The Addiction Complex
By Gordon Patrick Boyce
Is an individual born an addict? Or is the addiction a result of unresolved issues during childhood? As a recovering addict, I have asked myself these questions many times. That’s why I became intrigued by Carl Jung’s Complex Theory. Based on Jung’s theory I want to explore the questions mentioned above as well as the spiritual aspect of addiction and how spirituality can seemingly help people break free from substance dependency. I’ll also discuss how these different theories relate to my own experience of being an addict and to my life in recovery today.
What is a Complex?
When I started this essay, I was perplexed as to what the Complex Theory actually implies, and so I looked towards the work of Jung and Freud to gain a better understanding. One of the most comprehensible summaries I found of Jung’s Complex Theory is by David Hartman who used it for his article on “How Complexes Create Archetypal Reality In Childhood“: “Complexes are the basic building units of psychological reality, and thus are simply normal parts of the mind. Our complexes allow us to multitask in everyday activities, and to operate on “autopilot” without having to consciously attend to every environmental stimulus. They are formed when a strong emotional experience, or one that is repeated many times, produces a patterning of the mind. The resulting pattern is behavioral (habits), and also consists of beliefs and expectations. A defining characteristic of complexes is that they tend to be bipolar or consist of two opposite parts.”
The Complex Theory and how it links to addiction
Applying this theory to drug and alcohol abuse made total sense to me. However, I was surprised to find that nowhere in psychology anyone ever theorised the existence of an “addiction complex” before. I, therefore, hope that maybe this essay will bring about a better understanding of the connection between Jung’s Complex Theory and addiction.
What is addiction?
From my personal experience, I can tell you that addiction means to have no control over using a substance or a particular behaviour, such as sex, gambling, food or shopping. There’s the physical and the psychological addiction. Physical addiction is when one builds up a tolerance to a substance, like heroin, whereupon cessation physical withdrawals will be experienced. Psychological addiction is much more complicated. It seems to mainly come from the pleasure reward center in the brain and neurotransmitters like dopamine play a huge part in it. Psychological addiction appears to stem from learnt behaviour of short-term gain, long-term pain. I would argue that this kind of dependency is a human condition, as it seems to me that the majority of people are addicted to one thing or another, whether it be TV, sex, shopping, money or food. Drug addicts are just at the extreme end of addiction (about 10% of the population), as substance dependency often ends in death and has a more profound effect on the rest of society (e.g. through crime involved in maintaining a drug habit).
Is it the experimenting with drugs at an early age that causes addiction later on?
So what makes someone more predisposed to an addiction to drugs? From my own experience, and from what I’ve seen from others during my years as a counsellor in a rehab center, drug addiction usually starts out as experimentation at an early age, mostly during the early to mid teens. Over time the teenager’s initially recreational use progresses to addiction. My personal experimenting phase started when I was about 12 years old. When I was 16, I smoked cannabis daily. Today, I wonder if my experimenting with drugs during those formative years has taught my brain to respond to drugs differently compared to other people’s brains.
Though, in saying that, many of my peers experimented with drugs in a similar fashion but never developed addiction problems. Many of my peers went on to get jobs, formed relationships and only used or drank occasionally. Whereas for me drugs became my life. I never held down a job for longer than three months. It was always just a way to get money for drugs anyway. I also never managed to have a long-term relationship. The only serious relationship I had was with drugs.
So what makes someone like me, an addict, different to others? Perhaps it’s in my brain chemistry, as science is beginning to show. Maybe my brain was wired up to be more predisposed to developing addiction problems with drugs from the day I was born.
Could childhood trauma be the cause for addiction?
On the other hand, it could be argued that people become addicted to drugs as a result of traumatic childhood events, such as experiencing abuse and therefore use drugs as a way to cope. It is a common rationalisation among addicts that they justify their use to themselves with the trauma they experienced – something I did myself for many years. Yet many people have had very traumatic childhoods and never developed a drug addiction. And there are also people who had a wonderful upbringing in a safe & stable family environment and became addicts nonetheless. It therefore seems to me – at least at first glance – that childhood trauma has little impact on whether someone will grow up to be an addict, and can only add fuel to the fire when the addiction has already been developed.
Why addiction has very little to do with the physical dependence
I never realised I was an addict until I became physically dependent on heroin. I focused solely on the physical addiction. But looking back I was addicted to drugs from the age of 16 or maybe even before. As hinted at before, physical addiction is only a small part of the problem; psychological addiction is the major part of any substance dependency. Even today, after having been drug-free for over 5 years, I still experience triggers or thoughts of using – even though I’m well over the physical addiction. Hence I conclude that addiction is first and foremost a psychological problem, a mental illness even, or – to say it with Carl Jung – a complex! And therefore addiction is maybe indeed linked to childhood trauma.
How Complexes influence our lives
The idea of Complexes as Carl Jung defined them later has been around since Aristotle, but it was Jung with his accurate observations of human behaviour who broadened it to the theory we know today. As mentioned above, Jung believed that a person developed a complex due to an incisive experience in their life. The website outlawpsych.com cites Carl Jung’s words from his work The Symbolic Life as followed: “A complex is an agglomeration of associations — a sort of picture of… a psychological nature — sometimes of traumatic character, sometimes simply of a painful and highly toned character. Everything that is highly toned is rather difficult to handle… It is simply an important affair, and whatever has an intense feeling-tone is difficult to handle because such contents are associated with physiological reactions, with the processes of the heart, the tonus of the blood vessels, the condition of the intestines, the breathing, and the innervation of the skin… it is just as if that particular complex had a body of its own, as if it were localized in my body to a certain extent…”
Complexes are hidden in our subconscious and take over when triggered by external events
In other words: A complex is “usually unconscious and repressed emotionally-toned symbolic material that is incompatible with consciousness. “Stuck-together” agglomerations of thoughts, feelings, behavior patterns, and somatic forms of expression.” (Daniels, “Handout on Carl Gustav Jung“). For instance, if you had a leg amputated as a child, even though you overcame this handicap and went on to lead a full and prosperous life if thoughts about the amputation still troubled you then Jung would argue that you had a complex about this. That person would mostly not even be aware of that fact though, and it’d only show in certain behaviour patterns or emotional/verbal reactions triggered by external events.
Childhood trauma may play a bigger part in addiction than I ever wanted to admit
In the light of this, the theory of an “addiction complex” seems to go against what I initially thought about becoming an addict had nothing to do with the childhood you had. Perhaps your childhood plays a massive part indeed in whether you grow up to become a drug addict – even though you might not be aware of it.
When I was in rehab, I remember my counsellor saying to me that I had been abandoned from an early age. I didn’t have a clue as to how he knew this. Maybe he had seen it in my behaviours. But I always thought I had a relatively good childhood. It wasn’t great, but it didn’t seem that bad to me. It was only after my counsellor had said this to me, and why, that I started to reflect and could see what he meant.
Acknowledging how my own childhood & upbringing could’ve led to my addiction
Apparently, I was emotionally abandoned from an early age. According to the attachment theory, the first 18 months of a child’s life are the most important and can have a massive effect on how that child may grow up. It seems likely that if a child isn’t given enough secure attachment from an early age, this could harm them as they grow up. I can now see that my mother is still sometimes emotionally vacant towards me. This emotional abandonment at an early age could have caused the anxiety I experienced when I reached my teens, where I started to use drugs as a way to cope with my emotional problems.
Intervention can help us become aware of our complexes and reduce their impact
Even after years of abstinence from drugs, a person can still be affected by their past – may it be through childhood trauma or the life they led when they were caught up in addiction. In his Complex Theory, Jung also stresses the point that we usually think we are way more conscious of what’s going on for us on a psychological level than is actually the case: “We are not really masters in our house. We like to believe in our will-power and in our energy and in what we can do; but when it comes to a real show-down we find that we can do it only to a certain extent…” It is, however, possible to become conscious of the complex through intervention and by doing so to reduce its impact significantly (Daniels, “Handout on Carl Gustav Jung”).
Different ways of overcoming negative thought- and behavioural patterns
This is why a recovery program is so important, as it’s not as easy as just putting down the drugs and getting on with life. Whether it be ACT, CBT or the 12 Steps, a recovery program of some kind is essential to help a person become aware of their negative thought- and behavioural patterns, move away from their old lifestyle and develop new coping strategies.
Jung’s influence on the 12-Step programs and why spirituality is so important
The most popular recovery program in the world is the 12 Steps. It is a spiritual program that Jung – not a stranger to the effects of alcohol himself – had some influence on. During the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous, Bill Wilson, one of AA’s founder members, was in correspondence with Jung. Jung asserted that the alcoholic’s craving for alcohol was “the equivalent, on a low level, of the spiritual thirst of our being for wholeness, expressed in medieval language: the union with God.” Jung stated that what an addict or alcoholic finds in drugs or alcohol – a wholeness of being – can be found in becoming spiritually connected. Instead of looking on the outside for wholeness, go within. “Go within or go without” – a saying commonly found in the rooms of NA.
Finding wholeness within
I can relate to this, as since I’ve become abstinent I still occasionally look outside to make myself feel whole – whether this is through food, sex, money or work. I realise, however, that complete wholeness can only come from within, and when I practise a spiritual program, I have no want for anything outside of myself. I feel whole and good within myself.
This subject is vast and complex, and I could have written much more on this. There’s so much that I haven’t covered! But I hope, I was able to help you get a better understanding of what a complex is and how it’s linked to addiction. The most important thing to take away may be that even though complexes are mostly hidden in our subconscious, like icebergs of which you only see the tip above the water – you can, with some help, become aware of them and greatly reduce their influence on your life. In other words: Overcoming addiction is possible – and spirituality can prove to be very helpful on that path.
What I learned while writing this essay
I suppose what I’ve discovered while writing this is how addiction is mostly a psychological problem when years ago I thought it was just about physical addiction. I’ve also come to see addiction as more of an actual illness, as this is something I’ve always struggled to believe. I found it especially interesting to discover how much of an impact a person’s childhood can have on the life they experience when they reach adulthood and how it can relate to addiction. Reading more about Jung’s take on spirituality and his influence on the 12 Steps and how spirituality can remedy an addiction really hit home. It showed me that I could still be doing more in my own recovery in regards to spirituality.
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