Befriending the part that wants to get high

People who use drugs (or drink) addictively are caught in a feedback loop. The addiction makes us feel like losers, blameworthy, perhaps worthless. We carry around this negative self-concept almost constantly — and it’s painful! Perhaps ironically, using or drinking seem the only way to relieve that pain. Yet the net result is that we feel even worse by tomorrow.

This is common knowledge in addiction circles. Yes, the thing that we are compelled to do to get relief is the thing that increases the need for that relief. In this post I want to ask what, if any, additional perspective is offered by IFS (Internal Family Systems) — to help us get out of this cycle.

If you haven’t followed my recent posts, please review, starting here, to get a sense of how IFS works.

The first and perhaps biggest step is to start a dialogue with the part of us that does the escaping. They call it the Firefighter, because its job is to put out the fire of anxiety and self-abuse, as quickly and as effectively as possible, with no regard for the mess it leaves behind. We’re used to reviling that part: that pernicious, irresponsible urge to get loaded, high, smashed. That part is almost always the object of criticism (both from ourselves and from others).

But what would it be like to offer “the firefighter” acceptance rather than scorn?

First, IFS goes looking for the source of the criticism. And there it is! It’s that familiar internal critic, whose job it is to root out and blast everything that’s wrong with us. That wasn’t hard to find. But now we’ve uncovered an internal war that seems unresolvable. Like the Arab-Israeli conflict. So let it lie for now. Let the combatants sit across from each other, the critic glaring at the Firefighter, and the Firefighter looking right back, snide and arrogant perhaps, knowing that it can win every battle, simply by smoking, shooting, snorting, swallowing pills, or drinking. Again. Tonight? Now!?

It’s no wonder people with addictions feel that their internal world is fragmented.

I have a psychotherapy client I’ll call “Maya”. Maya’s internal parts include a Firefighter (whom she calls Piya — again, a pseudonym), and “Piya” came into being (or at least into her awareness) during her reckless teenage years. She was a resident at a dance school in India. Her teachers were strict and the school had a patriarchal, top-down structure. Maya felt trapped and oppressed by all that discipline. So she’d break out at night. Wearing her sexiest clothes, with a cigarette dangling from her lips, she’d hang out with other teens on the street corner. There was drinking, and smoking, cannabis, and sex. Piya took over at night, with the express purpose of having fun, feeling free, and saying Fuck You! to the authorities that ruled Maya’s life.

Now Maya goes straight to the supermarket to buy wine, almost every afternoon, when the anxieties of her day threaten to overwhelm her. It’s Piya, once again, who’s in charge. After she comes back from the store, she goes out on her deck, with a sense of excitement and purpose, and starts drinking. She drinks and smokes cigarettes until, by late evening, she feels sick.

In our therapy, guided by IFS principles, I encourage Maya to do two things: first, notice that Piya is made to feel dirty and blameworthy by a critical voice in her own head. She calls the critical part Madam Z (…not her real made-up name. Yes, even internal voices need pseudonyms) who has the character of a strict school teacher or aunt. Madam Z has much to contribute. We don’t want to banish her. But we don’t need her badgering Piya every time she appears. The second thing is to engage with Piya, not from the perspective of Madam Z but from the perspective of Maya’s peaceful, accepting self. Her compassionate core — what IFS calls Self with a capital-S. That Self becomes more present, more tangible, when Maya takes a few minutes to do some deep breathing, to feel what it’s like simply to be inside her own body, alive and perceptive. Ironically or mysteriously, this Self may the same thing as the non-self identified by Buddhism.

When Maya addresses Piya in this way, she can empathize with her. “Of course you want to get us out of this state. Of course you’re set to take off to the store, buy some booze, and start drinking. It’s effective, it works. In fact, that’s the only thing you know how to do!”

To forgive and embrace the part that’s simply waiting for a chance to get stoned…that’s radical. It flies in the face of conventional approaches to addiction, which demand that we get rid of this part, cast it out, or at least ignore it until it finally shuts up. So what’s the result? Doesn’t that just give us permission to get stoned more often, to drink more, to fully surrender to the addictive impulse? To do more push-ups in the parking lot (an infamous 12-step slogan).

No, that’s not (necessarily) what happens. What happens is that the Firefighter gets some relief — a chance to relax. It’s not used to being accepted. It’s certainly not used to being understood. So when it perceives that that’s what’s coming down the pipe, the urge softens, the strength of the impulse or compulsion is diminished. Now that it’s not being attacked, this part can hang around and explore other options. Now there’s a chance to wait and see. Maybe tonight things aren’t so terrible. Maybe it’s not necessary to douse the flames and make a huge mess that (it knows very well) will make tomorrow even worse.

And there’s a bonus that you won’t really get until you try this approach. Using, drinking, putting out fires, real or imagined, day after day, is a lot of work. The part that rushes into this role, ready to do it all over again on a moment’s notice…that part can use a break. Sometimes, even the crazy parts of us just want to sit back, relax, and do some channel surfing, play a game, browse the net, or take a nap. In the next couple of posts I’ll explore further steps we can take to break the feedback cycle of addiction.

18 thoughts on “Befriending the part that wants to get high

  1. Sophia Magomola October 19, 2020 at 6:00 am #

    I think this may be the best post that I have read regarding recovery. The Firefighter is actually there to help us, gives us reason to listen to our Consciousness with more attention.

    • Marc October 24, 2020 at 4:04 pm #

      That’s exactly right. It is a part of us that tries to help, but only knows one way to do it. Like a child (which is really what it is), it has a limited skill set, but it needs company and guidance and care in order to grow more flexible.

  2. Annette October 19, 2020 at 9:49 am #

    Thank you for your wisdom and the training you’ve done in IFS, Marc, which I’m sure will really help your many clients, as well as followers of your blog.

    Yessss! Accepting and beginning to listen to that very young, cut off part of ourselves is so vital to quieting the urge to drink/use/gamble. I reckon she/he got cut off when we were really young. Mine was, anyway.

    Thankfully, I learnt to accept and listen to her.

    My younger brother, Eric, could never be gentle towards his broken self, no matter how I tried to help. But when we accept this part of ourselves and succeed in using Madame Z for good, practical change, then we can accept others’ parts and healing can really start.

    • Marc October 24, 2020 at 4:13 pm #

      Thanks, Annette. My impulsive and secretive self was already present in the mischievous smile I see in a photo of me at age seven or so. I found this picture while unpacking this past few weeks. It’s amazing to see this “self” before he learned the art of self-loathing. He actually looks pretty cute, he’s energetic, creative, and yes, he’s already something of a bad boy…and he knows it. But there’s no way he deserves to be reviled and cast out.

      Sorry to hear about your brother. Maybe try to find a local IFS therapist. There’s a door available for self-compassion which we can’t even guess at….until someone holds it open for us.

  3. Janet October 19, 2020 at 11:44 am #

    Thank you, Marc. Befriending the pain, co-existing with it, and forming an inner circle instead of cycle. The self gets stronger. I do believe this is possible.

    • Joanna NicciTina Free October 20, 2020 at 12:09 am #

      Janet – so simply stated, and so powerful: an inner circle instead of a cycle. It’s such a wonderful image. Befriending all of the parts, welcoming their wisdom and them into the circle.

  4. Samantha October 19, 2020 at 12:24 pm #

    This is amazing. I only wish my addict would read it and get help.

    • Marc October 24, 2020 at 4:21 pm #

      You need to address your addict self and say, Look, I know and you know that you tend to make a mess of things. But you’re trying your best, in your own way, and I appreciate that. Now, I’m going to help you, so you’ll make less of a mess. I’m NOT going to shut you down, just help you slow down a bit. Things may not be as disastrous as they seem.

  5. Adriana October 19, 2020 at 2:58 pm #

    Hey Marc
    Just read the last four posts after a long time not checking in. They’re incredible, thank you! Content, form, poetry (my area!) and very interesting and
    helpful insights into IFS. I’d been curious after seeing a comment by someone on a FB group saying how ‘scary’ she thought it was. Doesn’t sound scary to me at all, just very compassionate.
    Keep these great posts coming please and all the best in your new home 🙂

    • Marc October 24, 2020 at 4:27 pm #

      Thanks so much, Adriana. The house is gradually starting to feel like a home. And it feels good to start blogging again. Indeed, IFS is like a vast new field just waiting to be cultivated. Different soil, different light…allowing for new crops.

      I don’t know why anyone would find IFS scary. The people I work with in therapy know that these (often discrepant) parts were already there. They feel relief because they no longer have to remain hidden, as well as optimism, even joy, in allowing them expression.

  6. Terry McGrath October 19, 2020 at 6:47 pm #

    for most of an addicts journey their best freing is their drug – and then ‘recovery’ orders people to make an enemy of that friend – this completely ignores the major grief reaction that occurs in every (real) addict when faced with this break down of the relationship they have with their drug – ignoring the positive aspects, neg raving its called in many rehabs, ignores a major part of the story for every addict and simply writing it off as inconsequential is a major reason addicts do not trust those who treat them and a major reason why many see only those who have lived experience as being worthwhile support because at least those people understand that relationship and the grief attached. Abstinence in so many ways is about loneliness and disconnection especially for those who do not see worth in fellowships and that in itself is trauma, this is why it is so hard to achieve in so many addicts who see that loneliness ahead and recoil

    • Marc November 11, 2020 at 5:57 pm #

      Hi Terry. I agree with everything you say, as often happens. In fact I find it very hard to imagine how people without strong social networks and significant alternative rewards remain off drugs, once the “friendship” with a substance has set. There has to be another source of happiness, kindness, and peace…or life is just too bleak. IFS at least peels back the distorted logic of “negative raving” one layer, by appreciating the urge itself. As you say, this urge is the most natural thing in the world. It’s simply the need to free oneself from blame, shame, and sadness and replace these with a modicum of happiness and comfort.

      • Terry McGrath November 11, 2020 at 6:30 pm #

        Tahnx Mark – the conundrum – addiction so often removes the social connection one has to positive supports and as you say an addict is then left alone and how can one bear abstinence alone; especially if one cannot take to the ways of 12 step fellowships – managed using programs may be the only way for those with chronic entrenched addiction – in some way its cruelty to forcibly take drugs off those who’s only coping mechanism is the drug

        • Marc November 11, 2020 at 6:59 pm #

          Yes, it is cruel. Of course it is. Drugs “of abuse” are simply antidepressants, functionally, that is…..and few would advise us to snatch those away, especially from people without needed social supports.

          • Terry McGrath November 11, 2020 at 9:19 pm #

            exactly Marc- almost all dependent/addictive drug use is self medication – and drug users are smarter than doctors – they pick drugs that work rather than drugs that are unpleasant to experience (anti psychotics) and have nasty side effects like actual anti depressants which aren’t much good for depression anyway as Mr. Hari will attest – nice talking to ya – hi from Australia

            • Marc November 12, 2020 at 4:15 pm #

              As for addicts vs doctors, it’s true that street drugs are so much more pleasant than antipsychotics or antidepressants. And so they should be After all, opioids are evolution’s answer to panic, stress, and pain…they’ve been in the making for several hundred million years. They damn well should be near perfect.

              Another irony: we give boring opiates like methadone and Suboxone to people who want to get high, and pleasant opiates like oxycodone and Dilaudid to people in pain who DON’T particularly want to get high. It’s almost as though medical logic is overseen by men standing erect, holding pitchforks, wearing black breeches and white collars, their prim and bonnetted wives standing next to them. — i.e., Puritans. Feeling good is to be avoided if at all possible. (yes, I know, addictiveness and so on and so forth….but people get seriously addicted to SSRIs as well)

              Nice talkin to you too.

  7. John October 21, 2020 at 12:01 am #

    I love your take on addiction.

  8. A February 8, 2021 at 11:55 am #

    So helpful. Thank you.

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