Compassionate Interventions for Addictions

   “Addiction floods in where self-knowledge─and therefore divine knowledge─are missing. To fill the void, we become attached to things of the world that cannot possibly compensate us for the loss of who we are.”Gabor Mate, M

 The focus of my blog, The Faces We Live, is to show my readers the many faces we humans wear. Having many sides to our personalities is what makes us all unique, and is a natural part of being human.

When I started blogging about addictions, I could never have imagined that my daughter would die in the middle of the series—but that is what has inspired me to write about the hungry ghost of addiction.

Please consider this in: The “addict” in us is just one aspect of our overall makeup. At worst, it can be an all-consuming, destructive aspect; at best, it can be an annoying distraction that eats up our precious time and attention. Nevertheless, this addiction part of ourselves can be seen as a protective quality within us, something that is truly endeavoring to calm us down and give us a reprieve from our daily strife. In that sense, it sometimes does its job perfectly well.

Addiction’s only goal is to “make the moment livable,” regardless of whether it’s at the expense of our family, health, or dignity. This part believes that if we just eat that box of candy or have a few drinks or a smoke or view a little pornography, then we’ll be able to relax and forget our troubles. These choices usually only succeed temporarily, and foster the very thing that may be killing us and/or our relationships in the long run. Addictive behaviors deceive us into thinking that we are in charge of our choices, and that we can stop anytime we want; they allow us to rationalize and minimize our behaviors. This part of our personality says things to us like, “What’s the harm in a few drinks?” or “I work hard, why can’t I hit the slot machines occasionally? It’s my money!”—even while our family complains that we are short of money or never spend any time with them, or nag us about our drinking habits.

The hungry ghost of addiction patiently waits to gobble up our time, energy, attention, and often our health and finances. Addictions kill our aliveness and robs us of the availability we need to be able to offer in our relationships. And, all too often, addictions can be deadly, as was tragically the case with my daughter.

What should we do about the impulse to give in, to seek that comfort at any cost? Completely eradicating any attachment or addiction just because we want to is an unrealistic goal. If we could do that, we would have done it already. Instead, I offer the following alternative:

Every time you want to “relax” or escape by succumbing to your addiction, I encourage you to ask yourself with compassionate curiosity: “Why? Why do I want to escape in this way? What will this action give to me?” Gently observe yourself, without any judgment. You might consider writing down these questions in your journal, along with the answers that arise when you think about them. Journaling will help you to see and monitor your progress.

Dr. Mate, who specializes in the treatment and study of addictions, sums this up beautifully:

“Instead of hurling an accusatory brick at your own head (e.g., ‘I am so stupid; when will I ever learn?’ etc.), the question ‘Why did I do this again, knowing full well the negative consequences?’ can become the subject of a fruitful inquiry, a gentle investigation. Taking off the starched uniform of the interrogator, who is determined to try, convict, and punish, we adopt toward ourselves the attitude of the empathic friend, who simply wants to know what’s going on with us.”

I have found this kind of gentle questioning—combined with patience, and a continuing practice of heartfelt understanding and ongoing compassion—helpful for myself and for the clients I work with.


Gabor Maté M.D. In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction (excellent book on the nature of addictions).

Picture: Compliments of Kozzi Images


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  1. Ron Kelley says:


    I wonder if a description of ‘addiction’ to many of us is an ‘event’ when in fact it may actually be a permant ‘addition’. For example, if I weaken and eat extra calories, it is not a temporary, singular event, but that I will carry the fat that’s created forever. Would that, in your estimation, be a fair extrapolated analogy?


    • Hi Ron,

      Great question although quite challenging to address. Addiction specialists usually agree that an addiction is three fold in terms of the effects on an individual. That is, a person with an addiction is physically, mentally/emotionally and spiritually attached to something outside of themselves which alters them in all of these areas. Please read the following excerpts from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

      “Addictions,” says Joseph Frascella, director of the division of clinical neuroscience at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “are repetitive behaviors in the face of negative consequences, the desire to continue something you know is bad for you.”

      Treating Addiction as a Disease by Nora D. Volkow, M.D. Director, National Institute on Drug Abuse National Institutes of Health Department of Health and Human Services….. Science has shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, that addiction is a disease of the brain…


      “And that our genes contribute close to half of the risk for becoming addicted. Addiction results from profound disruptions in the function of specific neurotransmitters and brain circuits. It involves an expanding cycle of dysfunction, first in the areas of the brain that process reward, followed by alterations in:
      • complex cognitive functions, such as learning (memory, conditioning, habits);
      • executive function (impulse inhibition, decision making, delayed gratification);
      • cognitive awareness (interoception); and
      • emotional functions (mood, stress reactivity).”

      “Addiction is such a harmful behavior, in fact, that evolution should have long ago weeded it out of the population: if it’s hard to drive safely under the influence, imagine trying to run from a saber-toothed tiger or catch a squirrel for lunch. And yet, says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIDA and a pioneer in the use of imaging to understand addiction, “the use of drugs has been recorded since the beginning of civilization. Humans in my view will always want to experiment with things to make them feel good.”

      That’s because drugs of abuse co-opt the very brain functions that allowed our distant ancestors to survive in a hostile world. Our minds are programmed to pay extra attention to what neurologists call salience–that is, special relevance. Threats, for example, are highly salient, which is why we instinctively try to get away from them. But so are food and sex because they help the individual and the species survive. Drugs of abuse capitalize on this ready-made programming. When exposed to drugs, our memory systems, reward circuits, decision-making skills and conditioning kick in–salience in overdrive–to create an all consuming pattern of uncontrollable craving. “Some people have a genetic predisposition to addiction,” says Volkow. “But because it involves these basic brain functions, everyone will become an addict if sufficiently exposed to drugs or alcohol.”
      That can go for nonchemical addictions as well. Behaviors, from gambling to shopping to sex, may start out as habits but slide into addictions. Sometimes there might be a behavior-specific root of the problem. Volkow’s research group, for example, has shown that pathologically obese people who are compulsive eaters exhibit hyperactivity in the areas of the brain that process food stimuli–including the mouth, lips and tongue. For them, activating these regions is like opening the floodgates to the pleasure center. Almost anything deeply enjoyable can turn into an addiction, though.”

      EMOTIONAL = Each time a substance (food, pot, alcohol) or an act (shopping, pornography, gambling) emotionally soothes a person, that then becomes an emotional invitation to repeated the substance or take the action fostering the notion that each time is an “event” or single act not a condition or an addiction.

      Spiritual = Addictions equal gods with a small “g.”

      I know this is a long response but addictions are complicated. Thank you for asking. Kind Regards, dawn

  2. I wonder if I could become addicted to horseback riding? I got so much pleasure from it I want to ride again. Miss you and wish you were here to snorkel with the turtles too.

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