The Perfect Metaphor for Addiction

One thing I keep reading about in my sobriety quest here is to watch out for the ways in which addiction can manifest itself in new ways. Master the alcohol thing, and whoops: something else pops in to the picture. My thing these days seems to be sugar: sugar, sugar, sugar. Bring on the sugar!!! That one is pretty common, apparently. Other “food issues,” may occur, or you find yourself drinking way more coffee, or smoking, or maybe you even swap out another drug – say weed – for your alcohol.

The prospect of cross-addiction is discouraging for those of us in early sobriety, but, as I discussed in an earlier blog, the same mindfulness and tools you use to stay sober can be applied to anything else in your life that seems to be claiming your attention in an obsessive way.

Obsessive craving can have any object. When drinking isn’t the object of my craving, it might be something else: Chocolate. Going for a run. Slow-cooked short-ribs. Another book I don’t have time to read. Another shirt I don’t need. So, the trick has got to be looking past the object of one’s craving and mull what the eff is going on when that craving is taking over your head and your body.

What is it with we human beings that we’re so damn needy? I’m convinced that the things most of us are after aren’t “things” at all, but feelings of belonging, recognition, and purpose. When we don’t get this, we go chasing after stupid stuff that feels like what we need, but isn’t. We want relief from the suffering that comes with feeling deprived, even when we don’t get what it is we’re really feeling deprived of.

Hungry Ghosts

hungry ghostsIn Buddhist cosmology (worldview), the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts is one of six human realms on the wheel of life. Each of these realms represents a human tendency in each of us that must be understood if we are to be liberated from suffering. Hungry ghosts are gory. This picture is typical. They look miserable, and they usually have these big swollen bellies because they are sooooo hungry. But the deal is they can’t eat. They try and try and try but the food bursts into flames when it goes down, or they have teeny tiny mouths or throats that won’t let the food down.

In traditional Buddhist/Hindu versions, hungry ghosts are getting their karmic comeuppance for being assholes in a previous life, but I’ve never bought the reincarnation aspect of Buddhism in any literal kind of way. Nor does Dr. Gabor Maté, who wrote In The Realm of the Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. He’s all about compassion rather than judgement, and I like that.

Maté draws on the hungry ghost metaphor to describe the suffering of the many patients he has worked with in Vancouver’s east downtown: probably the most notorious catchment of poverty and addiction in Canada. The main message in Maté’s book is that addiction isn’t punishment for past misdeeds, nor the outcome of individual moral failings. Addictions are the outcome of unmet needs like that belonging, safety and purpose I mentioned above. The hungry ghosts are “ghosts” because they are trapped in past, trying to “feed” the gnawing emptiness of unresolved pain in their lives.

Maté’s patients are hard cases, and their unmet needs are obvious. Many are Indigenous Canadians who grew up under the worst of circumstances.[1] But this doesn’t stop Maté, an educated and comfortably well off white guy, from seeing himself reflected in the eyes of street alcoholics and heroin junkies. Cause he’s a junkie too. But his “fix” is classical music CDs. Yup. You just never know what your thing is going to be, right?

In one particular story that really stuck with me, he describes keeping his nine-year old son waiting for half an hour because he just has to go buy this one CD at his favourite classical music store. It really struck me because I thought about all the times when my kids were little that I’d pushed them beyond their limits of patience, hunger, or fatigue for just a little bit more shopping. All the times that some mindless hunger, that craving for something led me to make stupid, selfish choices.

We’ve all got a little or a lot of hungry ghost in us, don’t we? I’ve never been able to relate to the idea that I might be “drinking to numb,” which I know resonates with many. But when I think about alcohol addiction as the product of the wanderings of this sad, hungry human being with needs that feel insatiable: well, I see myself there. I still don’t know what to do about that, entirely. But I see the hungry ghost inside of me with some clarity now, and that recognition does help me to head that poor little sucker off at the pass. At least until I figure out what kind of nourishment she really needs.

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[1] I want to note here that here in Canada we treat our Indigenous people like shit. Always have. So, the high rates of addiction and poverty in Indigenous communities are the outcomes of intergenerational trauma. Maté’s work illustrates this sharply.

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