A year ago, a close friend died after using spiked cocaine. A few months later, I sat with a mutual friend of ours and listened as he described how he was using substances far more since our friend’s death.
I remember hearing stories like this as a kid and thinking that the addicts involved must be crazy. After all, if you’ve seen drugs kill someone close to you, why would you continue using, let alone use more?
Now, unfortunately, it makes far too much sense to me. As addicts, we have a tendency to self sabotage when times get tough. So, when a friend overdoses or dies a drug related death, we are more likely to use more than to stop using.
Why do addicts self sabotage this way? There are a couple of major reasons.
We feel guilty…
When you are struggling with addiction, guilt is a common feeling. We do horrible things to people we love. Sometimes, we do these things when we are not even under the influence. But no matter how common guilt is, it is one of the most difficult feelings to bear.
We feel survivor’s guilt when friends die drug-related deaths. We think about our part in their deaths, whether we could have helped them and whether we made their problem worse. We see how their deaths affected their loved ones and recognize the same thing happening with our own loved ones.
Guilt is a particularly difficult feeling to bear because it comes with particular action urges. It tells us we need to fix what we have broken. But most of us are powerless to fix our own problems, let alone those our addiction has caused for others. We are certainly powerless to save our friends’ lives or make up for their deaths.
With nowhere for this guilt to go, we use the coping mechanism we are most familiar with: drugs. Drugs numb out the feeling of guilt or help us come up with rationalizations. Far from giving us impetus to quit using, these events leave us feeling helpless to stop.
There is another way in which using substances assuages some of the guilt. It is a form of self-punishment. We start to believe we don’t deserve to be healthy, and sabotage our own recovery.
… and overwhelmed
Furthermore, when these tragic events occur, we feel incredibly overwhelmed. The extent of our problem is revealed to us with one of its worst possible consequences. The idea of recovery suddenly seems far out of reach. The feeling of being overwhelmed leads us to self sabotage, ridding ourselves of the responsibility to get better.
There is another associated urge for some. The idea of self sabotage can be attractive because it drives a person closer to “rock bottom.” The helplessness of watching a friend die from a similar drug problem leaves us with the sense that our own lives cannot go on this way much longer. We start to believe that we are more likely to get help if we are drowning than if we are treading water.
What can we do?
When you are addicted to drugs, these feelings seem like compelling reasons to self-sabotage. So what can we do to prevent ourselves from going down that route time and time again?
In terms of the guilt, the “solution” comes from learning a very difficult lesson. It is okay to feel guilt. The emotion urges us to do something to fix our mistakes, but we don’t have to give in to that urge. Guilt is a healthy emotion – it is evidence that you are capable of change. You don’t need to do anything to get rid of it. Try feeling it, letting the thoughts of “fixing” things go.
In terms of feeling overwhelmed, it is a gift to recognize that you need help as soon as possible. You don’t need to be on the verge of death to seek professional help. On the contrary, the sooner you admit you have a problem the better.
Rock bottom is a concept that is helpful in recognizing that we need something to change. But it should not be a goal or milestone. Get help now, and you will save yourself a lot of suffering.