Wednesday, March 12, 2008
Drug Addiction and Dissociation
Where does the “self” go during active addiction?
Where does the everyday self go during active cycles of addiction? Addiction sometimes seems to resemble a waking trance, or autohypnosis. Psychologically, it is akin to a state of dissociation. The sense of self becomes impaired through the processes of intoxication, denial, neuroadaption, withdrawal, and craving. This impaired sense of self causes behavior that is baldly contradictory to the addict's core beliefs and values. Honest men and women will lie and steal in order to get drugs.
Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines dissociation, rather vaguely, as “the splitting off of certain mental processes from the main body of consciousness, with varying degrees of autonomy resulting.” How autonomous were you, consciousness-wise, the last time you got drunk and parked your car somewhere you couldn’t remember?
Dissociation may be part of the way consciousness itself adapts to chronic drug use. Richard S. Sandor, a thoughtful Los Angeles physician, helped to clarify many of these issues in an excellent essay some years ago in Parabola Magazine.
Sandor compares the addictive state to a form of hypnosis accompanied by posthypnotic amnesia. This automatism, this subsequent amnesia about the drugged “I” on the part of the sober “I,” is highly reminiscent of the consequences produced by state-dependent memory:
"A hypnotized subject is instructed to imagine that helium-filled balloons are tied to his wrist; slowly the wrist lifts off the arm of the chair. The subject smiles and says, ‘It’s doing it by itself!’ The ‘I’ that lifts the arm is unrecognized (not remembered) by the ‘I’ that imagines the balloons.... One part denies knowledge of what another part does. A cocaine addict, abstinent for a year, sees a small pile of spilled baking soda on a bathroom counter and experiences an overwhelming desire to use the drug again. Who wishes to get high? Who does not?"
“Interestingly,” Sandor says, “this type of amnesia is very similar to that seen in the multiple personality disorder (see Jekyll and Hyde), in which one entire ‘personality’ seems to be unaware of the existence of another. Even more interesting is the fact that confabulation, rationalization, and outright denial are also prominent features of the addictive disorders.” Dissociation, then, can occur without the intervention of anything as dramatic as hypnosis. The common quality is automaticity, the experience of “it doing it by itself.”
Sandor points to the inability of prevailing behavioral models to produce a comprehensive framework for effective addiction treatment. “None of the current treatment methods based upon the positivist scientific paradigm—be it psychodynamics (Freud, et al.) or behavioral (Pavlov, Watson, Skinner)—has demonstrated any particular superiority in the treatment of the ‘addictive disorders,’” he writes. “Many psychoanalysts readily admit the uselessness of that method for treating addicted individuals (the patient is regarded as being ‘unanalyzable’).”
In addition, says Sandor, “It appears that the most successful means of overcoming serious physical addiction is abstinence—very often supported by participation in one of the twelve-step groups based on the Alcoholics Anonymous model.... The basis of recovery from addiction in these nonprofessional programs is unashamedly spiritual.”
All addictions, Sandor argues, more closely resemble “the whole host of automatisms that we accept as an entirely normal aspect of human behavior than to some monstrous and inexplicable aberration.” Bicycle riding is a good example of an automatism, because once learned, “…it no longer requires the subjective effort of attention; more importantly, once learned, it cannot be forgotten. It is as though the organism says to itself, ‘Riding this thing could be dangerous! It’s much too important to trust that Sandor will pay close attention to it.’”
So what does the mind do? It creates a new state called bicycle riding:
"Number one priority in this state (after breathing and a few other things, of course) will be maintaining balance. In much the same way, the organism recognizes that mind- and mood-altering chemicals disturb the equilibrium of functions and are therefore potentially dangerous. In response, it may form a new state in which the ability to function is restored, but in which a new set of priorities exerts an automatic influence. Just as one’s only hope of not riding the bicycle again (if for some reason that is important) is to never again get on one, once a particular addictive state has developed, there is no longer any such things as “one” (drink, hit, fix, roll, etc.). Addicts begin again when they forget this fact (if indeed they have ever learned it) and/or when they become unable to accept the suffering that life brings and choose to escape it without delay. Addictions can be transcended--not eliminated."
--Excerpted from The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction © Dirk Hanson 2008, 2009.