CULTURE AND ADDICTION
By, Allen Berger, Ph.D.
In this article I want to discuss how our culture sets us up for becoming an addict. Before I do it’s important to realize we are all in a trance. We are hypnotized by our culture. This is not necessarily a bad thing, it just is the way things are. It happens in every culture, It has to.
Culture is transmitted through family. Parents teach children their culture’s world view. This world view is like a filter. It defines what is real; it proscribes what is appropriate behavior; it dictates how we should be and what we should feel. It defines everything about our existence. The way this is taught is unique to each family because it is woven into the fabric of our family’s history.
CULTURE OF CAPITALISM
One thing I’ve realized about our culture is that it is focused on “having.” Our culture is based on capitalism. Capitalism needs consumers. We are hypnotized into believing that our self-worth is based on what we have, rather than on who we are. We measure success with the amount of material things we possess like money, homes, cars, and adult toys, not our character. I’m sure you heard the saying, “He who finishes with the most toys wins.”
This obsession with “having” infects how we interact with our self and others, too. We end up treating everyone as objects and possessions. We become obsessed with how marketable we are. Women treat themselves and are treated like sex objects. While men are treated and treat themselves like success objects. What makes a man successful in his job makes it nearly impossible for him to have a warm and loving, intimate relationship. A woman who treats herself as an object cannot be intimate because she is concerned about her image, not who she is.
More is better, isn’t it? That’s what we learn in our culture. In fact, we become addicted to more. I’m certain you’ve heard addiction described as the experience where “one is too much and a thousand isn’t enough.” Unfortunately this applies to nearly everything in our lives. We are rarely satisfied with what we have and even more dissatisfied with who we are.
OBSESSION WITH OURSELVES
We are obsessed with becoming something we are not. True self-esteem is rare; we just don’t feel good enough, which is crazy because we aren’t even certain of what it means to be good enough. Our concept of who we should be is corrupted by our notions of who we think we should be. Women spend billions of dollars on plastic surgery to have the “perfect body.” Men are also visiting the plastic surgeon more than ever before.
We spend millions of dollars on the latest exercise equipment so we can become more attractive and have a better body. Unfortunately most of it is gathering dust underneath our beds or in our garages. We pursue schemes to get rich so we can buy more things and have more money which in some magical way will make us feel more secure. Men become workaholics because they are obsessed with having more and being more successful. We turn into humans, doing and performing, rather than humans, being (sic). What a tragedy.
Another nonsense is that life should be easy and gratification instantaneous. We become obsessed with finding the easier softer way and we want instant results. Well life isn’t easy and most worthwhile things don’t come easy. But nobody tells us that. Instead we are bombarded with messages that tell us to take a magical pill and your headache will immediately disappear. There is no need to figure out a better way to handle your stress. If you are depressed take an antidepressant and that will make you feel better. No need to figure out what you are doing that makes you depressed. We buy weight loss medication on TV that promises to help us lose weight while we sleep, so there is no need to spend hours in the gym. It’s easy.
When we turn to drugs including alcohol they really work. Instantaneously we feel better. We are sexier, more fun, more comfortable, more relaxed, more spontaneous. We are free from our fears and concerns. We are free from the false self that develops in this insane culture. I had a friend say that he didn’t know if he was born an alcoholic, but the moment he took his first drink he knew that an alcoholic was born. We are set up by all of this nonsense to become addicted. We become addicted to drugs including alcohol, to sex, to gambling, to compulsive overeating or restricting. We become addicted to dramas, to spending money. We become addicted to more.
THE SPIRITUAL SELF
I may sound paranoid but I do believe that there is a cultural conspiracy that undermines he development of our true, spiritual self. We are encouraged to abandon our true self and become an idealized self riddled with our culture’s proscription of who we should be.
Let’s also consider looking at addiction from a different perspective. The fact that we aren’t satisfied with our false self solution, that we become dis-eased, means that something is right–not wrong–wrong with us. Jung described the alcoholic as having a “spiritual thirst.” It is our spiritual self that constantly reaches out, cries out to be actualized. It is like an alarm that will continue to ring despite the number of times we hit snooze. So it’s what is right about us that doesn’t allow us to completely abandon ourselves to the nonsense in our culture. This is not a culture based on wisdom.
Recovery however is based on wisdom. Recovery helps us find our lost, true self. It helps us reconnect with who we really are. Recovery is about “being” not “having.” It’s an incredible journey that begins with shattering our false self. This opens the door to discovering a spiritual solution to our dilemma.
Every spiritual discipline is concerned with “being” not “having.” That why the 12 Steps work. They facilitate a spiritual experience. In recovery, there has to be a 180 degree shift in one’s attitude and perceptions. This is a remarkable personal transformation. We shift from obsessed with “having more” to concern with “being,” and living a life guided by spiritual principles. This breaks the trance and cures our cultural sickness. We become like Alice in Wonderland, realizing that what is, isn’t and what isn’t, is. What an amazing journey.
About Dr. Berger:
Dr. Berger is an internationally recognized expert in family and couples therapy, and in the science of addiction and recovery. He is best known for his work on integrating modern psychotherapy with the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and for his insights into emotional sobriety. He is also recognized for his outstanding work as a psychotherapist and trainer.
He brings a highly unique background to his profession. His own personal journey in recovery started in 1971, on the beautiful island of Oahu, Hawaii. There he fell in love with recovery and with helping people find their way out of the abyss of addiction into the light of recovery. He overcame dropping out of high school, and received a doctorate in clinical psychology from UC Davis in 1987.