Philosophy Stirred, Not Shaken

Insights on Addiction and Philosophy

When Commitments Become Super-Sized and Unmanageable

Addiction and recovery are commitments to ways of life

Each of us orients our life around people, projects, interests, and concerns that matter deeply to us. Some might argue that this is what makes humans unique; we have the ability to set goals and then decide the best ways for meeting them. We orient our lives around our commitments; they become the axis around which life turns. 

An axis is an imaginary line around which a body turns. The earth rotates or revolves around its axis in a 24-hour period. In other words, an axis holds a body in place even as it revolves. Just as important, the axis is fixed and immobile because of the movement around it. An axis always involves a relationship, and this is crucial for understanding how certain practices or commitments come to function as an axis for a person. 

In many ways we do choose what will play the role of an axis in our lives. Parents often say it is their children. Others will say it is a spouse or partner. Some will say that it is a career. Yet others will want to make the world a better place by fighting against_____ or working to create more _______. We often think about the ways that living positive commitments make us who we are or push us to be better people. 

A healthy set of commitments can become unhealthy when pursued in the wrong degree and direction and by the wrong means. Unhealthy commitments or negative commitments come to function as an axis too.

Addiction is a super-sized set of lived commitments. Using drugs or engaging in certain behaviors becomes the axis around which an addict’s life turns.

Addiction seems to sneak up on a lot of people. No doubt that there are those people who are just off to the races and develop a full blown addiction swiftly. But there is a huge number of people who drank or used drugs or engaged in behaviors “normally” (contentious term I grant) but then underwent some sort of shift. That shift may be physiological and related to tolerance, cravings, and withdrawal symptoms. This seems to be the experience of many people who use medications as medically prescribed. In some ways, they do everything “right” and they end up physically dependent and addicted. 

As addiction progresses, our use becomes the axis around which the vast majority of relationships and activities will turn. I will not say all things, because there are many people who are able to still able to function very effectively in some aspects of their lives while being a full blown addict. 

People moving down the continuum of a substance use disorder will discard relationships with people who challenge them on their use or do not use in the ways they do. People will discontinue activities that would disrupt their use. These activities and relationships will become more peripheral and removed from the pull of the axis. They will fall away, so what remains are the using activities and relationships that revolve around the axis. In turn, these using activities and relationships will hold the axis immobile. 

With addiction, there is a high degree of homogeneity between the axis and the activities and relationships that revolve around it. Change or difference is something to be avoided, and so we addicts tend to seek the same over and over again. 

By holding so much of our lives in place, the axis creates stability. Many people crave stability over the uncertain and the unknown. This is true for many addicts; we know our addictions. We know what life is like using. We don’t know what life would be like not using. So, even though there are many downsides (to put it so very mildly) to addiction, the known will trump the unknown. Perhaps with an air of defiance but more likely resignation, some people will choose the devil they know. 

But people do change the most fundamental commitments in their lives. The axis metaphor is helpful here as well. Many people who sober up often do so as a consequence of falling too far below their misery threshold. The pain of a certain behavior or lifestyle is just too much, so something needs to change. Some people will begin to slowly discard their using behaviors or using friends. They will break off old pieces of their activities and relationships and replace them with new. By introducing new activities and commitments, the homogeneity of the axis and what holds it immobile is considerably weakened. This creates the possibility of a new set of commitments coming to function as an axis. 

Other people experience a sudden and perhaps violent destruction of an axis. It is as if the axis is just ripped out of a person’s life. A catastrophic loss, terrible tragedy, the body’s breakdown, or some legal and financial problems may leave a person feeling as if the world is falling apart around her. In some ways, it is. The very thing that keeps a person oriented in the world and keeps her world ordered has been shattered. When an axis is destroyed, everything that it was holding in place suddenly crashes down on a person causing her to suffer what I call an existential concussion.   

People who suffer this sort of destruction of an axis have an opportunity that is wrapped in a great challenge. Something needs to function as an axis. Without an axis, life has little order or meaning. Some will continue to use in part because their abilities to imagine living differently and making different choices have been so damaged.  The craving for stability in whatever form no matter the cost may keep a person using. 

Others in this same position will choose to make recovery or sobriety the axis around which life turns. Here the process of identifying and delivering on commitments is starting close to ground zero. Everything is up for grabs. In this case, people have the opportunity to more intentionally orient their lives. The opportunity may have been unwanted, but here it is nevertheless. 

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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