Understanding Dependency and Addiction Part I

The following is an extended essay I have been working on for a few months (with the assistance of my sister Orit Reiter) which reflects my current understating of the process and issue of breaking habitual behaviors, including dependency, addictions, and other behavioral patterns. This is not a discourse on the entirety of the addiction field, and the methods we will discuss in later segments, are not meant as a replacement for treatment or recovery programs. Rather, the intention is to provide a simple and straightforward overview of the issues at hand, with some concrete methods that can assist individuals in taking back their lives. These methods work hand in hand with treatment processes, and coincide with the recovery outlook and perspective, specifically that of the 12 steps. The impetus for these essays were multiple conversations I had with people surrounding a variety of compulsive behaviors, some of which were addictions, but many that did not meet that qualification. The issue of habitual behaviors has become of particular interest  with the spread of personalized technology devices and social media, and also in the Orthodox community for men around issues of compulsive erotic behavior (perspectives around this aspect will be addressed directly as an addendum at the end of the series). Other areas of concern include work, eating, spending and shopping.

Part I

Serenity, Courage and Wisdom: The separation between influence and Control

Successfully breaking free from patterns of unwanted behavior begins with a resolution to change, and continues by developing a better understanding of what is going on inside. Understanding how unwanted dependencies happen and how they work. Why though? Why does it matter if we understand? Either it’s a problem or not, and either we act in that way or we don’t. When we are struggling it feels as though we have no time to understand, we need a solution, now!”?

While this hesitation is perfectly reasonable, in order for a real and sustained solution to take hold, we must gain some measure of understanding of the problem and the process of recovering from it, to get there. Not every person that encounters an unwanted dependency needs to become an addictions specialist. Nothing could be further  from the truth. In fact, addictions[1], and other dependent behavior patterns, are made up of a complex web of factors that aren’t always the same in every case, and can be difficult to fully understand. How and why someone becomes and remains addicted is often person specific.  To fully understand addiction, one needs a thorough understanding of Biology, Neuroscience, Sociology, Psychology and Spirituality[2]. The only possible replacement for mastery in all these areas, is finding and experiencing the phenomenon of addiction within oneself and working with others who struggle, over multiple decades, better known as The School of Hard Knocks. Yet, even the school of hard knocks  is not sufficient to claim expertise in addictions, proper understanding requires at least some study of the fields mentioned above.

Yet, success in addressing an unwanted dependency will need at least some understanding of the processes behind unwanted habit patterns. This understanding is critical because the foundation of recovery from unwanted attachments is taking ownership, not necessarily control, of our lives and our challenges.

Taking ownership of a problem plays out in three fundamental ways;

  • The serenity to accept the things we cannot change; accepting what ‘is’ so that we can move forward to what might be,
  • The courage the change the things we can; by taking responsibility to train our brains in a way that will facilitate success, and setting the parameters for a life that meets our ideals.
  • Lastly, the wisdom to know the difference; knowing where to apply serene acceptance, and where to engage courageous change.

This “wisdom to know the difference” entails the development of an awareness of two distinct aspects of life, Influence and Control, identifying the parts of ourselves and our lives we have influence and control over, and the parts over which we have none.

The process of breaking free from dependency, is wrapped up in the issue of control. Whether it’s coming to terms with the control a behavior, process or substance has over our lives, or attempting to take back control of our lives, recovery is often about power. Yet, anyone who has overcome an addiction or dependency, and maintained their sanity, will tell you, “you can’t control everything”. In life there will always be things we can’t control, or manage. Often there are things we can only hope to influence and areas, situations or people we don’t even have influence over, even though they have influence over us. Coming to terms with all of this can be frustrating and overwhelming.

Yet, there is so much we can do to foster recovery from our challenges. There are aspects of our lives that we have control over, and areas which we don’t. Yet even in those areas where we lack control we sometimes have influence. Finally there are areas where we lack both control and  influence, but others do have one or either and if we ask, they might help. The bottom line is that in life, we often find that despite layers of powerlessness, we have much ability to foster positive change.

The key to our success will hinge on our ability to disengage from a ‘Control or No Control’ way of seeing things. This sort of black and white thinking fosters a circular hamster wheel of dependency, relapse and further addiction. The impulse and effort to assert control, and or influence, where it does not exist, only perpetuates dependency and addiction. As we try to take control or exert influence where it simply doesn’t exist, and then inevitably fail, we train our brains that we are hopeless. Taking back our lives is possible when we disengage from this circular web of dysfunction by developing the nuanced perspective that acknowledges we have some control and influence, and we also have some powerlessness. Then, we can focus on taking action in the areas that make sense

With this mindset in place, we can focus on honing our ability to take control in areas where control exists (i.e. don’t act on an impulse for today, or this hour or this minute). We can exert influence in areas where we have influence (i.e. set parameters, seek fellowship, read positive literature, set up guards like filters etc), and finally, in those areas where neither control or influence exists, we can ask for help (from people and from G-d). This last part seems like it would be the most disempowering, an admission of defeat. Yet, we will find that, when we acknowledge, in a healthy and reasonable way, that we don’t have influence or control in a specific area where we actually do not, the feeling that we experience is not deflation and sadness. Instead we feel relief, followed by the empowerment to direct our energies to the areas where we can make a difference.

Part I of this series will discuss a theoretical framework and perspective on addictions and dependency. Clarifying addiction, dependency and the other factors around them, is critical to making progress on addressing habituated patterns of behavior. The second part of the series will present a practical action plan for addressing these issues from a spiritual vantage point informed by an inner Torah perspective.

Yet, the critical beginning of this process is to embrace the fact that you have embarked upon a long and short path toward recovery.  This mean having the patience and diligence to develop acceptance, courage and wisdom. Setting out on a long yet short journey (long because it takes time, short because it means real and sustained success that will last), is both admirable and faithful. It is critical to remember, especially as we encounter the setbacks that are sure to come, that we are not bad people trying to be good, we are good people who are not yet well. Fallible human beings seeking to recover their lives, their purity, and their holiness. A true Ba’al Teshuva/master of return.

[1] a neurologically habituated dependency (i.e. addiction is the most severe form of dependency in that it occurs in the physiological, psychological and existential concurrently)

[2] the existential aspect of human reality

About the Author
Menachem Poznanski, LCSW is director of The Living Room, a clubhouse for Jewish young adults in recovery from Alcoholism and Addiction. Menachem is co-author of Stepping out of the Abyss: A Jewish guide to the 12 steps (Mosaica, 2017) and the editor of both Consciously and The Light Revealed, two social media initiatives focused on the messages of Jewish recovery and spirituality. Menachem resides in Cedarhurst, NY with his wife Naomi and their children, Zoe and Tani.
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