The Tough Conversation About Addiction vs. Dependency
Hi there, lovelies –
I’m going to jump right into a Brené Brown discussion about shame because why not? It’s a Saturday and in the weeks prior I’ve felt horrified watching Twitter Trolls discuss the Derek Chauvin trial by eviscerating George Floyd for his addiction to opioids.
So—I figured it was time to open up about my own experience with addiction. And shame. Yeah, I’m going there.
And this is where the narrative takes a beat because the minute you start talking about addiction, the narrative is predetermined. Shame crops up everywhere. Shame mucks up the corners. It makes us feel ugly. Brené Brown describes shame as “the warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed and never good enough.”
I know that feeling.
Ten years ago, I was given a prescription for Ativan, a chill pill in the family of chill pills that include Valium, Klonapin and Xanax. I had two infants and I wasn’t sleeping. I’m not talking ‘Get yourself a cup of chamomile tea’ insomnia. I’m talking a burn in your arms and legs insomnia. I’m talking hallucinations and terror that I’d do something unthinkable to my infants. Like leave them in a hot summer garden. Like forget them in the car.
My doctor had given me the prescription for Ativan because he said I was on the verge of sleep deprivation psychosis. He told me to take them every night. When I didn’t need them anymore, he said I could stop. Just like that. But it didn’t work that way. I was likely—according to the FDA—physically dependent within a week. In six months, I was looking like a ghost. One year in, I could barely walk a straight line. When I tried to cut my dose, I had a stroke on the floor of my daughter’s bedroom. I was so physically dependent upon the Ativan that shaving even a few granules brought me to my knees with withdrawals. I couldn’t hold my children. I lost 20% of my body weight. I had tremors and seizures. Good times.
And the shame that plagued me back then was the feeling that because I was dependent, I must be an addict. I felt guilty, weak, diminished. I didn’t have a narrative about addiction or physical dependency that didn’t involve shame and condemnation. I’d been raised by a single mother who had been addicted to alcohol and cocaine. Because of this, I’d spent much of my adult life trying to understand the soul pain addiction medicated. I’d drunk wheatgrass juice in my teens, traveled to Nepal to learn meditation from enlightened masters and studied philosophies and spiritual teachings that I hoped would heal my sadness. I didn’t want to fall into addiction. I wanted to face the dark night of my own soul head on. But then the insomnia. And then, the Ativan.
It took roughly two years for me to withdraw from my doctor prescribed medication. Lots to say there. So much, in fact, I’ve written a book about it that will come out in 2022. You’ll hear more about that soon, I promise. What I want you to know is I wrestled deep in the jungle with my demon of shame about this. I’ve asked myself over and over if I was indeed an addict. Had I taken more than prescribed? Had I ever wanted that lightning speed mellow after innumerable days when both the kids had the stomach flu and twenty vomit crusted onesies were piled in the washroom?
And after wrestling in that jungle, with mud all caked in my mouth, I finally answered. No. I’d never felt the hunger I’ve so often heard addicts describe. I’d never felt the Hunger, Use, Repeat Leslie Jamison writes about when describing her experience of addiction in her memoir The Recovering. I’d only wanted sleep; I’d just listened to my doctor.
When I began the crazy task of hunting chat rooms and research articles to find out how to get off the Ativan, I came across innumerable discussions about the difference between dependency and addiction. Dependency is described as your body getting so physically entwined with a drug that going off can cause illness and/or death. It’s that simple. Addiction is characterized by compulsive use and craving to an extent that one’s life becomes about either using or waiting until you can use again. To boil it down, dependency is I NEED; addiction is I WANT. Dependency is I take as prescribed; addiction is I take now, more, always.
And I’ve gotta tell you—it was HEAVY figuring this out. Because for me to look at the possibility of addiction in myself, I had to look at shame. Ugh. Those clouds are dark, let me tell you. They’re mean. I got a peek into the part of me that felt shame because lo! I held some very unkind judgements toward addicts. Yup. I was the one holding the moral compass up righteously and pointing fingers. Despite all my efforts toward compassion, I hadn’t been able to really, honestly, true to my heart find it for addicts until I’d felt like an addict myself. It’s easy to convince yourself you’re being compassionate when you’re really just feeling righteous and offering up a shallow, humanitarian smile.
So, here’s the takeaway—physical dependency and addiction are different. We treat them the same in this culture and it’s damaging. Because shame is damaging. There is NOTHING helpful about shame. Judgement is our culture’s way of othering people whose actions make us uncomfortable. That othering produces shame. So, while addiction and dependency are at their root very different, pain is not. We need to support people who are in pain, however it manifests. Let's just support people who need support - whether they need help with addiction that's consuming them or physical dependency that's has them falling to their knees.
Let's be good to one another.
You, me. We all need it.
Now more than ever.