If you are thinking about addressing your relationship to alcohol or substances, you may ask yourself if being sober is worth it. Sobriety may look boring, difficult, and unappealing, but the drinking or substance use might be starting to impact the rest of your life, making things even more challenging to manage.
It may feel like you have to choose between chaos and boredom. Right now, these may seem like the only options. Fortunately, there is another way forward.
In this article, I share the experience of Stephanie, a fellow recovery advocate. Four years ago, Stephanie could not imagine living in a state of sobriety. Now, she is pursuing her dream of helping others in recovery. Here are her reasons why it’s worth being sober:
Being sober is worth it because you can live a life of meaning and purpose, you feel healthier and more vital, you’re thriving rather than just coping with life, and you’re no longer living in a constant state of guilt and shame.
The decision to stop drinking or using substances can often feel like an internal debate, so let’s consider the arguments for and against each of these reasons.
You can live a life of meaning and purpose
People may turn to substances due to boredom or the lack of meaning and purpose in life. Using a substance to cope with daily life may take the edge off temporarily, but it further entrenches a person into patterns of behavior that make it more difficult to escape.
You get to build the life that you want.
Your mind may argue, “I don’t know what kind of life I want to build anyway…”
“You can build any life you want. Sobriety is a rebirth into clear-headedness. You can pick what you want to do and build your goals from that.”
A helpful technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) requires gaining clarity regarding your values. One way to do this is to think of a particular role model in your life. What characteristics do they have? What do you value about them? How might you live by some of these values in your own life?
Your life is worth living every day.
Your mind may argue, “But my life is not worth living. I’m hopeless, and I’m a burden on others. They would be better off without me.”
“Every life is worth something. Addiction makes us think that we are nothing. We feel we have nothing left to offer, and all we have done is hurt our families and friends. When we are not using, we can build more meaningful relationships and build a life we feel is worth living.”
A helpful ACT technique consists of taking a step back from thoughts like “I’m worthless.” Rather than thinking, “I’m worthless,” consider rephrasing it as “I’m having the thought that I’m worthless.” This small change of wording in your self-talk makes a significant difference, allowing you to take a step back and regain focus on what matters.
You get to see your kids grow up
If you have kids, your mind may tell you they don’t notice, it makes you more fun around them, or it’s not that bad.
“Addiction tells us we can use so that it can work it’s way in and set roots. Are you sure you are more fun around your children? They may have a very different perspective. We think we can hide our use, but it is not always hidden as well as we think. Think about when a person is drunk and trying to be quiet.”
If you have any variation of these thoughts, it may be useful to take a step back and reconsider what others might be seeing. In ACT, this consists of perspective-taking. Imagine looking into your child’s eyes, and you see them looking back into yours. Put yourself behind their eyes, looking back at you. What qualities do you want them to see in you? What qualities would you want to see in yourself?
You can help the community in a way others can’t.
Your mind may tell you, “what did the community ever do for me?”
“Not all of the community is against you, and you have allies. You will not be alone. But no one can help you unless you help yourself first. Although the work is going to be within you, you will need outside support, and with time, you can find that.”
One of the key lessons in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the healing power of connecting with something beyond yourself. For some, this may be connecting with their understanding of a higher power. For others, this can mean connecting with a community.
You’re thriving, rather than just coping
When using substances to cope with underlying pain or boredom, this short-term solution prevents one from achieving a state of thriving. Instead of just getting by, sobriety allows you to strive toward your full potential.
You never worry if your utilities will be shut off.
Your mind may tell you that you don’t have financial problems, so this is not a concern.
“…addiction makes millionaires into homeless people. I’ve seen it a lot.”
Even if drinking or substance use does not lead to financial issues in the present, it could result in increasingly putting off financial responsibilities and disorganization in many areas of your life.
You learn to deal with life in a way that isn’t going to kill you.
Your mind may tell you, “It’s only a few beers or a bottle of wine in the evening.”
“It starts as a couple on the weekend and then turns into a few a night. Eventually, the party always ends, and the nightmare begins. It always ends the same way, and it’s not pretty. It will kill you; it’s only a matter of when.”
When drinking or substance use gets out of one’s control, it can spiral downward at a rapid pace. The difference between casual drinking and drinking to cope with underlying issues is that the latter eventually gets out of one’s control, causing increasing harms as use escalates.
You’re not living in a constant state of withdrawal.
If you experience physical pain when stopping opioids or constant shakes when stopping alcohol, your life may start to revolve around obtaining the substance to feel normal.
“…no withdrawals is freedom for me. That was what held me prisoner. I couldn’t be sick like that.”
Freedom from continually impending withdrawal means having a significantly greater amount of choice in one’s life.
You’re not living in content guilt and shame
Guilt is a sense of doing something wrong, whereas shame is the sense of being a bad person. Both often show up when struggling with substances.
You earn back respect and trust.
Your mind may tell you it’s hopeless and that no one will ever trust you again. It may feel hopeless right now, but trust can be rebuilt over time.
“Trust can be built. While it’s harder to build with some and some relationships will never be repaired, we can build new relationships and repair the ones that are fixable.”
When trust is lost, words alone are no longer enough. Trust is built through repeated patterns of committed action over time.
You don’t feel worthless anymore.
Your mind may tell you’re worthless and that you don’t deserve a better life.
“We can’t change what others think, but we can change what we think. When we look into the mirror, the person we see in addiction is very different than the person we see in recovery. I am happier with who I see, and I see the people around me change how they deal with me and treat me.”
Changing what we think requires recognizing these patterns of unhelpful thoughts and changing the way we respond to them. Greet the thought like an old friend, telling it that it’s not helpful right now. Then, letting it be, ask yourself what matters right now. Then, move forward, committing to actions that are most relevant to the things that matter.
You feel healthier and more vital
There are many health benefits to sobriety. Although we may often hear this from medical doctors, it is hard to internalize unless we experience it first-hand.
There are no hangovers.
This is the most obvious and immediate benefit of being sober. Hangovers can derail our entire day, taking us further away from moving toward a valued direction in life.
With the increased energy and improved mood, you can focus on more meaningful areas of life rather than merely coping with a state of impaired health and well-being.
You’re more present, focused, and sharper.
Chronic substance use can impair your ability to think quickly, clearly, and retain information. Depending on the substance, the effect can vary, but I’ve personally talked to many people who noticed a significant negative impact on their brain function.
“You can see life clearly and find solutions to the issues we would have normally not been able to because drugs would be clouding our perceptions.”
This clarity allows for increased progress in all areas of life. Being sober can lead to improved memory, cognitive function, in addition to an enhanced ability to cope with stress.
You have a better schedule.
When frequently using alcohol or other substances, life can become chaotic, making it challenging to stick to a schedule.
“You are not up all night using and sleeping all day. Having irregular sleep patterns leads to us generally feeling yucky and doesn’t help in maintaining a life we can be proud of.”
When regaining a sense of order and healthy habits, motivational momentum snowballs into building a life you can be proud of.
When contemplating sobriety, the voices in your head may be engaged in an endless debate. As described in my article on the Types of Denial in Addiction, our minds can make up many reasons why we don’t have a problem.
If you are thinking about getting sober and are wondering if it’s worth it, hopefully the reasons presented here can help you in your journey. If you would like to reach out to Stephanie, you can find her on Facebook here. You can also check out her powerful story of addiction and recovery here.
Although being sober has been worth it for Stephanie, along with many other individuals I’ve spoken to, there are still some people who may disagree. If being sober is just as difficult as using substances, or worse, this may be a sign that some underlying issues are needing to be addressed.
If this is you, counseling may be a helpful way to work through difficult thoughts and painful emotions driving the urge to use substances. For more information, see my article on The Benefits of Counseling.
As an addiction counselor, I offer online counseling to persons struggling with alcohol, substances, gambling, and gaming. If you would like to discuss whether counseling is right for you, contact me here.
Many people find it difficult to be flexible in life. When unexpected situations arise, it is easy to feel frustrated, making you want to lash out. These rigid ways of being prevent you from getting what you want in the long term, increasing frustrations as you dwell on how things are not working the way you want.
Increasing your mental flexibility helps you stay calm in challenging situations, allowing you to cope with difficulties more effectively, and better navigate stressful situations to achieve desired outcomes. So how can you be more flexible in life?
- Accept what you can’t change
- Step back from your thoughts
- Focus on the present
- See the bigger picture
- Live by your values
- Take some risks
Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas of mental flexibility.
Accept what you can’t change
The first step to being more mentally flexible is to accept the things that are outside your control. When living rigidly, you are stuck in your head, trying to control everything. Holding onto this sense of control is a false sense of security, causing more frustration.
Getting clear on the things that are outside our control requires a sense of acceptance. As written in the Serenity Prayer:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
When we can accept our limited ability to change an event, we can then let go of the anxieties and frustrations, fueling our need to cling to a false sense of control.
The practice of letting go takes courage and willingness to step into a sense of uncertainty. There is a vulnerability in uncertainty, but there is also serenity and freedom from unproductive thoughts.
Step back from your thoughts
Stepping back from your thoughts allows for more flexibility in life by giving you mental space. Rather than merely reacting to your mental chatter, creating space between your thoughts and actions will enable you to choose more effective ways to adapt to a situation.
For example, suppose a car cuts you off in traffic while speeding. Your initial thought might be that the person is selfish and immoral; therefore, they should be punished. This can lead to putting yourself in unnecessary danger.
Rather than merely reacting, taking a step back from your thoughts allows you to think of alternative scenarios. Perhaps the driver just got the news that a loved one is dying, and they are racing to the hospital. There are infinite possibilities, and we cannot know the “truth” at that exact moment.
We cannot control the other driver, so stepping back from our initial judgments creates the space necessary to move forward effectively.
Focus on the present
Focusing on the past and future takes you away from your life in the present. Being more flexible in life requires developing a sense of present-moment awareness.
One way to do this is to bring your attention to the breath. You might also notice the sensation of your feet on the floor. You can then bring your attention to the sounds around you, curiously listening to the many layers.
Bringing your attention to physical sensations takes you out of your head and into the present since these sensations are occurring in the present moment. You are not thinking about your past breath or anticipating your future breath. It is an ever-present bodily rhythm you can tune into at any moment.
Focusing on the present builds behavioral flexibility since you can more appropriately respond to situational demands. For example, if a car cuts you off while you are lost in thought, you would be less able to respond and adapt to the situation safely.
Focusing on what is going on in the here and now allows you to notice relevant details, especially when things don’t go as expected.
See the bigger picture
It is easy to get caught up in thinking about how we are being perceived, having thoughts like, “How does my hair look? Did I wear the right clothes? Do I fit in?”. This leads to constant social comparison, leading to rigid ways of defining oneself: “I’m a failure, I’m a mess, I’m not enough.”
Rigid self-definitions cut us off from others, leading to rigid ways of being, for self-protection. Thinking you don’t belong causes you to retreat into avoidance patterns, preventing you from meeting your social needs and getting what you want in life.
Seeing the bigger picture gets you out of your head by bringing your attention to what others might be experiencing at that moment. For example, if you’re at a meeting at work, you can see the situation from two different perspectives: your own perspective, or the perspective of others; although the latter takes some imagination.
From your perspective, you may start to wonder what everyone thinks of you, making you try to constantly manage their impression. Instead, try seeing the bigger picture and consider what each person might be experiencing at that moment. What might they be thinking or feeling? What do they want? How do they see one another?
You will likely realize other people are more focused on themselves than you. Seeing this bigger picture allows you to get out of the mental cage of rigid self-definition, leading to constant impression management.
This will allow you to genuinely connect with others, rather than being too preoccupied with yourself.
Live by your values
Getting clear on your values allows you to gain flexibility in life by giving you a sense of direction. Unlike goals, values provide an eternal sense of direction, despite obstacles.
For example, goals are like using a GPS to travel to a specific location. Values are like a compass pointing East. You never completely get to “East.” If an obstacle gets in your way, you can take a temporary detour, but you can adapt, reorienting yourself East when you get past the obstacle.
Values consist of ways of being, consisting of adverbs such as, lovingly, creatively, genuinely, excellently, and charitably. Having a clear understanding of your values allows you to reorient yourself toward what matters whenever you find yourself in a challenging situation, faced with difficult thoughts or painful emotions.
Take some risks
Taking reasonable risks allows you to act on your values, overcoming rigid mental barriers preventing you from moving forward toward a life of meaning and purpose.
Although this requires the courage to step out of old ineffective habits, it also requires creating new habits. Habits, routines, and common behavior patterns are not necessarily rigid unless you continue them after they are no longer useful. The ability to adapt to more effective habits allows you to move forward more efficiently.
Taking risks does not necessarily mean being reckless. Instead, it means gaining the necessary courage to continually step outside your comfort zone, in service of your values, so you can live the life you want.
These tips on being more flexible are based on the evidence-based psychotherapeutic practice of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).
The six points shared above are based on the six processes of ACT. If you are a mental health practitioner or just interested in taking a deeper dive into these six areas, see my article, How to Improve Psychological Flexibility.
In that comprehensive article, I delve into each process, sharing metaphors and practical exercises, in addition to sharing the psychological reasons why they work. If you are looking for even more tips and tricks, you can check out my article, How to Stop Living in Your Head.
If you are suffering from prolonged anxious thoughts or depressed moods, it may be helpful to go beyond self-help methods and seek professional support.
Counseling can help by exploring your unique mental barriers, allowing you to develop coping skills to navigate your life flexibly. To learn more, see my article, The Benefits of Counseling.
When considering whether or not counseling is right for you, it’s important to understand the benefits clearly. As described in my article on What Counseling is Not, there are often many myths about counseling, preventing people from reaching out for support.
Counseling is a lot more than merely getting advice. It involves collaboratively working with someone, delving into the underlying issues that drive unproductive behaviors. Being a counselor myself, I’ve seen it’s benefits first hand, as clients build healthy coping skills, getting more of what they want out of life.
Here are the benefits of counseling:
- Fewer anxious thoughts
- Improved mood
- Insight into self-destructive patterns
- Increased self-esteem and confidence
- A Clearer sense of purpose
- Better focus on the present moment
- Greater interpersonal skills
- More effective coping skills
Let’s take a closer look at each of these benefits.
Fewer Anxious Thoughts
Many people seek counseling to help with anxious thoughts. Although counseling cannot erase these thoughts, it can help a person change their relationship to these thoughts.
For example, if you suffer from anxiety, you may benefit from counseling in several ways. First, counseling can highlight the particular patterns of thought interfering in your life, considering the common triggers and patters one uses to cope with these thoughts.
Once you gain insight into your anxious thinking patterns, counseling can help diminish the power of these thoughts over your life through various techniques. To learn more about this, see my article on How to Stop Living in Your Head.
Another significant benefit of counseling is its ability to improve your mood over time. Research demonstrates the effectiveness of psychotherapy to reduce depressive symptoms.
For example, if you suffer from depressed moods, finding it challenging to gain motivation, counseling can help by incrementally building patterns of committed action. Through collaborative conversations, counseling helps build motivation by focusing on building a sense of one’s values.
By focusing on one’s values, counseling works to build a deep internal sense of motivation rather than merely focusing on short-term external motivations. This is the difference between doing something because you feel fulfilled and doing something because you are being paid.
To learn more about motivation, see my article, How Does Motivation Work?
Insight Into Self-destructive Patterns
Counseling can help you become aware of self-destructive patterns in your life. As an outsider, a counselor can provide an external perspective on your situation, inquiring into how specific patterns continue to play out.
For example, you may be having repeated arguments with a significant other regarding the same events. You may realize there are common themes in your arguments, but through counseling, these patterns can be discussed with a neutral person who can help explore the patterns in more depth, looking for potential ways out of these self-destructive situations.
Increased Self-esteem and Confidence
Counseling can also benefit one’s sense of self-esteem and build genuine confidence by getting to the root of the issue and working on specific activities to address it.
For example, if you always feel like you are not enough, counseling looks at how you can change your relationship to that particular thought. Rather than trying to erase the thought through positive affirmations, counseling helps you pivot toward what matters, rather than staying stuck in the same unproductive thought-loops.
For more on positive affirmations, see my article, “Do Positive Affirmations Work?”
Clearer Sense of Purpose
Counseling can also benefit one’s sense of purpose. Suppose you feel lost, unable to gain a sense of direction, or are unmotivated to engage in everyday activities. In that case, counseling helps by first gaining clarity on your values, then collaboratively working with you to build a realistic plan.
For example, we are continually bombarded with media messages about the need to “find your passion.” Still, many people feel like they are spinning their tires, constantly feeling like they are drowning in a sea of options. Social media bombards us with social comparisons, tempting us to model our lives on the most recent trends.
Counseling helps you build a sense of purpose so you can focus on building a values-based path forward. For more on the concept of passion, see my article, “What Does it Mean to Follow Your Passion?“
Better Focus on the Present-moment
When struggling with anxious thoughts or depressed mood, you may feel stuck in your head, worrying about the future or ruminating on past events. Counseling can help you regain awareness of the present moment, especially if the practitioner is trained in mindfulness approaches.
One example of a quick mindfulness check-in might be to bring your attention to your breath or other sensations in the body. This practice helps bring focus to the present moment, making you more effective in your daily life.
Here is a metaphor highlighting the benefit of present-moment awareness, from my article on How to Improve Psychological Flexibility:
“Imagine your thoughts about the future are like a GPS voice, telling you what is coming up next. You then become too fixated on the GPS, fiddling with the controls, adding stops, checking your arrival time, and adjusting the volume.
Becoming so focused on the GPS, you lose focus of the road, missing an exit, nearly rear-ending a car, and perhaps even making a wrong turn into a lake. Although a GPS can be helpful, we need to listen to its feedback from the present moment, engaged in the task at hand, and mindful of our surroundings.”
Greater Interpersonal Skills
Navigating social situations is a crucial skill. As I share in my article on Self-Care Tips for Mental Health, interpersonal self-care means having healthy personal boundaries.
For example, counseling can help you develop the ability to say “no” when appropriate, ask for help when needed, and help you let go of toxic relationships. While in unhealthy social situations, you may not be aware of the severity of the issue until getting an outside observer’s feedback.
Counseling can help you gain insight into unhealthy relationships and foster interpersonal skills to navigate these relationships and maintain personal boundaries.
More Effective Coping Skills
Counseling can help you develop skills to cope more effectively with stressful situations. Rather than merely reacting to stressful situations, counseling can help you gain the skills to move forward productively.
For example, counseling can help you gain insight into your patterns of behavior regarding stressful situations, in addition to helping you develop healthy coping skills such as mindfulness and interpersonal skills. Rather than immediately responding to the stress, these skills give you the ability to take a step back and reevaluate how you want to respond.
Although counseling has several benefits, the primary purpose is to help you get more of what you want in life and less of what you don’t want. Doing more of the same will get you more of the same results. Counseling allows you to gain insight into ineffective behavior patterns, unhelpful thoughts, and unproductive ways of coping with painful emotions.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, addictions, or just wanting to optimize your mental toolkit, counseling can help.
There are many different myths about counseling. I’ve encountered many people who think counseling is not for them, due to these myths. Instead of trying to convince them otherwise, I’ve found it helpful to first ask about their understanding of counseling to see if it is accurate.
In many cases, a person’s resistance to counseling is rooted in these misunderstandings. Without first addressing these misunderstandings, a person may remain stuck in contemplating change without the motivation to seek additional support. By highlighting these myths, I hope to clarify what counseling is and what it is not.
- Counseling is not just advice
- Counseling is not cheerleading
- Counseling is not necessarily easy
- Counseling is not a quick fix
- Counseling is not all the same
Let’s look at each of these areas to further dispel some myths about counseling.
Counseling is not just advice
Many people believe counseling simply consists of receiving advice. Since people generally get enough advice from friends and family members, the last thing they want to do is pay someone to tell them something they’ve already heard.
Counseling is far more than advice. In fact, it’s generally a small part of counseling since giving someone advice often does not work. Many people hear advice from their doctor that they need to eat better and exercise, but how often does this change anything? Does a dentist’s advice to floss immediately transform someone’s oral hygiene?
Many people know what they need to do, deep down, but are using their current behaviors to cope with underlying issues. Advice only addresses the tip of the iceberg. Working through the underlying processes collaboratively allows someone to develop healthy ways of moving forward.
Counseling is not cheerleading
Many people believe counselors are supposed to be like cheerleaders, giving constant positive validation and encouragement. We are bombarded by popular messages to “think positive” and “be happy.” A popular song perpetuates this myth in the following lyrics:
“Everything’s gonna be alright
Everything’s gonna be okay
It’s gonna be a good, good life
That’s what my therapists say”
Positive affirmation may feel good in the moment, but it does not generally work in counseling. I did a review of the literature on positive affirmations in my article, “Do Positive Affirmations Work?” finding:
“Positive affirmations do not work for persons trying to boost self-esteem, change negative thoughts, or escape from painful emotions. The evidence suggests positive affirmations only work in individuals who are already positive or high performing.”
Imagine you are going through a difficult time and after sharing the details, a person responds, “It looks like you’re going through a lot, but don’t worry about it, everything will be fine!” This response will likely cause you to think of all the reasons why things will not but fine.
Effective counseling is often counter-intuitive, working in ways contrary to common sense—more about this in the next section.
Counseling is not necessarily easy
Like going to the gym, counseling is not meant to be easy. But if you put in the effort and stick with it, the can be significant changes over time. Like physical training, counseling requires intentionally putting yourself into stressful situations you can safely handle.
For example, if a person tends to avoid specific thoughts or emotions, a counselor may ask if it is okay to inquire further in that area. Collaboratively exploring painful areas allows a person to gain a sense of openness to positive situations as well.
Contrary to the common sense understanding that one should try to eliminate negative thoughts, counseling turns toward them, instead. As shared in my article on How to Stop Living in Your Head, struggling against negativity is like fighting quicksand:
“…imagine you find yourself on quicksand. Your natural reaction might be to run or struggle. The more you do this, the faster you will sink. A more effective approach is to lay down and make as much contact with the quicksand as possible. This increases your surface area, preventing you from sinking.”
Counseling provides a safe, supportive environment to gain contact with negativity and deal with issues preventing you from moving forward more effectively.
Counseling is not a quick fix
Counseling does not solve your problems in a single session. Many people go into counseling, hoping to be “cured,” not realizing it is more like hiring a personal trainer than a plastic surgeon. A counselor can support the process of change, but cannot make the changes for you.
The first session generally begins as more of an assessment where a counselor gathers relevant background information regarding your situation. Throughout the first few sessions, you may also start to question whether or not it helps, since it requires delving into difficult areas and stepping outside of your comfort zone.
Like going to the gym for the first time, you will likely experience discomfort, perhaps wondering if it’s even going to help. Just like fitness, counseling takes time and ongoing committed effort.
Although counseling takes time, if you feel unsupported, it may be a sign you are not seeing the right type of professional or the counselor is not an ideal fit for you. For more on the red flags to look out for, see my article, Why it’s so Hard to Find a Good Therapist.
Counseling is not all the same
One person’s journey in counseling may look very different compared to someone else’s. There is no “one size fit’s all” approach. As a counselor, I meet each client where they are at, tailoring the process to meet their specific needs.
Some people may think counseling is not for them because they know someone who went to counseling and did not have a good experience. Or they know someone who they consider to have “far worse issues,” feeling like their problems are insignificant in comparison.
There is also a stigma around counseling. Some people may think counseling is only for certain types of people, but not for them. To use the fitness metaphor again, personal trainers are used by both beginners and athletes.
Many counselors have counselors, so no matter where you are on your journey, counseling can help if you are looking to optimize your psychological health.
Like addiction, suicide is a form of escape. Given my suicide research background and my current focus on addiction, I thought it would be appropriate to share my perspective on their similarities.
Suicidal thoughts can lead to addiction, and addiction can increase the risk of suicidal thoughts. Beyond their co-occurrence in this downward spiral, both operate similarly as a form of escape.
Suicide is an escape from deep emotional pain, in addition to an escape from the self and the world. It often occurs when one feels hopelessly socially isolated or feels like a burden on others.
Let’s unpack what this means and how suicide and addiction operate in similar ways.
What Causes Suicide?
Before considering escapism and addiction, let’s summarize the major theories of suicide, in simple terms, from the individual to the social level.
Starting with the most individual level, Edwin Shneidman states suicide is the result of “Psychache.” He defines this as extreme emotional pain.
Roy Baumeister adds to this theory, stating that the emotional pain is produced by constant painful thoughts regarding one’s self. In his article, Suicide as Escape From Self, he shares how these thoughts often involve the sense of oneself as a failure, an impostor, or not living up to an imagined standard.
Thomas Joiner builds on both of these theories in his Interpersonal Theory of Suicide. He states that the pain and thoughts result from the lack of belonging, combined with feeling like a burden and hopelessness regarding the prospects of this ever changing.
These theories can be mapped onto the societal level, considering Émile Durkheim’s sociological theory of suicide. At this level, suicide is often the result of an unregulated, individualistic society where people lose a sense of purpose and no longer feel a sense of community.
The risk of suicide is produced on various levels. Each case’s details will vary, but these theories highlight a general way of thinking about suicide, beyond some of the myth about it.
Let’s now consider how suicide and addiction are a form of escape.
Escaping Emotional Pain
As I share in my article on the root causes of addiction, trauma, and the pain of unmet needs, often fuels addiction. Substances or addictive behaviors serve as a way to cope with these challenges in the short-term, leading to increased difficulties in the long-term.
Addictions and suicide are both ways to escape from emotional pain. They are both short-term solutions with long-term consequences, affecting many others beyond the individual.
Like Baumeister’s description in Suicide as Escape From Self, people often use substances or addictive behaviors to cope with aversive thoughts such as, “I am not enough, I don’t deserve any better, and I am a failure.”
Like Joiner’s Interpersonal Theory of Suicide, persons with an addiction often feel isolated, as described in my article on the impact of isolation on addiction. They also begin to feel increasingly burdensome, beginning to believe others may be better off without them.
These similarities can also be observed on a societal level, as highlighted by the sociological theory of suicide. Community degradation can lead to economic despair, family disintegration, and increased rates of addiction.
Although addiction and suicide frequently occur together, they both independently function through similar processes.
A War In Your Head
In the case of both addiction and suicide, the individual experiences an intense mental struggle. They want a better way forward while also wanting to escape the pain. This battle is characterized in my article highlighting Stephanie’s experience, here:
“It was the biggest mind war I ever went through. You know what you’re doing is hurting you but can’t stop. It’s like watching a bad movie you are the star of.”
Suicide works the same way. A person often stays in a state of uncertainty of whether they will follow through with it, right until it’s too late to turn back. Fortunately, Kevin Hines lived to share his experience. After surviving a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, he shares:
“I thought it was too late, I said to myself, ‘What have I done, I don’t want to die ‘”
Although he got a second chance, many others likely had the same thoughts while suspended mid-air, who did not survive.
This tragic reality highlights how suicide, like addiction, is not the person’s preferred path. No one wakes up one day and decides they want to become addicted to heroin. It is a gradual process, fraught with internal battles and mixed desires.
As highlighted by Kevin, a person thinking about suicide does not want to die. They want to escape the pain. Addictions are ways to escape the problem temporarily, but result in more pain in the long-term.
The link between addiction and suicide can be best highlighted in opioid addiction, particularly among Fentanyl users. In my experience working in a residential withdrawal context, persons using Fentanyl are generally well aware of the overdose risk, likely knowing several others who have overdosed. Speaking to these individuals, I often gathered there was a constant state of suicidal contemplation. Although they didn’t want to die, part of them hoped for it so that the pain would go away.
Playing Russian roulette with Fentanyl seemed to be a way to dull the pain while remaining open to the potential for a fatal outcome. This tragic situation has been recently highlighted by professional commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine:
“…data suggest that the true proportion of suicides among opioid-overdose deaths is somewhere between 20% and 30%, but it could be even higher.”
With the absence of a note, opioid overdose suicides are challenging to study, since the motive cannot be known. Also, as highlighted by the Golden Gate Bridge example, a person’s motives are often highly ambiguous, changing moment to moment as the war in their head continues.
Both suicide and addiction function through similar processes. They are attempts to escape from emotional pain caused by underlying troubling thoughts, unmet needs, or a sense of being hopelessly isolated and a burden on others. This process operates on an emotional level, a cognitive level, an interpersonal level, and a societal level.
If you want to learn more about the subjective experiences of individuals thinking about suicide, I’ve written an in-depth article here: Inside the Mind of a Suicidal Person
To learn more about my sociological perspective on suicide, see my article here: How is Suicide a Social Problem?
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, please reach out to someone you trust or seek help from a qualified professional.
If you are in crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (in the US) or seek out your local Crisis Centre and speak to someone who can help.