Substance addiction: Filling the empty self

I want to talk about the feeling of emptiness so many of us experience (sometimes as depression) and our sense that substances (i.e., drugs, alcohol) can fill that void. Why is this conceptual sinkhole so universal…and so relentless? Can it be overcome? If not, it seems we’re doomed to live our lives between two crappy alternatives: emptiness and addiction.

I know I said my next two posts would try to apply some of Peterson’s suggestions to strategies for moving beyond addiction. But that can wait another week. I need a break from writing and thinking about Peterson. The comments on my last two posts were mostly polarized — people either loved or hated Jordan Peterson. I wasn’t completely surprised. Peterson is nothing if not controversial. But political arguments gets tiring. So I’ll take a week off to write about something different.

Ever hear of Metaphors We Live By? That’s the title of a book by Lakoff & Johnson (2003) — and a powerful idea they’ve been pursuing since at least the early 80s. The idea is that metaphors are not just comparisons we make to clarify concepts; metaphors are actually the basic organizing structure of our cognition. In other words, we think in metaphors. We use metaphors to make sense, not just of unusual or novel ideas but of everything.

Peanuts argumentThink of everyday concepts like, say, arguments. We tend to think of an argument as a war, with a winner and a loser, and a certain amount of damage. The war metaphor gives the concept “argument” its meaning. It’s not a matter of listening or sharing; it’s something you either win or lose. How do we conceptualize “communication”? Often as a conduit, a tube connecting speaker and listener. If you see communication as a conduit, then your main concern is sending a message down the tube and having it tin cansreceived at the other end. A failure in communication is seen as an obstruction or break in the tube. But if our metaphor for communication were different, say a pool of water encompassing speaker and listener, then we’d view communication failures in a completely different way. Maybe as a drought.

Because metaphors have (a limited number of) attributes or features, they get us to see things in certain ways and prevent us from seeing things in other ways. And of course all this is unconscious — under the hood.

I often think of addiction as a thought problem (as do many others). But what if, instead of seeing addiction as a cognitive bias, we see it as the result of an unconscious metaphor with a powerful attribute that holds us prisoner (another metaphor: addict as prisoner).

When we think of ourselves as “empty” or “lacking”, we are using a universal metaphor lifted from everyday life: the metaphor of the container. My self is a container. Containers have one prominent attribute: degree of fullness. blue containerContainers are either very full or partly full or partly empty or very empty. See the point? The only other attribute that comes to mind is “leakiness”. If you suffer from anxiety rather than depression, this may strike a chord.

contemplating pillsSo you wake up in the morning and you feel empty. You say to yourself: shit, I feel so empty. I’d really like to feel more full. So I will take a drug or a drink to fill myself up. Maybe not right now but soon. I really dislike this sense of emptiness so I will put something happy bucketinto my self to fill it up. If you’ve ever been in addiction you know exactly what I mean. Yet the reason we feel “empty” in the first place — rather than, say, uninvolved, or emotional, or out of sorts — is because of the container metaphor. Empty containers need to be filled up.

Now let’s say this is a problem for you, or maybe someone you know. How could you help relieve the feeling of emptiness so completely that the attraction of substances would pretty much vanish? I’m trying this on myself, as an experiment, because sometimes I do feel empty. (I don’t take illegal drugs anymore, but I find it hard to resist a drink at the end of the day, to fill me up.) Well, what you could do is feel your own insides and/or touching selftouch or pat yourself (on the outside). You’ll find that you are in fact very full. Of stuff. Tissue and muscles and blood and bone, or, maybe more to the point, you are full of chemicals; neurotransmitters (including opioids!) coursing around inside your body constantly. If you are a container, you’re certainly not an empty one.

The first thing I did this morning was pat my chest and stomach: Yep, full. And the feeling of emptiness I sometimes wake up with just disappeared.

You are also full of feelings. And perhaps other qualities that I haven’t mentioned. Sensing what it’s like to be inside yourself is a pretty standard practice in mindfulness meditation. And it’s known to bring peace and contentment.

What about changing the metaphor? Would that work? The self isn’t really a container. The self is an exquisitely tuned network of nerves, neurons and antennatheir synapses. Or the mental activity that moves through them. The self is open, yet containers are (or can be) closed. So maybe we can experience the self as something like an antenna or radar dish or…I don’t know…something very uncontainerlike.

Another thought: Let’s say you can’t shake the container metaphor but you recognize that your container is open. Maybe it’s open at the top, where stuff flows in, but also at the bottom, where stuff flows out. (or in as well, if you take to the metaphor of roots) Then you are rejigging the container open tunnelmetaphor: the container becomes something more like a wide, rich, pipeline connecting “you” to everything else — an open passage.

I’ve often wondered why substance addictions are so tenacious, so difficult to wrench yourself out of. And why one substance tends to replace another. I’ve long believed that addiction is a problem in how we experience ourselves and the world. For now I’m just playing with ideas that might bring this abstract principle a little closer to our lives…and actually evolve into therapeutic (or mindfulness) practices.







45 thoughts on “Substance addiction: Filling the empty self

  1. Jeremy B May 14, 2018 at 4:40 am #

    Excellent concept, and one I plan to put into action. What I like about this is how well it jives with the ABCs of REBT, only with this exercise, I can change the narrative entirely rather than accept the premise. Sort of puts the “dispute” process in an even better position.

  2. Lew May 14, 2018 at 6:18 am #

    You mentioned this in your blog, “I’ve often wondered why substance addictions are so tenacious, so difficult to wrench yourself out of. And why one substance tends to replace another.” I can relate to replacing one addiction with another…hopefully a more socially acceptable one. I have spent half my life replacing one addiction with another one. Now with a distance of 45 years of sobriety from my original heroin addiction, I have discovered that fixing what is broken on the inside is the only thing that stops me from replacing my last addiction with a new one. Where I am in my life is a place of contentment. I am OK with who I am today and I have learned to live with my feelings, whether those feelings make me feel empty or full, satisfied or lacking. I know feelings will pass or change, so I will wait for the change to come. Until then…I am still OK.

  3. Peter Sheath May 14, 2018 at 6:22 am #

    Hi Marc
    Hope you enjoyed your time in the UK. Great blog and, as always, it raises points that I ponder quite a lot. I think the “void” metaphor has been around for a very long time. In Buddhism they talk about hungry ghosts, which is all about insatiable appetites and marginalised existence. I try to get people to think about the void from another perspective and not as a void at all. I ask them to consider the void as, rather than being an empty space, being absolutely rammed jam full of their potential. All future possibility is therein alongside all the potential abilities to achieve it. The journey is to connect to it, release the energy contained therein and roll with it.

    • Marc May 15, 2018 at 5:24 am #

      What a lovely image.

    • Katie May 18, 2018 at 10:25 am #

      Yes–infinite possibility is a powerful concept. I’ve tried to “fill” the emptiness with this reminder of limitless potential but it doesn’t seem solid enough to shift my tolerance for enduring the reality of the moment–as my conscious, natural, human brain experiences it–which feels ordinary, underwhelming.

      I think the emptiness is related to expectations. Deeply ingrained, perhaps even unconscious ones–some that we might not necessarily sign-off on, were we more aware of them.

      Our expectations of how being in the world should feel.

      • Marc May 30, 2018 at 5:45 am #

        I agree with you, Katie. We expect our day to play like entertainment, full of excitement and delight. Ever see pictures of people just sitting there in front of their huts in third world countries, watching time go by? Wouldn’t it be nice not to expect much and to be pleasantly surprised on occasion?

        But for me it’s underwhelming in one way, i.e., flat, and in another way overwhelming….the unbearable lightness of being or something like that. Sometimes pure experience feels so rich and I’m completely at a loss as to what to do with it.

        Getting high….it seems to provide contour, or structure, even if it’s otherwise a lousy bargain.

        • Katie May 30, 2018 at 9:33 pm #

          It’s so awesome that you actually engage with your…fans? Users (UX)? I’d read your content even if you did not, but the fact that you do instills even more confidence in me that you are a highly regarded professional who IS on the front lines, absorbing that info, trying to help.

  4. peter mcdade May 14, 2018 at 6:41 am #

    Hello Mark,

    ‘So you wake up in the morning and you feel empty. You say to yourself: shit, I feel so empty. I’d really like to feel more full. So I will take a drug or a drink to fill myself up.’

    Caffeine – Nicotine – Sugar 😉

    I’m looking forward to your posts regarding Peterson’s ideas on dealing with ‘addiction’. Thanks.

  5. matt May 14, 2018 at 7:26 am #

    Hey Marc–

    I think metaphor fits well with your idea of imagining one’s life as a continuous narrative. Narratives (more expansive metaphors?) are how we make sense of the world. Different words– different labels that often have varying narratives attached to them, depending on one’s experience.

    Different cultures and languages have different metaphors. Different lives have different narratives. Changing the language changes the metaphor, changes personal meaning. I don’t use “recovery” or “addiction” to mean the same thing that the greater “society” uses the label for– mostly people who don’t understand substance “addiction” and who’ve never experienced it. Many of them write the laws and prescribe the treatments, too. My metaphor for addiction was as an abusive relationship– a proxy for real connection to myself, others and the world. It felt safe and predictable for a while, then just became an intractable, hyperfocused habit. I extricated myself from the relationship with my addiction by reconnecting relationships with other humans and with my true self– by engaging my social engagement instinct. The need for connection and reciprocity. It wasn’t that I felt like an empty container. I was disconnected from my fellow containers.

    I don’t want the ties that bind me to throw me to the wolves by my feeling like the rock someone just crawled out from under. I wanna be free. I’m not “in recovery.” I’ve found freedom. I’m a mixed metaphor.

  6. James Brown May 14, 2018 at 9:46 am #

    The Lakoff book is important. I think that the feeling of emptiness or absence is pretty natural. So to me it’s not about getting rid of it. It’s about acknowledging it. And then it’s about learning to live with it. This is hard for people in early recovery. But with practice, I learned to say something like: this is emptiness. It’s a part of having a mind. It cannot be done away with it also will not kill me. I will stay focused on my life today and take what pleasure I can in small things.

    Obviously this won’t work for someone who is clinically depressed. But the thing g about this feeling is that it gets worse if I brood on it. This means I need to create a life of work, friends, service to others, hobbies, etc. These are not distractions. I always honor the void. I just don’t let it give me orders.

    It’s a bit like a man with a huge piece of property. In the middle of the property is a canyon. Now no amount of filling with fill the canyon. But there is more on the property than the dangerous canyon. The smart man leaves the canyon be. He finds other stuff to do. He might glance at the canyon from time to time. But he does not play on the unstable rim.

    One of the great deficiencies of AA is actually an over reliance on prayer and higher power. I have seen so many people, religious people even, who think that God will fill this hole. And when he doesn’t they get discouraged and forget about the things inAA that do work: fellowship and service.

    I think it’s Sartre who basically says, look, this anxiety is nothing more than the recognition of ones own freedom. ThAts a hard truth.

    A counselor once said to me, Jim, life is a little disappointing. I could not hear him then. But now I see what he meant.

    By working on my thoughts, particularly the ones that arise from the vague feeling of emptiness or incompletion, I have found a kind of a way to live. It’s sometimes uncomfortable.

    But compared to the despair that awaits me if I were to pick up? It’s a trade I won’t make.

    We live in a culture that tells us to buy something, take something, go somewhere. It tells us that our pain is not acceptable, that pain is, in fact, a pathology. Perhaps mild to moderate depression ought not be considered a illness? (Obviously I don’t mean severe depression).

    Find a reliable and meaningful thought pattern to “reply” to your apprehension it the void. Then create a simple life of meaningful work and service to others. There’s nothing like helping someone else to make my sense of emptiness seem less severe.

    • Fred May 14, 2018 at 3:26 pm #

      I really appreciate your post, Jim. Nothing to add, just an acknowledgment that it hit home for me.

  7. Ira May 14, 2018 at 10:24 am #

    Hi Marc,

    Great post as its been something I’ve thought about alot of the last few years. Why the “empty feeling” and why did I suddenly not feel that way when I made the decision to change my life. Ive been trying to work out what that ingredient is because I often get asked by my clients what it is they should “fill themselves” with and I really struggle to come up with a good answer. As you said you’ve thought of addiction as thinking problem and to me that makes the most sense as ive seen in myself and in many clients, the shift definitely comes from the way we think. That decision for lack of a better word seems to cause the shift, then the continual reaffirming of that decision or a reminder of some sort.
    I look at my life now and how some parts of the addiction are not dead, like obsession.
    I have a great ability to obsess. I notice when lets use online shopping as an example(a valid one). I hop online to my favourite online store and start the process, NEED a new mouse, need to find best deal for best device. This goes on and on and on sometimes lasting days at a time till ive done all the “research” then i make the decision to buy one. I try lie to myself but when ive read the description for a certain one for the 4th time, i smile because i know whats going on. It feels right to obsess, distracting blah blah blah.
    Then i pay for the mouse and suddenly all that excitement is over, so now what happens? Do i continue shopping for other “NEEDS”?
    the answer in the past would of been yes, not so much anymore.
    I like to use the analogy of venom from spider-man. If you dont know what or who venom is, got to Google it, best analogy of obsession or addiction. I put the one obsession down and it envelops another area of my life. I started questioning if ill ever be rid of it ? There are times when im feeling great, obsessions are running at a low level if at all, works great, family are great. The whole picture is great, but i still feel it lurking, waiting for the next thing.
    The so called emptiness is gone but something has taken its place. Whatever its called, addiction, obsession….not really sure.
    Im rambling on here but i wanted to say i dont remember feeling empty before i started using, the using created the rift between the world and me, the using created the void and then told me that i need to continue to do this to never feel it…insane.
    Ive done alot of work with others and I see a similar thing in their lives, does it ever die ?

  8. Bill May 14, 2018 at 12:26 pm #

    What if the negative connotation we apply to the feeling of being in the void, is what drives us to fill it. Is the feeling of need being a negative a societal construct? What if we are actually awake and alert when we are in need. What if being in the void is actually where we are open to life? What if society has moved us to hide from our awake self.

    What if we just sit with it, and soak in the unknown, break thru the fear that if we don’t fill it we die…………….. Is it possible that in the emptiness and in the void, we can internally trigger a cascade of neuro connections that are far healthier than filling the void with external band aids.

    • Marc May 30, 2018 at 5:49 am #

      Whatever it may trigger, just being there with the need, the dissatisfaction, the anxiety, is in fact the closest we get to reality. And then, if we don’t cling to those perceptions, they pass onto something else. Maybe that’s what you mean by the cascade of connections. If the Buddha were a neuroscientist, that’s probably just what he’d say.

  9. Gary May 14, 2018 at 12:56 pm #

    I know, from my own experience, that “Long” be for I ever developed a drinking problem, I developed a “think problem” about drinking and/or drugging. The foundation and scaffolding, in terms of my perceptions, was unrelenting and grounded.The “Thought” of using, was absolutely seductive as well as illusory. In fact, for me, the thought produced it’s own high and the reality was that when I used it diminished my whole idea of excitement and/or escape. However, the pattern kinda went like this; “when things were good, I was bad and when things were bad, I was good” constantly slaying my own dragons. Not once did I ever want to die but I didn’t want to continue living the way I was living either. The “Addiction” took me to another landscape, in my mind, that created an altered sense of me who now didn’t care whatsoever, about anything else while under the influence. Almost from the get go, I experienced blackouts due to the amount and quickness of my drinking.

    The cost of using presented itself in guilt, remorse and shame further diminishing this sense of me to a point where using became necessary for survival and extremely unpredictable. From the time I had fallen off a local pier, at eleven years old, while completely intoxicated, to the age of thirty-one when I went to Detox (Wednesday August 17th, 1988) most of my thinking turned into either drinking or drugging until I finally came to my senses.

    • Marc May 30, 2018 at 5:54 am #

      Fascinating experience. I can imagine what that might be like. Thanks for sharing this.

  10. Fred May 14, 2018 at 3:33 pm #

    Hi, Marc: You might check out Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Metaphors are a very intentional part of the therapeutic toolbox – there are whole books of “ACT metaphors” for clinicians to consider when working with clients. Underlying ACT is a foundation of linguistic philosophy that works to make visible the process by which the human mind makes meaning out of the relationships between mental concepts. The metaphor matters a lot, not just as a therapeutic intervention, but for the underlying, typically unconscious way that humans construct meaning and react to inner and outer experiences.

    • Marc May 30, 2018 at 5:51 am #

      I have checked it out, read the first workbook (most of) and tried it as a client years ago. I think it’s marvelous — a fine integration of psychotherapy and mindfulness. But I didn’t know about the books of metaphors. That sounds really intriguing.

  11. Terry May 14, 2018 at 6:41 pm #

    The human condition is the fear at the basis of human emptiness – all humans carry it, the reality of our mortality and the realisation that there is only ever going to be one outcome – we, I, have sought ways to avoid thinking of that for my entire life and like others now see that life has been but a series of endless “addictions”, habits aimed at avoiding the ‘reality’, the primal fear. If all humans have this then all humans are addicts and addiction is normal – it is just how it is presented that is the stuff of morality or social judgement – a drug user or addict is no different from someone seeking to distract themselves playing football or being an elite sportsperson – the same neurobiology exists. We could do well to stop seeing addiction as abnormal. This though for mine resides as much in our inner core or spirit as it does in our conscious thinking brain – for mine core beliefs rule the personality but cannot be changed by doing a little CBT, its a far bigger thing, they are seemingly hard wired into us in early days of our post womb existence.

    • Denise May 14, 2018 at 8:16 pm #

      Terry, Well put! I totally agree. “We could do well to stop seeing addiction as abnormal.” Perhaps the question to ask is why do some people get addicted to things that are self-destructive and/or unhealthy? We need to focus on the object, not the verb.

      • Terry May 14, 2018 at 8:47 pm #

        Exactly – that’s about resilience – why are some prone and others not – why are some more fearful than others – anxiety underpins addiction. for mine its about self esteem – if you see yourself as tainted or unwanted or unloved why treat yourself well – its about the value one places on oneself – a value most often learned and passed on by primary caregivers in early life. Gabor Mate’ talks of it well as do others including Szalavitz. Cheers

        • matt May 20, 2018 at 5:53 am #

          Yes. It’s about primal needs like seeking safety, reciprocity and purpose. A sort of positive “denial”. Instead of avoiding the truth, embracing it and using it to help other beings and ultimately ourselves. To fill our heads with love instead of fear. Addiction isn’t about what you do, but how and why you do it. So is recovery. Both of these terms take us away from what we are actually supposed to be doing which is re-entering and re-engaging with life.

  12. Rochelle May 14, 2018 at 11:59 pm #

    I love this post about Metaphors and never considered this concept before. Thanks. What is fullness and the feeling of joy actually about, I now ask? I can pinpoint my emptiness easily enough however it’s more interesting to acknowledge the feeling of Satisfaction when it occurs and to ask whether the sense of satisfaction and joy or ‘being filled up’ to use the metaphor of the container, is any closer to what I would feel when I gratify myself with a substance (be it process or chemical ingestion) and the answer is it is different. It’s closer to what I want in my life. It builds upon itself. Gratification from using keeps me in the tiny loop of happiness upon which I can’t build a wall of safety and freedom. Nowadays I chose to feel my feelings and not to engage in drug taking or seeking approval (I don’t foubt I need love and acknowledgment however) and it’s good to be able to fall back on this idea of how I can take to utilising metaphors in order to reflect upon how I’m feeling.

    • Marc May 30, 2018 at 6:00 am #

      Yes, and the other thing about the container metaphor is that it lends itself to other attributes: like volume, and rate of emptying. As long as we are containers, there’s leakage, right? As the Buddha showed, impermanence trumps everything else. But the leak is so big and the whole thing drains so quickly when drugging/drinking…it’s just a losing battle from the first half hour onward.

      Maybe Satisfaction withe a capital S is something like having a slow leak but a continuous source of filling which balances it out, give or take. Ponds and lakes and other natural containers are “stable” in just that way.

  13. Annette Allen May 15, 2018 at 3:06 am #

    Marc, what a great post! Thanks for sharing this with us. And the comments are great too – all those different reflections. Wow!

    I’m with Bill. As part of my recovery from alcohol – and actually a great deal of mental anguish which appeared after the addiction had loosened to an occasional craving – I learnt to sit still and over time, become peaceful in the void. The void was always there in me, but it never frightened me. It was a place of deep and peaceful acceptance.

    I was never particularly competitive – neither is my son. We watch people running around, dancing for attention, and to be no. 1, and it’s just not us. We both write and reflect deeply and watch myriad addictions play out both in and around us. In the void, (which I don’t obsess about), I find answers, but mostly deep peace and acceptance of what is. Which is a great place to FEEL and BE alive.

    From that place, I can best observe and help people when they’re really anxious, so the void is the deepest part of me. It’s where acceptance of all of life is total. (As I say, I was conscious of it from a young age, in my fragmented, dysfunctional family). I love my void – it’s Home…. xx

    • Marc May 30, 2018 at 6:04 am #

      What a wonderful way to feel!! I sometimes feel like that, but it’s pretty special for me. Most of the times I’m tilting forward, trying to change things, get stuff done. But there are times when the void feels just as you describe. Still and peaceful.

      Mindfulness/meditation seems the one way to help people find what you are describing. That or a near-death-experience, which isn’t normally recommended 🙂

  14. Ruth May 15, 2018 at 7:47 am #

    This is a valuable and thought provoking blog and responses. Annette I love what you say about the void. I have been practicing observing the emptiness, the feeling, the thoughts, but you have given me a new thought of valuing the void, of experiencing deep peacefulness. Thank you.

  15. Tim Greenwood May 15, 2018 at 9:28 am #

    This Metaphor stuff and Addiction is amazing. I love it! Been exposed to some NLP stuff and Self Hypnosis lately and exploring those tools. Think one key would be to find ways to really integrate these kinds of metaphors into one’s being in order to live from them. I have young kids aged 12 to 16 and I will discuss with them. One of the many wonderful things about teenagers is their openness to ideas like this and their willingness to try them. What is we started teaching this Metaphorical way of seeing and interacting in the world in the teen years. Would so many of us who struggled with addictions throughout our early and older adult years have struggled as much? My 16 year old son recently went through a very traumatic experience at school which led to some heavy consequences. For a short time he had the feeling his life and future was finished. But family and friends stood with him, accompanied him, helped him through it and helped him to face it and he has moved on remarkably well. The issue seemed “Huge” yet it was a doorway to a new understanding for him and us. It was a chance for him to actually experience a “Problem” in a profoundly different way. Something to faced and dealt with directly and then experienced and valued for its lessons. Really skillful living is about being aware of our Metaphors and choosing ones consciously that help us to be awake. Thanks again Marc

  16. Eric Nada May 15, 2018 at 9:51 am #

    Marc, wonderful post, useful in many ways. I especially like the open container aspect of your discussion. It seems to me that the healthiest one can be is generally full, with the ability to navigate temporary emptiness or at least not total full-ness. But the container can’t be an airtight reservoir, but coninutally renewed–like a healthy body of life-sustaining water, with an inlet and outlet. In this regard I think of healthy connection to others and the importance of relationship as the most important source of renewal.

  17. Teddy May 22, 2018 at 11:10 am #

    One of the best ways to feel that fullness I have found is through a device called a “SubPac,” which send vibrations through the body as if one we standing next to a stadium sized speaker. It has helped me many times when I’ve felt the need to fill myself up with something.

  18. Teddy May 22, 2018 at 11:11 am #

    Great concept, and I’m glad we’re onto a similar idea!

    One of the best ways to feel that fullness I have found is through a device called a “SubPac,” which sends vibrations through the body as if one were standing next to a stadium sized speaker.

    It has helped me many times when I’ve felt the need to fill myself up with something and is quite portable (so helpful for jet-lag induced weird sensations as well).

  19. Brandon May 24, 2018 at 12:48 pm #

    Excellent post and you’ve touched base on some excellent points. Empitiness and the feeling of no self-worth will certainly cause undesireable emotions to emerge which many times will cause the victims of such emotions to turn to the use of drugs and/or alcohol.

    When I encounter the feeling of “emptiness”, rather than turning to substance use, I’ll simply invite a friend over for lunch, call a family member, or read a book. Socializing with those with whom you have meaningful relationships with is an excellent approach to maintaining abstinence as it increases the sense of being cared for but also takes keeps the mind busy (diminshing the thoughts of emptiness and substance use).

    • Marc May 30, 2018 at 6:08 am #

      Our connections with other people (of which reading books is surely an example) seems such a natural way to keep the inflow (or warmth) and the outflow (the loss that comes with time) in balance. We evolved to visit, chatter, gossip, share…no wonder that feels like safety or contentment.

  20. Hellyher May 26, 2018 at 11:51 am #

    Excellent concept, the metaphor of seeing ourselves as a container is very common and probably right, the human being has a need to feel fully with himself, when this need is not covered it leads to falling into addictions, an essential step To avoid this situation is to worry about knowing ourselves, find out what makes us happy and fight to get it

    • Marc May 30, 2018 at 6:13 am #

      According to Lakoff and Johnson, the metaphor is “right” because it comes from our fundamental perceptions of our bodies. We put stuff in when we eat and drink (or take substances), stuff comes out when we go to the toilet, and we distinguish what feels inner (through proprioceptive nerve pathways) from what feels outer (though the normal perceptual channels of hearing and seeing, etc.) As other readers have commented, it’s damn hard to avoid the metaphor…because it is “right” in that special way.

  21. jeremy thompson May 26, 2018 at 5:04 pm #

    This feeling that Marc describes is indeed a drag. It’s also a fact of life it seems to me. Certainly every person in the throes of addiction feels it and for sure using will, temporarily, soothe that feeling. Only to have it reassert itself later perhaps stronger than ever. But I get the same feeling when I have skipped getting any exercise for a couple of days or played my guitar for a time and there is only one way to get rid of it. Get to the gym or do some practicing. Obviously though, this is a problem for someone that uses a substance or behaviour to tamp that dreadful feeling down so we need to find some other way. To this end I think that the container metaphor is valid and could be helpful. In my mind there is an input and an output to it and I think that there is an equilibrium of lets call it, the water of life, in the container when the system is working properly, not too full and not too empty. We need it to stay fresh, it has to circulate properly, and when this equilibrium is maintained we feel balanced but when, say, the output is clogged a bit with detritus the container gets too full and the water gets stagnant and we feel sluggish and depressed. Sometimes, perhaps, the input gets choked, the vessel empties and we feel anxious and nervy. Perhaps I can think of this system as a sensor. Part of a system I have in my body that warns me when I am out of balance in some way. Using our DOC will temporarily bypass this sensor and soothe the negative feelings but we ignore it at our peril just as disconnecting the check engine light so you can pretend it isn’t on could lead to a poor outcome with your car. When I have been alerted by this sensor that I am off balance in some way perhaps I should sit down and ask myself, why do I feel this way? What am I missing in my life? What am I doing too much of, too little? If I sit down and asks myself these questions with rigorous honesty I can generally answer them because most of the time I know what the problem is, I just avoid asking the questions because it’s hard being truly honest with oneself. It’s hard to face the answers to the hard questions. It takes a certain amount of courage and practice but well worth the effort. Perhaps best not to turn away or hide from this feeling but rather embrace it as one would embrace a heartfelt question from a loved one.

    I found this post very thought provoking. Listening to “Water of love” by Dire Straits helped put some thoughts in my head so thanks Marc…. (and Mark)

    • Marc May 30, 2018 at 6:18 am #

      See my last couple of comments, Jeremy. I hadn’t read yours yet, but we see it in very similar ways: the metaphor is indeed “valid”, even though it’s just a metaphor, but we can work with it, and we do, more or less effectively, and we seem to know intrinsically when the system is in balance, fresh, flowing, etc…and when it’s not.

      Thanks for your further reflections and insights. It surely does take courage and honesty to make the most of this metaphor. Like other natural products, it can be put to great use if we relax and study the possibilities.

  22. Joanna "Nicci Tina" Free May 26, 2018 at 8:07 pm #

    Let’s hear it for metaphors that work for us, and for allies, friends and other creatives who can help us find them.

    Substance use, for me, was less about filling emptiness and more about seeking a way to feel comfortable, or more like my self. As time passed and I came of age, and found other resources, I’ve been able to find other ways to get comfortable in my skin, to feel more like my self.

    As a child, substance use carried me – many of us – along until, as an adult, there were more resources, more choices, available to us.
    How wise of that child, to find something that worked for that time.

    Today, 12 Step fellowship IS one of those resources in my life. I am at my best in intentional, compassionate, authentic community. I join with it in my way. As they say, I take what I can use, leave the rest… and bring the best of myself to it. I serve and am served by it.

    With each day in fellowship, I feel myself becoming more and more fully my self. For me, it is mindfulness practice and a place to laugh with, to mourn with, to celebrate with other evolving, amazing, fallible humans.
    Like me.

  23. Mark May 26, 2018 at 8:29 pm #

    A pretty severe indictment of rehab by John Oliver…

  24. jasmine June 7, 2018 at 6:40 am #

    Great post Marc, and responses included. The void, the pit, the well…that’s what it’s all about. I remember when I was grappling with smoking, my analyst referred to my cigarettes as my buddies, always there for me, and so they were.

    Marc, I also remember you talking about supplanting – or something of the like. Although I can’t say I disagree with Freud’s hypothesis about an unfulfilled wish, but the notion of finding ways to fill the void, however big or small, and in less harmful ways resonates for me.

    Your thoughts (not Peterson’s, lol) would be most welcome 🙂


  25. faith June 9, 2018 at 5:30 pm #

    We need to stop romanticising the use of drugs in the media – what message are we sending vulnerable youth please protest the playing of songs on the radio that mention drugs and overdosing ……………. we need to take a no tolerance approach

  26. Shelley June 14, 2018 at 11:24 am #

    This is a very well thought out idea and I really enjoyed your perspective. Have you explored any of the concepts or practices involved in what is being labeled early or western buhddism? I abused many substances and behaviors for many years and now have a daily home based practice that has given me a level of freedom I never thought possible. Your article parellels much of what Buddha had to say about self, emptiness and suffering. The god concept and AA did not work for me as I know they do for many. There is even a off-shoot if buhddism that addresses addiction specifically, that was not my thing either. I needed an all encompassing approach. I was grateful to find a way of life that not only addressed the addiction issue but blew my mind in so many other ways. Namaste

  27. Shelley June 14, 2018 at 11:28 am #

    This is a very well thought out idea and I really enjoyed your perspective. Have you explored any of the concepts or practices involved in what is being labeled early or western buhddism? I abused many fir many years and now have a daily home based practice that has given me a level of freedom I never thought possible. Your article oarrellells much of what Buddha hasd to say about self, emptiness suffering etc.

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  29. Lia October 16, 2021 at 5:18 pm #

    This really struck a chord in me. Thank you for writing something out of the box instead of the recycled limited concepts regurgitated over and over on the subject of addiction. This is what I needed right now, something fresh and broader to open up to and take my stagnant thinking to a new place. Great piece!

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