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Addiction and the American Dream What constitutes the American Dream, and what does addiction have to do with it?

In the 1950s and 1960s, when the baby-boom generation was growing up, a number of factors converged to create the climate in which their quick-fix mentality took hold on a widespread basis.

This was the start of the “American Dream.” It came out of an era of canned food and pre-sliced bread and led to the advent of the television, a burst of consumerism and enhanced freedom through transportation. Now, people can travel further, eat more and dream higher.

This was the start of a promise to a world without limits, and it shaped a “quick-fix” mentality among its youth that they can have and do anything they want, when they want it.

The American Dream: Fueled by Addiction

The parents of those born to the baby boomer generation had it rough. They had just lived through a massive world war, overcome a startling depression and wanted the best for their children. In the United States at this time, many people were first or second generation immigrants who had already worked their way up from working class to the newly stable middle class.

This created a dichotomy of hard working parents and kids who expected everything to be handed to them. The expectations quickly became to reach quick returns, quick fun and a quick fix. Out of this came the American Dream—except it wasn’t just for those who worked for it; it was meant for everyone.

This is the attitude that left many baby-boomers experimenting and ultimately struggling withalcoholism and drug abuse. Wanting so badly to create a good life for their children, parents often bailed their kids out of financial trouble, legal challenges and emotional difficulties. They gave their kids everything—providing them with more money to spend, leisure time and space for indulgence than any other generation had ever seen before.

This degree of material indulgence and overprotectiveness sent the message to this growing generation that life would be easy, and when it wasn’t, they found ways to make it seem like it was. Mood changing substances, alcohol and other addictive behaviors stepped in as a way to make this expected dream into a reality. The ultimate result was often disappointment, frustration and a growing sense of being out of control of one’s own life.

Understanding Addictive Culture

Understanding-Addictive-CultureFrom an addictive family to an addictive society, there are certain things everyone should understand about our interactions with each other and the influence we all have on another person’s behaviors—especially those concerning alcoholism and drug abuse.

Just as the addictive family fails to model effective problem solving skills, so does the addictive society. Healthy problem-solving skills include:

  • The ability to pause and self-observe
  • Inclination and willingness to honestly admit problems and self-fault
  • Desire and patience to solve conflicts without violence

In the absence of these effective tools, we rely on short-term solutions that will often perpetuate the illusion that the world, and our power within the world, is without limits. For every problem that emerges, positive action is rarely taken to address the issue until the problem has become out of control and larger than necessary.

The National Identity of Addiction

Our nation’s sense of omnipotence contributes to the denial we have about our issues, including our addiction problems. That is because our addictive belief system holds that we should be invulnerable and perpetually in control of all that is around us. The problem is that this is unreasonable, and the result is often frustration and shame surrounding perceived failure.

Despite the many parallels, we as a culture are still largely in denial about the conditions in our culture that contribute to making so many people vulnerable to addiction. Just as the addictive family covers the problems of its members to appear healthy to society, so does our culture as a whole attempt to hide those who are struggling and overlook evident shortcomings in an effort to appear in control, ever powerful and without weakness.

To many Americans, taking time to think and consider any given situation is looked at as doing nothing, and is ultimately passed off as an indication of being weak. As part of our national identity, this is problematic. Just as the children of a family will grow to understand certain behaviors as normal and may develop addictive behaviors as a method of coping, so will the children of our American culture. This expands the risk of addiction and creates an even larger issue for alcoholism and abuse in the United States

Seeking Control in Alcoholism and Abuse

Seeking-Control-in-Alcoholism-and-AbuseHow our own perception of control influences our risk of addiction, drug abuse and alcoholism in New York and Princeton.

As more people feel a substantial lack of control over their lives in any given context or situation, the rates of addiction in that society will rise. The level of control we perceive over our own lives has a large influence on our personal struggle with addiction. In a society in which more and more people feel that they are losing control over their own lives, more people seek out mood-changers to seek control over their emotional states.

The irony, of course, is that in turning to substance abuse to control your emotions, you are actually sacrificing even more control over your personal well-being. This is why the first step in the popular 12-step programs is an admission to lack of control overalcoholism and drug abuse.

Searching for Control

There is a wide range of issues in which a lack of control is a serious concern for many people. There is war and peace, life and death, poverty and wealth. These are things that we often cannot control, but they have a profound influence on our lives nevertheless.

Rising crime rates, global unease and continuation of war, and an unsteady economy that impacts the availability of jobs for a financially secure future add to this burden.

At work, people feel out of control in respect to their workloads, stress levels, financial rewards, hours and position security. Past polling suggests that a majority of American workers don’t feel they have enough input into the decision-making process of their own jobs, and as this directly influences their personal security, which is often an especially tough concern to process.

Experiencing demands that we cannot directly change, along with the underlying feeling that we should be able to change them, drives many of us to escape through mood-changing and addictive substances. Through addictive drugs and activities, we play out our struggle for control over ourselves, addiction and our environment.

Unfortunately, the result is typically a further loss of control that can lead to extreme negative consequences affecting your health, financial stability and personal well-being.

Searching for Community during Addiction Treatment

Searching-for-Community-during-Addiction-TreatmentIn a highly individualistic society, we increasingly lack the support and security of extended family and community. Many addictions, especially those involvingalcoholism and drug abuse, provide nonthreatening contact with others and numb our feelings of insecurity.

During addiction treatment, many people seek out a sense of community and belonging to fill a void they were trying to fill previously with addictive behaviors. This is why it is no coincidence that the self-help movement has been so successful in fostering the recovery of countless addicts. A crucial component of many addiction treatment programs is the sense of fellowship and community that they offer. The camaraderie is something for which many people in modern-day American society seem to yearn.

Using Established Resources to Find a Sense of Community

We often cling to certain resources as a means of connecting with others. These resources include:

  • Families
  • Social institutions
  • Workplaces
  • Neighborhoods

The trouble is that these resources often fail in delivering us the emotional and social support necessary to muster courage and strength to face the stressors in our own lives. Having sufficient emotional, physical and social support in our lives brings out the best in any of us. This is why forming strong relationships and becoming part of a recovery-oriented community can help so much during the addiction treatment process. To become part of a community is to let go of the internal expectation that you must always do everything on your own.

Too often it develops that we are all working against each other. We feel we cannot count on anyone else but ourselves, and this creates profound feelings of alienation and insecurity. This is part of an “every man or women for him(her)self” mentality, and is often looked at as a form of “rugged individualism,” or to use Darwin’s terms, survival of the fittest. This increasing individualism frustrates our desire for community and leaves us more vulnerable to addiction. Growing insecurities, feelings of loneliness and helplessness and our own yearning for community each contribute to our vulnerability to alcoholism and abuse.

Finding Normal in an Addictive and Dishonest Society

Finding-Normal-in-an-Addictive-and-Dishonest-SocietyAddiction thrives on dishonesty, and unfortunately our society has only grown more and more dishonest as time has moved on. From cheating on one’s taxes to the way politicians buy one another off to make a deal, dishonesty abounds in every direction we turn.

This sort of chronic dishonesty can fuel an addiction—especially when the addict is attempting to hide is or her alcoholism and abuse from themselves or from a loved one. Because the addict lies to herself about the consequences of her drug use, she is unable to evaluate it and stop it. If and when she eventually enters treatment or a self-help group, she will be told that only by becoming honest with herself and others can she recover, and only by continuing to practice honesty in all her affairs can she remain so.

However, this is difficult for many people to do—whether they have a history of struggling with addiction or not. That is because dishonesty is a cultural trait, and one that encourages addiction in many corners.

Learned Dishonesty and Addiction

Most of us are given stern messages about honesty as children. We are taught not to lie, steal or take. Unfortunately, as we grow, we realize that all who have come before us have also lied, stolen and taken from others.

This can be a painful learning process for a trusting child, and the distrust of society is something that will follow many people into adulthood. What is often more painful, and at times confusing, is the expectation to engage in dishonest behavior. At work, with loved ones, in general interactions with others, we are all expected to abide by politeness and hide any underlying issues. Sharing personal issues with strangers and freely expressing true thoughts and emotions is considered weak and inappropriate.

With dishonesty as a normal aspect of human behavior, it is no surprise that addiction is an increasingly common concern. Within the culture at large, dishonesty is promoted and modeled. This leaves individuals who are unsure how to handle their own feelings of deceit and unresolved emotions to turn to unhealthy behavior that they in turn hide. To really break down the barriers of addiction, we as a society need to start becoming more honest, with ourselves and with each other.

Connection between Helplessness and Addiction

Connection-between-Helplessness-and-AddictionHelplessness is an underlying and severe feeling of powerlessness. It is marked by an overwhelming belief that one has no control over their own actions and that they are unable to help themselves through any given situation due to the environment they are living within.

Feelings like this can be frustrating and anxiety producing, and may motivate some people to turn toalcoholism and drug abuse as a method of escape from their reality.

When Helplessness Leads to Addiction

There is a strong connection between having a sense of helplessness and addiction—especially when mood-changing substances are introduced to the equation. For some, living in a certain environment will drastically increase the risk for addiction due to the presence of mood-changing drugs and the learned helplessness necessary to survive.

Those who have been in war, are in abusive relationships or are living in poverty often accept certain aspects of their life that they may be unsatisfied with as a necessary evil, and this is where helplessness originates. Among groups like these, personal security and well-being are undermined by environmental factors they can’t control and are powerless to change.

The experience of feelings of powerlessness, especially in the face of unmitigated stress, will cause otherwise healthy people to become vulnerable to addiction.

Today, society promotes the belief that every person should be all-powerful and in total control of their life, but this is rarely the case. Financial constraints, family obligations and even cultural expectations may prevent you from following your dreams. The reality of our lives makes it clear that most of us have a very small level of control over even some of our most personal affairs.

Lacking the sense of empowerment that comes from having the skills to manage one’s affairs, we crave the illusion of power and try to get it from sources outside ourselves or through power over others. Neither of these ultimately works, since what we really want is to feel that we can make a difference in our own lives and the lives of others. It is this sense of genuine effectiveness and personal empowerment that must be acquired for a lasting recovery.

The Image of Addiction

The-Image-of-AddictionThe desire to project a certain image is one of the highest contributing factors to alcoholism and abuse. Often with the addictive personality, we find an underlying belief that “I am not enough.” This often manifests through self-image concerns, including deep dissatisfaction with the way one looks, sounds and feels.

In a society based largely on projecting an image that is acceptable to others, addictions help us feel more acceptable and allow us to mask underlying fears that we are not good enough in some way. Addiction is another step on the quest to perfection—the perfect body, the perfect attitude, the perfect feelings. Substance abuse often begins in an attempt to reach those feelings of perfection.

It is a method of preoccupation that provides relief from feelings of helplessness, providing the addict with a sense of ultimate control over his or her actions. The irony, of course, is that by giving into the addictive behavior, the addict will ultimately sacrifice all control.

That so many people are haunted by feelings of inadequacy is perhaps the greatest tragedy of our time, and it may be a key as to why our addiction epidemic is so massive. Many individuals have lost touch with the fact that they are valuable and worthy just as they are. Lacking an intrinsic sense of self-worth, more people have become obsessed with the desire to put forth an image that meets the external standards of perfection.

This constant drive for the ideal image can drive someone to addictive behavior—both as a method of achieving that perfection and as a resource for escape.

Denial perpetuates the underlying belief in the supremacy of the ideal or perfect image. Rejection of our true self and reliance on a projected image is often so complete that we do not even know that this mask is not our own. It becomes impossible to separate illusion from reality.

We start to believe that we really can be a super-person and that reaching perfection is possible— if only we work harder to become better, stronger or more handsome. Suddenly, the image of perfection no longer seems unattainable. Instead, it is the individuals’ own shortcomings that leave them behind, again perpetuating the idea that they are “not good enough.”

During addiction recovery, these underlying desires for perfection must be addressed. Often stemming from a desire for validation, the addictive personality thrives on the belief that you are not good enough on your own. Learning how to stand on your own and to be happy with yourself for who you are is a fundamental step to take toward recovery.

Living in an Addictive Society

Living-in-an-Addictive-SocietyWhether you live in New York or Princeton, these places are more than just your home. They are indicators of the society and culture that surrounds you. Living in New York or Princeton influences your level of exposure to alcoholism and abuse, and may encourage you to develop certain traits of an addictive personality.

It is widely known that children growing up with chemically-dependent parents are at high risk for developing an addiction themselves. However, what many people don’t realize is that this trend translates outside of the family structure. Growing up in an addictive society will also influence an individual’s likelihood of developing an addiction.

This puts everyone at risk—and makes us all equally responsible—for reducing the level of addictive behavior in our lives.

Many experts now believe that it is all but impossible to grow up in our present culture and not acquire at least some vulnerability to addiction. This is because addictive personality traits are increasingly reflected in society’s values and trends. This is a self-perpetuating process. Certain trends create conditions in which addiction thrives, and growing numbers of addictive people reinforce these trends.

These trends include:

  • Emphasis on image
  • Cravings for power or control
  • Denial
  • Dishonesty
  • Desire for escape or emotional numbness

In a sense, our society is becoming one large dysfunctional family. Just as children of dysfunctional families become prone to addiction as they try to adapt to their troubled family, so too are we becoming more addiction-prone as we try to adapt to the larger dysfunctional system in which we live.

This emerging addiction epidemic makes sense in a certain light. In a society where image is everything, people are expected to maintain a certain appearance—and mood-changing drugs can help someone maintain that appearance.

Although we are all strongly influenced by societal forces, we also have personal choice. Addiction-generating values and trends can only make us vulnerable to addiction if we buy into them. That is where our individual responsibility comes in—and where our hope lies. The more aware we become of how cultural forces shape our addictions, the more likely we are to work on creating a healthier culture.

Family Trauma, Abuse and Addiction

Family-Trauma-Abuse-and-AddictionChildren born into families who have a history or current problem with addiction are often subject to some form of trauma or abuse. Trauma refers to any negative experience or shock that has a lasting and profound impression on psychological development and wellbeing.

Trauma may be overt or hidden, and the effects of family trauma may be displayed in early childhood behavior, or may not manifest until years later whenalcoholism and drug abuse begin.

Trauma in the Addictive Home

One of the most common forms of childhood traumas that addicts share is being born into a family where at least one parent is an addict. By certain estimates, sixty-five percent of teenagers who are dependent on drugs or alcohol are born to at least one substance-abusing parent.

Other common forms of trauma include:

  • Serious illness
  • Death
  • Abuse

Of traumas that will affect the home, physical violence is one of the more blatant and is highly associated with addiction later in life. Physical abuse may be overt, such as physical punishment in public when a child misbehaves; or it may be done behind closed doors. This kind of abuse often leads children to live in fear and may counteract proper development, causing the emotional instability so often associated with addictive behavior.

Physical abuse is traumatic for a child even when they are not the recipient of the abuse. Seeing a parent or sibling physically assaulted may also lead to psychological trauma.

Children who are sexually abused struggle with addiction later in life at an extraordinarily high rate. Approximately one-half of all sex addicts were sexually abused as children, and many who struggle with drug abuse and alcoholism report similar struggles as children.

Post-Traumatic Stress

Children who are exposed to severe forms of abuse often show signs of post-traumatic stress and have issues similar to those many combat veterans develop after returning home. Symptoms include depression, nightmares, emotional numbness, isolation and aggressiveness.

Experiencing trauma during childhood sets a child up for addiction later in life. Substance abuse becomes a mechanism for escape, offering a way for the person to cope with the shame, helplessness and anger that trauma often leaves behind

The Development of the Addictive Personality

The-Development-of-the-Addictive-PersonalityThe addictive personality doesn’t just spontaneously develop. Certain experiences that a person may experience as a child will set them up for addiction later in life. By introducing and reinforcing addictive beliefs, the environment a child grows up in will influence their way of interacting with the world around them.

Without the interruption of addiction-generating family patterns, we as a society are destined to pass addiction problems on to the next generation. As parents who struggle with addiction pass their behaviors on to their children, the addictive cycle becomes challenging to break.

As long as we keep giving our children the message that they are not enough, it does not matter how much they are taught about the dangers of alcoholism and abuse. We can continue to teach the “just say no” model, but without placing the right support systems in place, cultivating the right attitude in the home and leading by example, children will continue turning to drugs and alcohol to ease the emotional turmoil they are struggling with.

There are a collection of behaviors you can engage in at home to reduce your child’s likelihood of developing an addiction-prone personality. These include:

  • Encouraging playfulness: Children learn through playing. Provide your child with the space and comfort to play and be open minded about their playing tactics. Children are naturally curious, and this should also be encouraged.
  • Providing safety: No child should be exposed to any sort of trauma or abuse. Even through the media, constant exposure to violence can be traumatic for a child.
  • Demonstrating healthy communication: Teach your children to solve their problems and communicate with others in a healthy fashion. Families who avoid communicating with each other and do not support healthy problem-solving tactics increase their child’s risk of developing problems with addiction later in life.

We can only truly protect our children from addiction when we embrace and support them as separate individuals and stop attempting to mold them into objects to enhance our own sagging self-esteem.

The family is the chief vehicle through which the values of our larger culture are transmitted. Just as the individual addict has been influenced by his or her experiences with family, so are families influenced by society. Parents must work to foster a healthy environment for the children in their homes just as we all must work together to create a healthier society for those in our neighborhoods, schools and workplace. | 425 Madison Avenue (49th St), Suite 1502, New York, NY 10017 | Phone: (212) 969-1899