Blurred Lines: The Complicated Relationship Between Addiction and Control
At first, addiction is maintained by pleasure, but the intensity of this pleasure gradually diminishes and the addiction is then maintained by the avoidance of pain.
Addiction is a dirty word. A negative label for our neuroses, our wants and needs, our trials and tribulations, our cravings and our failings. For some it is throwaway, an easy way to normalise what others may deem to be excessive consumption of the finer things. For others it is a gradual and creeping descent, a path they did not necessarily know they were treading.
Control is a double-edged sword. An aspiration and commodity. We are so often told that we may not be able to control the actions of others, but with a positive mindset and dose of realism we can control our own responses and reactions. But what about when we can’t.
Control and addiction are tightly interwoven bedfellows, the former so often absent, a silent but complicit partner, undermined and bolstered by denial and deceit.
To say that exercise is an addiction of mine feels fraudulent and a touch dramatic given the honesty and rawness of the accounts below. However, while my relationship with exercise has never been life-threatening, it has taught me a great deal about control, my lust for it and my lack of it. The numbing quality of an addiction, wherever it sits on the seesaw of control has the potential to take us to very dark places; our play for power nothing more than a fruitless game.
Well-intentioned habits and low-level addictions can quickly spiral out of control, requiring a great deal of inward reflection and sometimes the intervention of external forces to bring us back from the brink. To better understand the blurred lines of control and addiction we spoke with the Journalist, Ella Cory-Wright and Manchester-based Graphic Designer, Rachel Cook about their battles with addiction and illness.
Ella Cory-Wright - Journalist
“The idea of autonomy, of self-determination (however illusory) promises that our lives can match up with our desires and sense of selfhood.”
Can you tell us about your experience with addiction and control?
I am a recovering alcoholic and addict. I was a ‘wild’ teenager, drinking from the age of 13 and graduating to class As by the time I was 15. Addiction is a slow thief. It takes everything you have, but gradually – blindfolding you with denial. For the next ten years I sleepwalked towards self-destruction. By the time I was 25, I realised I could carry on as I was and lose my life, or else change it drastically. Wrestling back autonomy took several attempts, but, at 27 years old, I have now been clean for 13 months.
What was the catalyst for your addiction?
It is hard to know. Sometimes I think it was built into me; a vulnerability, a tripwire. Sometimes I think that I was an addict long before I ever touched my first drug. There are those who say that all of us have some form of childhood trauma. Genetics form a large part. Or maybe it’s just hard luck.
I try not to think about it too much. There is a saying in 12 step fellowships: ‘If your house is on fire you don’t rummage around to see how it started. You just get out.’
At what point did you realise that you had lost control?
I’m not sure I ever had control. From the outset, I had a sense that my relationship with substances was peculiar; outlandish; wrong. Addiction is a creeping illness. The more it progressed, the worse the consequences on my life became. But my denial kept me from addressing the issue – and by the time I could no longer deny that I had a problem, the idea of abstinence was simply too painful. It took a major crisis, a huge amount of effort and time to gain some semblance of freedom.
How did you go about gaining back control?
I manage my addiction, but it is a misconception to say that I control it. I spent many years trying to do so, in vain. I will always be an addict. It is a force stronger than me, and when it is active, the most powerful authority in my life. My addiction is something I had to accept and learn to live alongside, day by day - this took a long time and several attempts. Everyone’s recovery is different – mine relies upon 12-step fellowships, psychotherapy and balance.
What does control mean to you in the context of addiction?
Drugs and alcohol were, initially, an attempt to anaesthetise, or control, overwhelming feelings of worthlessness. And for a time, they worked. At some stage, though, addiction took me captive. My brain chemistry changed and I no longer had a choice whether to drink or use; continuing was the only option. Addiction controlled my every waking moment. Now that I have a year of recovery, I am able to manage my addiction, and can control whether or not I take the first drink or a drug. If I did, though, the situation would be out of my hands – I’d be a captive again, powerless to stop.
Were you ever told that you were out of control and did that resonate with you?
Yes I was – constantly. My first reaction would be panicky denial. But it was true, patently true. I recognized grimly that I was a captive, but it felt as though giving up would disempower me further. I knew I was on my knees, but felt that being forced to go without drugs and alcohol would finish me off. That’s the extent of my insanity – the extent to which I was controlled by the warped rhetoric of addiction.
Why do you think humans seek to control?
Because the world can feel rough and cruel; fate senseless. The idea of autonomy, of self-determination (however illusory) promises that our lives can match up with our desires and sense of selfhood.
Can you describe your experience with addiction in three words?
Death in life.
Rachel Cook - Graphic Designer
“Addictions have this ability to own you, make you feel like you can trust them.”
Can you tell us about the addiction or illness you experienced?
I was diagnosed with anorexia so I suppose you could say the addiction was with food. Ironic really considering there was less food involved than anything else.
Overcoming the obsession with my food intake and body size was a complicated process. I had to question and challenge my thought processes so it took a lot of mind power and a lot of time. But I’d say there’s two key things amongst many that I can pinpoint. One being determination; from the minute it all hit me that I needed to change, there was a fire in me that was ready to fight it, and from that I knew I’d never give up. The second thing was being completely open minded. I had to deep dive into myself as a person, my past, why I had this urge for control. I had to challenge what the anorexia urged me to do, and be more open with people than I’d ever been - the more I did that the less power the illness seemed to have over me.
I think illnesses and addictions based on control have this power to take over and become all-consuming unless they are released through talking about it and consequently developing this mental strength to questions your initial thoughts and urges.
What were the catalysts?
I used to get so frustrated when I got asked about my childhood in therapy because it was brilliant, and it just got me thinking that I had no answers, and no reason to be the way I was. But it was a mixture of things; friendship groups that had a negative effect on me, low self-esteem and the pressure to be something you’re not.
This underlying belief that I wasn’t good enough. I was never the smart one in the family, and when I found my passion for graphic design toward the end of secondary school something clicked in me and I put ridiculous amounts of pressure on myself to get good grades. However, it came at a price because I didn’t look after myself. All of this mixed up with some awful events that occurred around the same time became too much.
My illness was something that only I knew about. It was untouchable and mine and no one could affect it, and I think that felt comforting when everything else felt out of control. Now that I’ve been recovered for several years and reflected on this stage of my life so many times, I can see that I had this mentality of “you don’t deserve to feel this bad,” “that shouldn’t affect you this much” and since then I’ve realised that a big part of it could’ve come from not accepting how I felt, and not allowing myself to feel honestly and openly about the bad things that had happened.
At what point did you realise that you had lost control?
I spent at least a year in complete denial. I started to realise when I became anxious about social situations in case it involved food. I went from doing everything with my friends, and always going out, to hiding away in my room with crippling fear of having to eat something other than the small amount I’d planned.
The pivotal moment of realisation took place during a holiday in Croatia, I was so weak and fragile that it made me see that I wasn’t okay. I went from being in every sports team in school, to not being able to keep up with my 13 year old cousin swimming (I was 20) and almost drowned. After that I admitted to myself something was wrong and spoke to my GP who referred me to an eating disorder unit. I was still oblivious that any of this had done any damage which is why I think the shock factor caused me to realise I was out of control. Suddenly I was being told I had heart problems and hypoglycemia and that I had to be admitted as an emergency patient and I think the fear of all of that shook me into action.
How did you go about regaining control?
After I finally opened up to my parents and my GP it was quickly decided I be pulled out of university and admitted to a specialist eating disorder ward at a hospital back home. Even though I felt the most out of control I have probably ever felt, it was the decision to open up and confront it that put the power and control back in my hands.
Gaining control came from talking to people, I was so lucky to be put in a hospital full of people that listened. I probably drove everyone mad talking about it but the more I spoke about it the more I reflected on it, challenged it, the more this heavy, all-consuming feeling I’d been carrying started to lift.
I felt so ashamed of being pulled out of university and moving home, it felt like a step back. It felt like I was failing, when in fact I could never have imagined back then how much it would change my life. I’ve never been more in control than when I confronted anorexia and refused to let it have power over me anymore, but at the time it felt like I was somehow betraying it. Addictions have this ability to own you, make you feel like you can trust them, like they’re the thing that will get you through, like you have to be loyal to it and keep it a secret.
What does control mean to you in relation to your illness?
I like to think of it as there are two halves of my brain and only one of them can be in control. Either anorexia takes control, or I am in control. When life got too much several years ago, the anorexia side of my brain took over. It shuts off any sense of emotion because you’re so absorbed in it and that is what I think became addicting - because to stop, would mean to feel it all again.
I wasn’t just controlling my food, I was controlling my emotions, numbing them so to speak. It’s a safety net that stops you thinking about everything else going on in your life because it takes up every space in your brain.
Anorexia was a coping mechanism that you can’t just easily switch off. The irony is that I had to let go of control, in order to be back in control. I had to work on everything that felt out of control, even if it was just a piece of fruit in between meals. As silly as that sounds, that was breaking a rule that anorexia had put in place and I had to challenge every single one over and over again to relinquish the control it had over me.
Were you ever told that you were out of control?
I think it hit home when my key worker in hospital told me that it wasn’t me in control, it was anorexia. I’d never seen it that way until she said it. It took over my life and I was still letting it run rings around me. But the realisation that I couldn’t trust my own brain really made me question the decisions I was making around food.It was like the fog was lifting and I was starting to see it for what it really was.
The moment I was told I wasn’t in control made me feel like my mind wasn’t really mine anymore, and all that pressure I put on myself to achieve more, do more, be more, was all for nothing even though it had promised me everything.
Why do you think humans seek to control?
I think in this day and age we have so many more options about what to do with our lives, and that comes with a pressure to be successful. We have to know what we want to do from a young age and constantly strive to figure ourselves out. It’s hard work. Combine this with the growth in connectivity and social media, where we are constantly exposed to more successful people which makes us constantly worry that we aren’t good enough.
I’d say we see success as powerful, and that is a driving force for humans so we cling to any aspect of our lives that we can actually control in the process of trying to achieve so much. An aspect of our seeking to control, in a sense, comes from fear and a desire for power.
Can you describe your illness is three words?
Deceitful, destructive, solitary.