This essay is part of Harriet’s ongoing “You Don’t Have to be an Addict to be in Recovery” series.
All of us, all human beings are either in recovery or in denial about the challenges of the human condition. These challenges are existential, emotional, and spiritual. The existential questions are:
Who am I? Why am I here? Do I have a unique identity? Do I define it or is it defined by my conditioning and the expectations of my family and culture? What is the purpose of my life? How do I find meaning in the face of adversity and mortality?
Emotionally, we ask ourselves: Am I good enough? Is my worth intrinsic or extrinsic? Is it comparative? Does my net worth determine my self-worth? Do my flaws and imperfections diminish my value? Am I intrinsically valuable?
Spiritually, my challenge is to reconcile the warring factions within. Our Jewish tradition has recognized this war and named the opponents yetzer hatov and yetzer hara – the good inclination and the evil inclination. In our tradition, the good inclination is good, and the evil inclination is very good. Both are necessary and both are Godly. Our job as humans is to acknowledge the power of the evil inclination and subdue it with Right Action. For instance, I practice forgiveness and loving-kindness even when I’d rather slit your throat or punish you with silence; I eat kale when I’d rather have french fries; I make my bed to defeat the sloth monster that whispers, “what’s the point, you just have to mess it up again tonight.” This voice of futility, of immediate gratification, speaks to all of us, sabotaging our efforts to sustain our commitment to the actions of change.
Addiction, in all forms, is the result of denying these challenges. Failure to wrestle with the questions of identity, meaning, and purpose creates a sense of existential despair. Not feeling good enough, comparing yourself to others, confusing self-worth and net-worth; all create hopelessness. Attempting to project an image of perfection to hide your yetzer hara, results in shame and the need to blame others. Shame, blame, hopelessness, and despair are the root cause of the need to self-soothe with food, alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, work-alcoholism, consumerism, compulsive over-achieving, and the pursuit of perfection “in all of our affairs.” We are always seeking, never satisfied – more is never enough to fill the “hole in the soul.” We adopt roles as our identity (doctor, lawyer, Indian Chief, mother, father, child) and confuse role with soul, never feeling good enough.
Kids who have been given every advantage, who have been praised, indulged, coached, tutored and pressured to achieve are mutilating, starving, and killing themselves. They pop pills, shoot or snort heroin, or just fail to launch. They never feel enough or have enough to fill the inner void or the hole in their soul, have never learned to fail and give up too easily. When effort is required, they quit. They think their appearance and resumé is their identity; grades and college acceptance define their worth and they are unable to tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty, discomfort, or imperfection. They are at the greatest risk for anxiety, depression and addictions of every description. Ironically, the over-privileged are the new underprivileged in their ability to live life on life’s terms.
These youngsters are sending us a message. They are our “prophets,” telling us that they are lost. They have no idea who they are, what they want, or how to figure it out. We have confused indulgence with love, our protection with caring, suffocating them with expectations and pressure to perform. These are the new faces of addiction, not the black sheep of the family, but The Excellent Sheep, so named by Yale professor, Bill Deresiewicz, in his book by that title.
Here’s the good news: Dr. Lisa Miller in her important new book, The Spiritual Child, writes, “Research shows that children who have a positive, active relationships to spirituality (not necessarily combined with religious observance) are 40% less likely to abuse substances, 60% less likely to be depressed or suicidal. It** provides positive inner assets such as meaning, purpose, optimism, and gratitude. As a society we urgently need to see the overwhelming strength of spirituality as protection against the leading careers of death to adolescents… accidents, suicides, homicides, and addiction.
For thirty years, Beit T’Shuvah has been a leader in the treatment of addiction with an integrative program of positive psychology, spirituality, and the 12 Steps of the anonymous programs. As part of our mission, we have helped thousands of addicts recover their passion and discover their purpose. Through our Elaine Breslow Institute for Addiction Treatment, Prevention, and Family Education, we are conveying this message of healing to parents, teens, educators, clergy, and physicians to help adolescents recover their passion and discover their purpose in order to prevent the hopelessness and despair leading to anxiety, depression, and addiction.
Harriett Rossetto is the founder of Beit T’Shuvah/Elaine Breslow Institute at Beit T’Shuvah.