Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

Make It a Double!

Think and scotch

One of the things that I have noticed about active addicts is our ability to embrace and live contradictions. Contradictions become a way of life. In logic, a contradiction is a statement that can never be true. A contradiction affirms something and denies it at the same time. Something is and isn’t.

Of course there is a chasm between the clean and spotless world of logic in which a statement must be either true of false (no gray area exists) and the messiness of everyday life. We addicts traffic in messiness. I dare say some of us thrive on it because we can hide in it.

What are some of the contradictions that active addicts live? Well, for starters, we may believe that we can control our alcohol consumption or drug use. At the exact same time, we believe that we cannot. We have plenty of evidence that shows us that we cannot control, yet we remain firmly in the saddle of our belief that we can. We also believe that this will be the last time we drink or use all the while inhabiting a sense of inevitability that we will use again. And most obviously, many of us would say “I knew I was an alcoholic but I knew I was not an alcoholic.”

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In the great dystopian novel, 1984, George Orwell introduces the concept of “doublethink.” He defines it as the “power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one's mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them… To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just so long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies—all this is indispensably necessary.”

All of this is indispensably necessary in living a life of active addiction by attempting to manufacture reality. After all, who would want to accept a reality in which one is an addict? It seems easier to manufacture an alternate reality than it does to change one’s behaviors. It may also seem easier to change the perceptions of those around you to enlist them in your manufacture of reality. In other words, it isn’t just addicts who are capable of doublethink. Enablers and co-dependents are often right there with us creating and maintaining an alternate reality.

Denial and rationalization play huge roles in maintaining the doublethink. They are first cousins. Denial is the ability to write off or rewrite what is happening by minimizing. Rationalizations are  excuses to make one’s actions acceptable. They can be off-hand justifications to make oneself the exception. An alcoholic might say, “This binge was not as bad as the last one. I didn’t black out.” One minimizes the significance of a binge by comparing it to something more serious or dangerous. We deny or "forget the inconvenient fact" that binges can be dangerous. If she does blackout, she may rationalize the blackout not a consequence of drinking too much but rather from being so exhausted from working so many long hours.

A partner of an alcoholic may say things are getting better because instead of hard liquor her spouse now only drinks beer. She denies that the alcohol content and the calories of beer present serious health concerns. She’d rather buy the beer and keep plenty on hand than have him stop at the liquor store where he might be tempted to buy whiskey. When he comes home drunk after a day at work ranting about his boss, it is tempting to rationalize his behavior. She makes an excuse for his behavior. If only his boss would be more understanding or less demanding, he would not drink.

Thinking and acting from doublethink become habitual. The more we engage in doublethink, the more it is reinforced and the harder it is for us to recognize. Doublethink becomes our normal; we become much more willing to embrace the contradictions than we are to reject them.

In some important ways, it is the tension created by the competing claims that holds our reality together. Rejecting one of the competing claims is a terrifying prospect because it means our reality will be fundamentally altered for better or for worse. Hopefully for better but unfortunately sometimes for the worse.

Peg O'Connor, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota.

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