiction and parenting. Her work has been included in numerous publications including Page and Spine and Lady Literary Magazine. She also performs her poetry at venues around California, most notably her poem on addiction titled, Our Greatest Affliction.
Her books include The Fentanyl Warrior and Raising Boys To Be Honorable Men.
The Finest Thread, a collection of her poetry, is due out the Summer of 2020, and her book The Teen Warrior: Raising Addiction-Resistant Kids, in the Fall. She is also releasing her first novel, The Far Away, due out in the first quarter of 2021.
Elisa shares her knowledge through speaking engagements on how to transform from victim to warrior, overcome our addictions, and raise addiction-resistant kids.
She lives with her two sons in Pine Mountain Club, CA.