Addiction is a skin disease.
I bet you never heard that one before. But it’s true.
Let me explain.
I was once at a communal bathhouse that had three pools to choose from. The first is unheated (not very popular, but used), the second is heated like a warm, cozy bath (by far, the people’s choice), and the third one, well, let’s say you could use it to brew a good cup of coffee. I mean, the thing is steaming! Anyone dumb brave enough to try it takes about a quarter hour to get in – getting used to it inch by inch – and emerging, after a second, looking like a refugee from a lobster pot.
That’s why I was surprised when I saw someone flash by me (as I waited to use the cozy one), dip himself into the ‘cauldron’ like it was kiddie pool, leisurely splash around and come out relaxed, refreshed, and not a shade redder than he’d entered.
A buddy, noticing my astonishment, informed me that the fellow was a noted local politician. “You think someone could possibly survive in a job like his without having a thick skin?” he quipped.
Just like this world has its exceptionally thick-skinned people, it also has those whose (emotional) skin is thinner than most.
These are people who brood for days, weeks, or months over a perceived snub by others, or faux pas on their own part, which most people would shake off after a minute, if they noticed it at all.
They’re people who approach, react to, and analyze every routine encounter, with a gravitas most reserve for an important job interview or a prospective marriage partner.
They are folks whose emotional thin skin is perennially prickly like it’s sunburned, and makes them feel everything far more intensely than most; and, perceiving how those around them seem to dance effortlessly through a life that floors them, they come to see themselves as defective, weird, and very alone.
This painful self-concept together with the ever-renewing pain of daily life will eventually lead the desperate thin-skinned individual to either fight, flight, or… self-medicate through addictive substances or behaviors.
There’s a saying in the circles of the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step fellowship: “You’re not an alcoholic if your problem is alcohol; you’re an alcoholic if your solution is alcohol.”
This means that true alcoholics are congenitally thin-skinned types who find that drinking somehow ‘thickens’ their skin, allowing them to feel comfortable in that selfsame skin, and relieves the chronic pain of living that makes life unbearable without it.
Not all thin-skinners find their relief in alcohol.
Compulsive overeaters find they can anesthetize themselves with copious amounts of food. Internet (social media or pornography) addicts find it’s a way to allow themselves the craved-for feeling of closeness or intimacy, without exposing themselves in a real way which, with their super-sensitive ‘skin’ would be too painful to bear. Drug addicts often report that when they use, they find that their ‘skin’ effectively disappears, as their sense of individuality disintegrates, leaving them no longer painfully ‘apart from’, but ‘a part of’ a perceived greater whole.
The list goes on. But what all addictions have in common is that they initially relieve the pain of a ‘thin-skinned’ life; they have negative physical, emotional, financial, spiritual, and/or social side effects; and they eventually stop working.
This leads the frustrated self-medicator to desperately seek higher or more intense doses of the only solution he or she has ever found to an unbearable state of being.
IT’S NOT A CHOICE
A person has no more choice as to the ‘thickness’ of his skin than he does as to its color. Although those with more typical, thicker emotional/psychic skin may see their thin-skinned loved-one (associate, client, etc.) as simply ‘overreacting’ to things and that he could easily ‘shape up’ if he wanted; this is simply not true.
Most thin-skinned people desperately wish they could ‘shape up’, and live life in the far less painful typical thicker-skinned mode. But they can’t, and others condemning them for being who and as they are only drives them deeper into the self-condemnation and ‘defectiveness’ they already feel – and thus to run more readily to their addictive ‘solution’.
(Incidentally, there are also advantages to being ‘thin-skinned’. Being extra sensitive generally includes being extra sensitive to and aware of life’s subtleties and depths. Thin-skinners often possess extraordinary creativity, compassion, insight, and/or spiritual vision. All of these are fruits of an inner world that others’ thicker skins prevent access to.But right now we’re focusing on the pitfalls of, and ways to live comfortably in one’s thin skin.)
IS THERE A (REAL) SOLUTION?
To cure, as opposed to merely placate any malady, one must first understand its essence and source.What’s behind the chronic emotional discomfort with life and its events (i.e. ‘thin skin’ disease) that leads some to seek relief though various substances and behaviors to the point of addiction?
Perhaps at its deepest level, it stems from ‘The Essential Hypocrisy of Existence’.
Jewish mystical belief (and the deeper yet basic meaning of monotheism) asserts that in reality nothing exists besides the infinite, unified, benevolent being, referred to as God. All else that apparently exists (including us) is merely a creation of God ‘within’ God.
This topic is one of the deepest and widest of kabala and obviously way beyond the scope of this article. But for our practical purposes it means that on the deepest subconscious level we all know that our physical lives and our physical selves, including our ego-identification as entities separate from the infinite, unified God are not really real, and therefore express hypocrisy on the ultimate cosmic level. (See the excellent God of Our Understanding by R. Shais Taub, and in particular, his comments surrounding the reprinted letter of Dr. Carl Jung to Bill Wilson for a good explanation.)
While most people’s relatively thick psychic skin blocks this inner awareness from their consciousness, except perhaps during life’s most intense positive or negative moments, and allows them to function comfortably on the everyday level, the ‘thin-skinner’ does not have this luxury.
For him or her, there is always this niggling, undefined feeling that what’s going on around them, and even in them, is somehow essentially hypocritical and not as ‘real’ as it could or should be. This feeling of going through the motions of life as a self-aware being in a disconnected-from-unity state is a source of existential angst, and the ultimate psychic pain.
It is this pain that the addict desperately tries to numb, obliterate, distract, escape, or transcend through his or her addictive substance or behavior.
Now this human condition of perceived personal existence within existential non-existence is no cosmic fluke or glitch. Rather it has been arranged to benefit us in both our present and future states of being by allowing us to consciouslychoose to reconnect to God’s unity through our thoughts, words, and deeds. (Chosen reconnection is spiritually advantageous over preexistent essential connection for reasons, again, beyond this article’s scope.)
For the thin-skinned addict this is very good news. It means that it’s no longer a choice between living ‘without’ the substance/behavior yet in constant existential pain, or living ‘with’ it along with its attendant side effects and diminishing effectiveness.
There is now a third way. The safer, stronger, and realer alternate of spiritualizing one’s everyday life by realizing that every single moment our outer events and even our inner capabilities and reactions are sent to us purposely and specifically to use as a means to connect to God – which is the ultimate experiential pleasure. In Hebrew, this enlightened state is known as Emuna.
Of course, internalizing this awareness is a process. It’s the meta-goal of the 12 Steps of Recovery (which, in its own terms, strives to impart a ‘spiritual awakening’ and enable a state of ‘conscious contact’ with God). It has also been, for millennia, the end-goal of classic Jewish spiritual practice and perhaps other mystical paths as well.
I realize that this may sound like a radical premise. But it’s certainly not a new or untested one. And for the ‘thin-skinned’ addict (and perhaps even for some non-addicts with thicker skins) it may be just the ointment the doctor ordered.