Is addiction an emotional crutch?

Drinking and smoking is an emotional crutch but an expensive one. There are other options.

I have a close friend who uses cigarettes and alcohol to wind down at night. She doesn’t partake during the day, eats well, exercises and has a great job. Her sister told me she uses her habits as an emotional crutch instead of dealing with issues in her life. What’s your take on her behaviour?

You thought your friend was really together. During the day, she is a model of industry and moderation. You’re shocked to learn that she has emotional problems and that she hides them so well.

You, like her, will also have emotional challenges. In fact, we all have our problems. It is simply a consequence of being alive on the planet. It’s no secret, stress is a given.

Stress and addiction

Stress comes from wanting to make the ‘right’ decision. Every single thing we do requires a decision. And every decision presents a range of choices. Of course, we run on automatic a lot of the time, making the same decisions we’ve always made. But that is no guarantee of success. The programming we absorbed from our parents and teachers, the source of many automatic decisions, might not always serve us.

It is natural to be concerned about our decisions. We interact with the world through our decisions. Decisions create consequences. Some of these consequences are unintended and disturbing. We want to control our life. When we fail, and we will some of the time, we become self-critical. Then we worry. We lose confidence. Deep down, we know we will create unexpected consequences again so a sense of dread lurks just beneath the surface.

Your friend is caught up in this impossible quest of trying to control her world and failing. The more she strives to make things right, the greater her stress.

So every morning she puts on a cheerful face – her mask. Wearing this mask takes effort. It tires her out mentally, emotionally and physically. When we suppress our emotions and put on a smile, we tighten up our muscles. At the end of the day, your friend wants to relax. But if she allows herself to relax too much, the underlying tension will surface. She fears that. She uses cigarettes and alcohol to medicate her feelings of dread and relax her body.

This is no criticism of your friend. She is only trying to make her way in a difficult world. If she continues on this path, she runs the risk of serious health problems or an emotional crisis in the longer term.

Any such calamity will create an opportunity for your friend, the opportunity for more self-awareness and more choices. She might chose to face her fears and work towards gaining freedom from her emotional crutches.

To be truly free she would need to see that each of her past decisions, including her use of addictive substances, was the best choice she could make at the time. After all, is only with hindsight that we think we’d be better served with a different decision.

Forgiving ourselves for past ‘mistakes’ allows us to move forward, fully aware of our continuing imperfection. Once we accept ourselves as we truly are, we have no need to try to control everything.