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Many people who haven’t experienced an addiction may wonder what addiction feels like. Also, if you are going through an addiction, you may wonder if you’re the only one feeling this way.
This article dives deep into the experience of addiction.
As a qualitative researcher and addiction counselor, my goal here is to help shed light on the experiences of persons suffering from this often stigmatized issue.
So what does addiction feel like?
Addiction feels like a chaotic loss of control, a sense of being worthless, hopeless, isolated, and lost, all while having an intense craving, and only feeling fleeting pleasure.
To help understand this feeling in more depth, I interviewed a fellow addiction advocate who is in recovery from an addiction to several substances. Her name is Stephanie, and she has given permission to use her identity here.
Although everyone experiences addiction differently, I believe her experience resonates with some universal features of addiction.
The Loss of Control
The loss of control is a universal feature of addiction. As Stephanie states:
The biggest thing I feel people don’t understand is the lack of control. They think we start and can stop at will. It’s not like that.
Telling someone to just stop their addiction is almost like telling someone to just stand up and get over a broken leg. Addiction takes away someone’s normal level of control over their lives, making them feel powerless. Stephanie describes this experience in the following metaphor:
Addiction feels like a war in your head. You know what your doing is hurting you but can’t stop. It’s like watching a bad movie you are the star of. You want to yell “stop” at the screen, but it does no good. It’s watching everything around you fall apart because of a simple action you can’t stop. It makes you hate yourself and the person you’ve become. You watch yourself do things you would never normally do and your mind justifies them for you.
Addiction has been historically moralized, and persons with addictions have been stigmatized by being viewed as merely making selfish decisions. As Stephanie states:
People think we want to be selfish and that we are only thinking of ourselves and not our families or children. We are thinking about them, but addiction has us think they are better off without us. We are worthless and wastes because we don’t have the will power society says we should. This is never a choice. It’s a maze or a trap we get stuck in, and we can only get out of it with love and support.
Stigma only serves to further isolate persons suffering from addiction, deepening the sense of self-loathing.
Isolation and Self-loathing
As described in my article on The Impact of Isolation on Addiction, isolation and addiction go hand-in-hand. Isolation causes addiction, and addiction causes isolation. As Stephanie describes:
We isolate because no one understands and thinks we are being selfish… addiction to me is being lost. Not knowing which way is up.
The experience of isolation is combined with the shame of self-loathing. She goes on to state:
When I was using, I didn’t want anyone to know because I couldn’t handle any more people’s hate. I hated myself enough already. The loneliness made me have time to think and the more time I had to think the more I wanted to use because all my thoughts were about using or the horrible person I had become while using.
Using substances becomes a way to cope with this downward spiral of isolation and self-loathing.
A Need-hate Relationship
As described in another article on how addiction feels, the need-hate relationship is a common feature of addiction. Stephanie shares a similar experience, stating:
There were many times while I was using, I would try to stop, but I would still make the call, and pick up to use. I would bawl my eyes out because I didn’t want to be using, and I knew it was hurting everyone around me but couldn’t stop. I hated myself for not having enough strength to stop. I hated the substance for what it did to me but still treated it like a friend.
Throughout her addiction, this internal battle played out like an out-of-body experience. She watched herself go through the motions, tortured by her inability to stop.
As described in my article on The Most Neglected Aspect of Addiction Recovery, addiction is about much more than mere pleasure. Stephanie describes the role of pleasure in the following words:
The pleasure is actually short-lived. It happens when we use but only lasts a few minutes. We feel the warm hug or the rush the substance gives us, but 5 mins later, we feel nothing except the need/ want for another dose. We feel the self-hate, and that compels us to find the next dose to make that go away.
Addiction is more about escaping pain than enjoying pleasure. Persons with addiction are using the substance as a way to avoid short-term pain, but this comes at a long-term cost.
Although pleasure is a small part of the bigger picture, addiction still causes intense craving.
Stephanie describes it as the following:
A craving is a thought that gnaws at your brain and won’t go away. It doesn’t let you sleep, you cant think about anything else, you go over every scenario in your head on how to get your next fix. It is like wanting to crawl out of your skin. Like sitting in a bathtub filled with red ants.
In everyday life, we often hear people say things like, “I’m really craving ice cream.” So I asked Stephanie how she would compare addictive cravings to your average sugar craving:
I get cravings for sugar now because of the opiates but its nothing like the cravings I got with opiates or coke. It’s like the craving takes over your whole person! Sugar is a hankering in comparison.
If you’ve ever felt powerless when faced with desserts, consider this feeling amplified to the level of addiction. This helps put the experience of control in perspective.
How Different Substances Feel
Since addiction is primarily focused on coping with mental pain, how do different substances affect this experience?
First, let’s consider stimulates. These include drugs like cocaine, amphetamines, and crystal-meth. As Stephanie states:
Stimulants make you feel ten feet tall and bulletproof. Nothing can be wrong cus you can take on the world and win.
Many people describe stimulants in these terms, crystal-meth being the most potent of the group. Despite the physical disintegration, users of this drug report feeling supremely self-confident in their appearance while using it.
Next, let’s consider the experience of depressants. These include substances like alcohol and benzodiazepines like Xanax. Stephanie states:
Depressants just numb you and all thought. You’re too messed up to think about all the issues around you.
This is why so many people use alcohol to relax, unwind, and “get out of their head.” This lack of care an impaired judgment is also what makes depressants so lethal while operating motor vehicles.
Lastly, let’s consider the experience of opiates. These include substances like heroin, oxycodone, and fentanyl. Stephanie states:
But opiates… opiates is the warm hug. The blanket that makes you feel safe and stops the pain in your chest. It helps stop your mind from feeling over and over again what’s wrong with you.
These substances are designed to mask physical pain, but they are also able to mask emotional pain, leading to this feeling of warmth.
It should be noted that these descriptions are not meant to glamorize the substances. These short-term benefits are fleeting, leading to far more severe costs in the long run.
Overall, the type of substance doesn’t necessarily matter as much as their ability to temporarily make the mental pain go away. Stephanie states:
I would have snorted drain cleaner at the time if you told me the pain would go away.
Addiction feels like chaos. It is an inability to control your life, leading to a sense of self-loathing, hopelessness, isolation, and being lost.
A person becomes trapped in a need-hate relationship with a substance or behavior that is having increasingly destructive consequences on every area of their life.
Despite the fleeting pleasure, addiction is mostly about escaping mental pain. Although each substance has a unique way of masking pain, they are all used as forms of short-term coping at a long-term cost.
Recovery requires community, connection, and the courage to reach out. Stephanie states:
The only time we can start to go up is when we ask for help. We can’t do it alone, and every failure we have when we try on our own makes it worse.
Stigma leads to shame and segregation. As Stephanie states:
When you see someone that is using, and your brain wants to think those horrible things about them, ask yourself what happened to them to make them use. What pain are they trapped in, trying to get out? And something as simple as a smile can mean the world to someone living in that dark place.
If you want to reach out to Stephanie, you can contact her on her personal Facebook page here.
Stephanie also works with a local anti-stigma campaign called Label Me Person.
All views expressed are hers and are not intended to represent any organization she is associated with.
Great article and illuminating narrative by Stephanie! Addiction is the black hole of personal hatred and extreme isolation and fear.
I believe our current culture helps to create a nation of addicts with a justice system that punishes and warehouses those who need understanding/support, education and competent medical intervention. We can do better as a society and nation in addressing our current addiction problems (US).
Thanks so much for this, Steve.
No problem! Thanks for the comment!
Steve thanks for this. You’ve answered many questions and helped me to understand more. I have a relative who I’ve been trying to help but don’t know how. This explains a lot. I have a question though… this seems very much like mental illness also, why?
Thanks a million. much appreciated.
Although addiction and mental illness have been largely separated, institutionally, I believe they can look very similar are often treated in similar ways. At their core, there is emotional pain. The difference is the person’s way of coping. Also, both mental illness and addiction often coexist. For example, someone might cope with generalized anxiety through an addiction to alcohol, or cope with social anxiety through an addiction to gaming. The two are highly intertwined, so I prefer not to simply label people. Rather, I look at two things: what do they want, and what is stopping them from getting there. For the former, motivational interviewing is helpful. For the latter, acceptance and commitment therapy or mindfulness-based CBT is helpful. Rather than getting stuck on labels and categories, I find it more helpful to keep these two questions in mind, tailoring my approach to the needs of the person in front of me. Hopefully this helps to clarify things!