Helping Others Who Struggle with Addiction

We live in an age of addiction. Porn, vaping, alcohol, marijuana, Facebook, video games, our phones, hard drugs, not to mention opioids which kill more than 30,000 people every year. Addiction devastates lives, but on a much more widespread level, it saps regular people of confidence and deprives us of any ability to gain control over our lives. More fundamentally, at a spiritual level, we can say all of us are addicted to samsaric life, and it is only this addiction which keeps us bound up in its endless sufferings. Virtually all of us know personally somebody struggling with addiction. The question is, how can we help? To answer this, I will first explain how addiction works and then offer some things we can do to help.

How does Addiction Work?

If we don’t understand addiction, we won’t be able to help those struggling with it. The best way to understand addiction is to identify it within ourselves. Addiction is a mental sickness, like depression, PTSD, burnout, bipolar disorder, etc. Addiction is fundamentally nothing more than a self-destructive habit of mind enforced, often, by physiological discomfort. It arises from a toxic combination of the delusions of strong attachment, pride, and lack of self-worth. Delusions are distorted ways of seeing things that we nonetheless believe to be true. Addiction persists because of an inability to keep the promises we make to ourselves, which then reinforces our sense of being a failure and of hopelessness. Let’s try unpack this.

Strong attachment. From a Buddhist perspective, attachment is a mind which mistakenly believes some external object is a cause of our happiness. We believe the object of our addiction – pick your poison – has the power from its side to make us happy. Attachment exaggerates this power and induces in us a desire to partake. We are “desire realm beings,” which means we actually have no choice but to pursue whatever we desire. If we desire to indulge in our our object of attachment more than to not, we will do so. Addiction is a particularly strong form of attachment that has reached uncontrolled proportions – in other words, even if we want to stop, and often part of us does want to – we feel like we can’t.

Pride. Practically speaking, pride is an exaggerated sense of ourself. Pride makes us feel like we are better than our lot in life, and makes us feel like we deserve better than what we have; but then feels slighted that we don’t have it. This sets us up for wanting a high. Our pride tells us we won’t get addicted, that we are better than others who have gotten addicted and we will be able to keep it under control. Then our pride prevents us from admitting we are addicted, telling ourselves all sorts of rationalizations and that we could quit if we wanted to, we just don’t really want to. Then our pride prevents us from seeking help when we need it. We have told everyone we don’t have a problem, and we don’t want to admit to them that we need help – we think we can break our addiction on our own. Then our pride feels attacked when others are just trying to help us by staging an intervention. At some point, our loved ones step in to try help us, but we then feel they don’t get it (we know better…), or that they are unfairly attacking us and we get defensive, thus grasping even more tightly to the rationalizations we have been telling ourself.

Lack of self-worth. The underbelly of pride is insecurity. Deep down, part of us knows we are not as good as our pride makes us out to be. But our sense of self-worth is bound up in our inflated view of ourself, so when it gets threatened, we feel attacked. Part of us knows we are addicted and that we have a problem. Part of us wants to stop, and perhaps we have tried many times, but we don’t feel we are strong enough. Knowing we have a problem we can’t fix makes us feel like a loser, and this grows into a feeling of hopelessness, which in turn makes us say, “screw it, my life sucks anyways, I might as well have at least some happiness from my addiction,” causing us to give in despite our earlier promise to not. Our indulging then fails to give us the joy we were after, and then we feel like a total loser and we beat ourselves up about how bad we are, thus feeding our lack of self-worth in a vicious spiral. The end of this path is a death of despair, either metaphorically by giving up on our life and ambitions or physically through overdose or suicide.

Inability to keep promises to ourself. The great Buddhist master Shantideva said fundamentally our ability to become a better person depends upon keeping the promises we make to ourself. Moral discipline is not something imposed from the outside, but something chosen from our own side. We decide for ourselves what behavior we want, and then make promises or vows to act in certain ways. Keeping those promises is how we grow internally. But, he cautions, if we make promises to ourself that we then break, we will lose confidence in ourself and our ability to keep our promises, and then they will become internally meaningless to us. Someone once famously said, “it’s easy to quit smoking. I have done so at least a dozen times.” When people start to try quit, they realize just how addicted they are. When they quit, but subsequently “fall off the wagon” and give in to their addiction, they lose confidence in themselves and make breaking their promises to themselves a habit. This makes it even harder to successfully quit next time because we know when we make the promise to ourself, we are likely to break it. Eventually, we don’t even try anymore, knowing our addiction is stronger than us until it eventually takes over our life.

Enforced by discomfort. Virtually all addictions are enforced by some form of discomfort, either mental or physical. In Buddhist terms, we call this “changing suffering.” We say there are three types of suffering – manifest suffering, changing suffering, and pervasive suffering. Manifest suffering is actual pain, such as a broken leg, cancer, or mental grief, etc. Pervasive suffering is suffering that is the nature of the body and mind we have taken rebirth into. For example, an animal experiences animal suffering because it has taken rebirth in the body and mind of an animal. The same is true for humans, hungry ghosts, hell beings, and everyone else in samsara. Changing suffering is what we normally think of as happiness. Drinking a cool glass of water is a temporary reduction in our suffering of being thirsty. The relief of sitting is a temporary reduction of our suffering of standing for too long. Indulging in our object of addiction is a temporary reduction in our suffering of withdrawal. We think indulging brings us happiness, but in truth it is just temporarily reducing some other suffering in our life – be it loneliness, helplessness, dissatisfaction, or even physical withdrawal symptoms because our body has grown dependent. Our inability to patiently accept these sufferings and discomforts makes us chase after some form of relief.

How to Help Those we Love

Ultimately, we can’t help those who don’t want to be helped. We need to accept this, and know it is not our fault. There is a fundamental difference between compassion, wishing others were free from their suffering, and attachment to others not suffering, thinking our own happiness depends upon them making the right choices. Making this distinction is one of the hardest parts of helping others, but it is vital. Why? If we are attached to others making the right choices, then when they don’t, we fall with them, rendering us useless. Further, the other person senses that we have a selfish desire for them to quit, and so they don’t trust our intentions trying to help them. This causes them to reject our advice, even if it is exactly what they need to hear. When we are attached to them making the right choices, we will begin all sorts of manipulation tactics to get them to change, which will just cause them to resist us and grasp even more tightly onto their wrong views because nobody likes being manipulated and we all know when we are being manipulated. Ultimately, they need to make the right choices from their own side or it won’t stick. As long as our pressure is in place, they might make the right choice; but then as soon as our pressure is no longer present, they will let loose. That’s not sustainable. Us thinking it is our responsibility to get them to break their addiction actually serves to disempower them to take responsibility for themselves, thus denying them of agency and causing them to become dependent upon us to get better. Then, when they don’t, they will blame us, feeding our guilt and misplaced sense of responsibility. This will then create a vicious spiral of dysfunction between us and the person we are trying to help adding yet another obstacle to the person getting better. We need to accept we can’t control the choices they make. We need to accept that they will make wrong choices and suffer the consequences of those wrong choices. We need to accept that they might need to hit “rock bottom” before they decide to dig themselves out. We need to accept we are not responsible for the choices they make. We need to accept that we might not ourselves be capable of helping them navigate out of their addiction, and perhaps they need professional help. We also have to accept we can’t make them admit they have a problem or to want to get help. Accepting all of these things is a prerequisite for our ability to help them. It is also a prerequisite for our own sanity and emotional balance in dealing with the situation.

One of the first things we need to do is stop enabling their wrong choices. Sometimes we are so attached to preserving a relationship with the person that we don’t tell them what they need to hear, and so we go along with their addiction, pretending that nothing is wrong. This can especially happen in the context of parents with their children or between spouses. There is no contradiction between speaking hard truths and wanting a good relationship. In fact, a lasting relationship can only be built on a healthy foundation, and a failure to speak truth inevitably dooms the relationship anyways. It is because we love them and want the relationship to work that we can’t enable them any longer. Along the same lines, we need to draw a clear line in the sand that we will not accept them making us involuntarily complicit in their wrong choices. This takes many forms, such as us protecting them from the consequences of their wrong choices or them doing things we don’t approve of with our money or in our house, or them asking us to lie or cover for them, etc. We can tell them, “I can’t control what choices you make, but I can control whether I am complicit.” We are under no obligation to make their addiction easier for them.

At the same time, we need to make it clear we are always there for them if and when they need help. Because we understand addiction is a sickness, not a failure, we don’t judge them for their addiction any more than we judge somebody who gets cancer. We need to communicate clearly we stand ready to help with open arms anytime. But we need to often wait until they ask for help, because if they don’t want our help and we “offer it,” they will just push it away, creating even more obstacles. It is possible that they want our help, but are afraid to ask. At such times, we can try skillfully just be there for them and show we are open to listening. Sometimes, they just need somebody who will listen, and them talking helps them come to some conclusions within themselves. If they see we listen with an open heart and without judgment, they might ask us for help or advice. Then, we can offer it. If they storm off on their own to go make wrong choices, as they go out the door, tell them, “Just know, I’m always here for you if you need me.” It may take many years before they come back, but knowing we are there for them provides a constant reassurance, and when they are in the dark parts of their addiction, they will remember us.

When we do ask for our help, we should begin by addressing whatever it is they perceive to be the problem, not what we think is the deeper problem. Oftentimes, they won’t be seeking our help on the addiction directly, but likely the consequences of some wrong choice they have made. Help them ethically navigate through those consequences while making it clear that they own them, but use these times to also address the deeper issue of why they got themselves into trouble to begin with. Don’t focus on the act of indulging in their addiction, dig deeper into the why they are addicted in the first place and what habits of mind lead them down such roads. If we address the deeper issues without directly saying “stop using XYZ,” then we are helping address the root causes while still leaving it up to them to make the choice to quit or not.

On addressing the addiction itself, help them identify for themselves how addiction works per the above. Fundamentally, all delusions are by nature deceptive. They promise one thing, but deliver the opposite. As explained, we are desire realm beings so overcoming addiction is NOT an issue of “will power,” rather it is an issue of changing our desires. If in our heart, we still want the object of our addiction, we might be able to use will power to stop for a little while, but we will just be repressing our attachment until eventually it grows in strength and overwhelms our will power. That is not a sustainable solution. Instead, we need to change our desires. There are two levels to this: not wanting the object of our addiction and not wanting to be addicted to anything. Both levels are addressed by “seeing through the deception of our delusions.” If we receive an email from a Nigerian Prince who wants to transfer $10 million to our bank account for safe keeping if only we send him our account numbers, it is dangerous only if we believe the lie. If we know it is a scam, we will correctly recognize the email as spam, and it will have no power over us. We simply hit delete and move on with our day. We can’t control whether the email arrives in our inbox, but we can completely cut its power over us by realizing it is deceptive. In exactly the same way, our delusions are the spam of our mind. These deceptive thoughts of attachment, pride, lack of self-worth, etc., arise in our mind, but they only have power over us if we believe their lies. We need to help the other person realize how their delusions are deceiving them. Mostly, you should just ask them questions which make them check their own experience to realize they have been burned by these lies again and again in the past, and they will continue to be burned for as long as they believe them. If they see them as deceptive, the thoughts will lose their power. In particular, all delusions exaggerate, so helping the other person break down the exaggeration in their mind will also reduce the power.

Oftentimes, reframing the choice of use or don’t use is helpful. If we are bored and think it is no big deal, indulging in our object of addiction seems like a good idea. But if we see that doing so strengthens the habits in our mind that sends us down the road of addiction, saps our self-confidence, causes us to eventually lose everything we hold dear, and makes us a puppet of their desires then it is a different choice. This is especially true when they are trying to quit. Let’s say they successfully go 10 days, but then are struggling. The pain of withdrawal seems so much more miserable than the relief they can get by indulging again. At such times help them realize that if they indulge now, all of the pain and misery they have accepted for the last 10 days will have been for nothing, and next time they quit they will have to go through all of this misery again to get to the other side. Help them realize if they make promises to quit, but then give in, then their inner promises will start to be meaningless, and if that happens, change becomes almost impossible – at a minimum, they will have to first reestablish the credibility of their inner promises before they start to get traction, and that will definitely mean they will need to go longer than 10 days next time. Help them see how these same habits of giving up show up in other aspects of their life, but if they learn to overcome it here, they will receive great benefit on many dimensions of their life. If they are spiritual, help them see the longer-term consequences of their choices. Help them understand it is not a question of will power, but of changing desires, and help them generate a larger, stronger desire that says no than the impulse to say yes.

One of the most important things is to stress the importance of keeping the promises we make to ourselves. First, help them realize that they have to decide from their own side to stop, not because of some pressure we apply. It is up to them. But that when they make a promise to themselves, they should keep it, come hell or high water. If we keep our promises, we can rejoice and our self-confidence grows. If we break our promises, we lose self-confidence as described above, until eventually our promises become meaningless and change impossible. Help them realize it is better to make small promises that they know they can keep than large promises that they know they will break. In Alcoholics Anonymous, they say, “one day at a time.” We make a promise to ourself, “I will not drink today.” And then they keep it. And then they repeat that promise tomorrow. And the tomorrow after that, until eventually they are sustainably sober. Making promises is easy, keeping them is the practice. While we have made a promise, thoughts and impulses will arise encouraging us to break our promises. When these arise, we need to “see the deception” to cut their power. We need to remind ourselves of our wisdom desires to quit, knowing real freedom and confidence waits on the other side. We need to rejoice when we succeed in keeping our promise, and then make the promise again.

When those we love do fall off the wagon, help them not become plagued by guilt and beating themselves up. Instead, help them view it like learning to walk. You identify what mistakes you made, learn your lesson, then get back up and try again. If we want to quit, we can if we are willing to persevere and keep trying again and again until we eventually succeed. Sometimes people can succeed on the first try, for others, it may take years. It doesn’t matter how long it takes, we remain determined to one day win the war. One of the main reasons why we fall off the wagon is our inability to patiently accept the discomfort associated with withdrawal. What enables us to patiently accept our suffering is our ability to transform it into the path of personal growth. When we see working through our suffering helps us become a better person, then we have a valid reason to accept it. It is fuel for our spiritual development. Accepting this short term pain will result in long-term freedom, so it’s worth it.

Ultimately, from a Buddhist perspective, the world we inhabit and all the beings within it are nothing more than mere karmic appearances to mind, like a dream. If last night, we dreamt of somebody in a wheelchair, who put them there? Ultimately we did because they are part of our dream. In exactly the same way, if we are surrounded by appearances of people who are addicted, it is because our mind is dreaming them that way. They are a reflection of the addiction within our own mind. Venerable Tharchin once told me, “when you see faults in others, find them within yourself, and then purge them like bad blood. When you do, like magic, they will gradually disappear from those around you because ultimately they are projections of your own mind.” If we look at the world through an orange balloon, we might mistakenly think the world actually is orange. But when we remove the balloon, we then understand where the orange was coming from. In the same way, when we look at the world through the lens of our own addiction, we will see a world filled with addicts and think that they are actually there. When we remove the addiction from our own mind, then eventually people who are addicted will gradually disappear. This may take some time as the karma giving rise to these appearances gradually exhausts itself, but it will come. This may be hard for us to understand if we don’t have a lot of prior experience or understanding of the wisdom realizing emptiness, but fundamentally, as Geshe-la says, an impure mind experiences an impure world, and a pure mind experiences a pure world.

At a minimum, if we want to help others overcome their own addiction, we need to take the time to identify the addictions we ourselves have and overcome those within us. When we do, we will set a good example of somebody overcoming their addictions, and in the process we will gain the wisdom others need to be able to help them overcome their own addictions. Venerable Tharchin also says that when we gain wisdom realization, those who need that wisdom will begin to appear in our life so that we can share it with them. It is not a coincidence that the most effective addiction counselors were themselves once addicts. They know how addiction works, and they are sharing their experience with others who similarly suffer.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, never underestimate the power of prayer. Buddhas accomplish almost all of their virtuous deeds through the power of their prayer. We often lack the ability to resist our delusions on our own, but the blessings of holy beings can fill our mind with the compassion, strength, and wisdom we need. The effectiveness of our prayers for others depends upon the purity of our compassion for them free from attachment, the closeness of our karmic connection to them, the strength of our faith in the Buddhas, and the depth of our realization of emptiness understanding they are not separate from us. Prayer works if done for long enough. Don’t expect immediate results, just keep improving how qualified your prayers are and keep praying. Results may not even come in this lifetime, but as Buddhist, we have a long-term view. Eventually, we will become a Buddha, and eventually we will guide all those we love out of their suffering and to everlasting peace and happiness.

I pray that all those who read this are able to help those they love, and that all beings eventually become free from all addiction.

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