Emotional Sobriety is the End Game for Recovery

Addiction begins in early childhood. We are hardwired to seek happiness that only a perfect union can provide. As the autonomous Self emerges from ages two to four, displacing our primal unitive experience with our mothers, we begin devising strategies for obtaining happiness from the environment. It is a poor substitute for the real thing and, since it depends on others and outside forces, it is doomed to fail repeatedly.


Numb / Overwhelmed

Whence comes many of the afflictive emotions: frustration, disappointment, irritation, sadness, and if those are intolerable, then anger. In the first place, we are dependent on the these programs for happiness. As the addicts say, “You need more and more of what doesn’t work.” In the second place, we are very attached to our emotional experience when our programs are disrupted. Emotion feels like truth; we are entitled to it and we will defend it with great effort. Instead of mindfully reading our emotions as signs of our inner patterns, our emotions are the bottom line; they define us. This relationship is how I understand emotional addiction.

Here’s how two teachers on addiction versus healthy union describe the problem. First, Bill Wilson, writing with reference to bouts of depression in the journal, Grapevine, 1958:

Those adolescent urges that so many of us have for top approval, perfect security, and perfect romance—urges quite appropriate to age seventeen—prove to be an impossible way of life when we are at age forty-seven or fifty-seven.

Suddenly I realized what the matter was. My basic flaw had always been dependence – almost absolute dependence – on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and the like. Failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, I had fought for them. And when defeat came, so did my depression.

Then, Thomas Keating, in a little book, The Human Condition, Paulist Press, 1999:

The combinations of … two forces – the drive for happiness in the form of security and survival, affection and esteem, and power and control, and overidentification with the particular group to which we belong – greatly complicates our emotional programs for happiness. In our younger days, this development is normal. As adults, activity arising from such motivation is childish.

Thus, the manifest addiction to a substance or a behavior (e.g. gambling), is only the top of the stack. Remove that and you are still left with emotional addiction. Alcoholics call this stage “the dry drunk.” The real end game of recovery is emotional sobriety. I also refer to it as equanimity, though the 12-step groups prefer “serenity.”

We are all emotional addicts. Some people are in recovery.