It is well understood by people in recovery that active addicts will need to “hit bottom” before they are ready to commit to meaningful changes in their lives. Hitting bottom for an individual can take many forms: job loss, homelessness, lost friendships, being shunned by family members, injury, divorce. The common denominator is that hitting bottom is extremely painful, and the painfulness is ultimately what breaks the fantasy world of addiction and reveals the hard truth of what is.
This is all fairly straightforward and understandable when we look at it through the lens of individuality. Any person can get caught up in an addiction process if in enough pain. The challenge we face now is to see the same process occurring on a societal level. This is difficult because we are heavily conditioned to think in terms of individual rather than shared responsibility. In the world of addiction, this is exemplified by the active addict’s false assertion that “I’m not hurting anyone but myself.”
But what happens if we take an honest look at ourselves through a communal lens? Do we see that, as a species, human beings are also caught up in an addiction process? Are we not also in a state of denial? Obviously, we cannot speak of every individual human being behaving in lockstep conformity. We can instead speak of a “critical mass” of humanity whose collective behavior makes a significant impact on the world. What is it that enough of us do with regularity that would constitute an addiction process? What is humanity addicted to?
In brief: control and domination. In other words, we play God. We convince ourselves of our superiority in order to justify the way we use and abuse human and nonhuman life. We get a rush when we imagine that we have “conquered nature,” “tamed the wilderness,” or somehow defeated someone or something. In our addiction to control and domination, we act with little concern for the consequences of what we do in the name of “civilization.”
Part of what characterizes an addiction process is the absence of awareness or concern for the consequences of one’s actions. While we have become more aware over the past 50 years or so, it has not been nearly enough to significantly change our destructive behavior patterns. Is it possible that, at this point in our collective history, our addiction to poisoning the biosphere so that we can feel “in control of our world” has finally caught up with us? Has our addiction to believing in “human exceptionalism” and the multitude of quick fixes and instant gratifications we have indulged in for so long finally brought us to the point where we are hitting bottom?
Responsibility is a choice, but accountability is inescapable. We can choose to avoid our responsibilities for some period of time, but they will always catch up with us. We can choose to accept our responsibilities, but if we do not, accountability will be imposed upon us. If this happens and nature ends up holding us accountable, it will be a much more unpleasant process. Being proactively responsible won’t be painless, but it will be a lot better than being forced into accountability.
If we willingly choose to be responsible for our destructive behaviors, we will need to accept humility. Genuinely humbling ourselves means a lot of letting go. We will need to let go of our assumed “human exceptionalism” and right to dominate other people as well as other life forms. We will need to let go of our “master-servant” relationship with the world. We need to let go of our belief that Mother Nature is supposed to clean up after us, no matter how big a mess we leave for her.
Perhaps the hardest thing to let go of is our allegiance to the materialistic paradigm that has dominated our society for so long. This mindset is something that most of us have been conditioned to see as “natural” since childhood. It is a belief in the primacy of things, and that these things must be bought with money. This paradigm claims that having enough things will make us happy and satisfied, safe and secure.
This is a perspective that tells us that “greed is good.” It spins fairy tales about who is deserving of a “good life” and who isn’t. It supports an implicit justification for cruelty as a necessary component of a grand competition that rewards the “strong” and punishes the “weak.” Such a premise requires an enormous level of human arrogance. It means asserting that we know all we need to know about our world, what it consists of, and how it operates, and that we are quite comfortable with dismissing whatever doesn’t fit with what we “know.” If we can overcome our fear of change, we will be able to see something we’ve been blind to, just as every addict is initially blind to what recovery is really all about. We will become open to a new framework of a healthy individual and communal life.
The unofficial mantra of the active addict is as follows: “I want what I want when I want it!” This expression originates from a particular mentality that is both the problem and the point from which real change can emerge. Our growth begins when we finally hear reality answering us with “tough love” when we beg not to have to change. Left with no other option, we relinquish our desire for control, dominance, and imagined greatness and finally dare to place our trust in something beyond ourselves. In the language of recovery, we surrender to a “higher power.”
There can be no recovery from addiction without mindful healing from the traumas that sparked and fueled the addiction process itself. As a nation, we have a number of injuries that desperately still need healing: a history of racism and its fallout, a patriarchy that still regards women as second-class citizens, a culture of hyper-individualism that shames those who are not “successful,” and a destruction of nature in the name of promoting our civilization. Perhaps most critically, we must understand that trauma is a two-way street: when one party injures another, both parties are negatively impacted; the perpetrator is traumatized in the act of inflicting trauma.
It is clear that we need a change in our consciousness. Millions of recovering addicts have shown us that this is indeed possible. (It is ironic that the very people society has long despised are often the same ones who implement a great change in their lives, becoming in the process examples for us all.) One way to begin is to choose to cultivate a consciousness of compassion. This needs to originate as a choice, just as one chooses to exercise and eat a healthy diet in order to get in shape. It requires consistent practice and dedication.
A consciousness of compassion means that we truly appreciate that this world is a gift for every life that shares it. We are not respecting this gift when we continue to dump toxic material near vulnerable neighborhoods, engage in the state-sanctioned mass murder known as war, perpetrate deforestation on a grand scale and destroy whole ecosystems, or burn whatever we feel is necessary in order to “advance” our human society.
A consciousness of compassion means that we stop expecting others to clean up after us. Healthy adults clean up after themselves. We begin to accept responsibility for our actions and to hold ourselves accountable for what we have done. We begin to make amends and reparations wherever it is appropriate to do so. We begin to express our genuine regret and remorse to all those whom we have injured. Finally, we begin to remember that we are always susceptible to relapsing back to our old addictive ways. We are either busy recovering or we are busy relapsing. We become the process that we invest in.
Have we “hit bottom” as a society? Are we ready to say yes to our recovery process? This is the moment to start answering these questions, with words as well as actions.
Paul Nyklicek is a husband and a father. He works in Farmington as a psychotherapist and is a member of the Campaign Nonviolence Central CT Group.