Welcome back to Ask The Experts, where we pose questions to professionals across the world of wellness. This week’s Ask goes out to Constance Scharff, Ph.D., Senior Addiction Research Fellow and Director of Addiction Researcher at Cliffside Malibu. Constance has spoken to professionals all over the world about addiction recovery. She is the coauthor of the bestselling Ending Addiction for Good, currently in its second edition.
Q: How and why does somebody become addicted?
A: From what I’ve seen in my 20 years in the business, substance abuse so often starts as an attempt to self-medicate psychological stuff, especially childhood wounds. Consistent mistreatment, such as neglect or abuse, causes children to not trust their environment. And so, as children, they find a “psychic retreat” and return to it again and again. They isolate because they don’t trust others. John Steiner created this idea of the psychic retreat, where the mind says, “You don’t need to look to anybody right now.” We see this with the kids who sit in the back of the classroom. They’re quiet, and really they’re hurt. By constantly retreating, they create a massive sense of isolation and loneliness, and when they’re 12 or 13 the compulsive behaviors tend to start. They feel alone, and getting loaded helps that, so they keep themselves medicated.
I’ve seen this in the early stages of recovery again and again. Psychic retreaters manage to get through the beginning of recovery, but then problems come up, and they face the question of how the mind can deal with those problems. Addicts tend to isolate, so even if they’re not using, they still go back to retreating from others. Steiner’s second book is called Seeing and Being Seen and that’s the scary job of anybody in recovery—they’re really seeing and being seen for the first time and emerging from a lifelong retreat. I’ve written about this extensively in my work and spoken about it at conferences.
I do think there’s something of a genetic component to addiction that we don’t understand yet, but in my private practice what I’ve found is that most addicts are massively covering up parts of their mind and self-medicating. And it’s not just the case for drugs and alcohol but for anorexia and bulimia as well.
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