The Nature of Addiction

The Nature of Addiction

I’VE been trying to understand the nature of addiction. The most helpful, so far, is a book written by Dr. Gabor Mate, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounter with Addiction.

Here’s a poem I wrote based on insights I gained from the book and my own reflection on the “War on Drugs” waged by the present government.


You lurk in the shadows
craving for your next fix,
filled with terror
knowing the death squad/police
will finally find you and end your misery.
But you cannot help yourself
even if you have already surrendered
because your name is on the list.
You must have your fix.

Are you still human?
They say you have lost your right to life.
You will kill, steal, rape, and push
just to get your next fix.
Isolated, rejected, hunted,
you have lost control of yourself.
You must be stopped, neutralized
eliminated, terminated
like the zombies in the movies
because you are a threat to all of us.
This is war. You are the enemy.
That’s what we have been made to believe.
Are you really the enemy?

What kind of pain & stress does your drug
try to alleviate or soothe?
What childhood trauma keeps haunting you?
What abuse was inflicted on you?
Why couldn’t your parents provide you
with their consistent loving care & presence?
Why do you always feel anxious and insecure? Why the emptiness?
What effect did poverty and violence have on you?
Or even if you lived in comfort & luxury why the pain?
Is this why your brain can’t produce your own endorphins and dopamine to soothe you, and make you feel loved, alive and energized?
Is this why your cortex that regulates your impulses is impaired
and you can no longer say NO and end your addiction?

Do you really deserve to die?
Or, if you are lucky, languish in a stinking, overcrowded prison cell?
All you need is to experience mercy and compassion,
to be healed, to feel alive, to be accepted, loved, embraced, fed
as brother, sister, part of the family.

You are not the enemy.
You are us.
You are our shadow.
You are our dark side and our mirror.
You remind us that we, too, are like you
or can be like you.
The only difference is our drug of choice.
Cocaine? Shabu? Fentanyl? Rugby?
Alcohol? Nicotine? Gambling? Sex? Food? Sugar?
Shopping? Power? Killing? Stealing? Accumulating wealth?

Your condition reveals to us the nature of our society:
a society that breeds addicts to numb the pain that it inflicts.
That is why many – especially the president and his minions – hate you.
You remind most of us of who we really are or can be.

The reason why the War on Drugs is bound to fail is ignorance about the nature of addiction. Unless we know what addiction really is all about, we will not be able to deal with the problem. The “War” metaphor is the wrong approach. Drug addiction is just one form of addiction. The War on Drugs is based on the presumption that drugs—such as shabu, heroin, cocaine and even marijuana — cause addiction which is regarded as the main cause of criminality – murder, theft, rape, etc. Thus, the main targets of the War on Drugs here in the Philippines are drug users and pushers—most of whom are poor. In other countries, the drug lords and their minions are the key targets but not here in the country. It seems that the War on Drugs is being used to satisfy one man’s addiction to absolute power. This War also feeds on the addiction of many police officers to the accumulation of wealth. They, together with politicians and drug lords, are making a killing from this War on Drugs. This War brings out the worst and the dark side of every one – especially those in power and authority.

The drug trade follows the so-called “law of supply and demand.” The War on Drugs does not adequately address the “demand” side – the addiction itself. It is based on the fallacy that addicts will stop using drugs out of fear of being killed by the death squads, imprisonment or the scarcity of supply due to interdiction or elimination of pushers. The fear and anxiety heighten the cravings and they will continue using drugs since the impulse control of the cortex is impaired, and the root cause of addiction is not addressed—which is the pain, trauma, and stress which increase the need for endorphins and dopamine that drugs provide. For as long as there is a widespread demand for drugs, there will always be drug lords in connivance with politicians and police that will take care of the “supply.”

The “War on Drugs” metaphor—which is a brutal and ineffective approach—should be abandoned and replaced with the “Healing” metaphor which is more holistic and radical. What is needed is a more compassionate, communitarian, scientific and spiritual approach to the problem of addiction. This should not just focus on the problem of drug addiction but on all forms of addiction caused not by drugs or any substance and behavior but by the trauma and stress of the prevailing social environment and conditions—such as poverty, the breakdown of the family, inadequate nutrition and parental care, violence, sexual abuse, individualism, and lack of solidarity. A community-based rehabilitation program should therefore be adopted and should include poverty-alleviation, counseling, fostering a sense of belonging or communion, friendship, physical exercise, prayer, and meditation. All of these can help overcome addiction by increasing the endorphins and dopamine levels in the brain without drugs or destructive behavior. What is most important is to transform communities and society to no longer be a breeding ground for addiction. The antidote to addiction is communion—the experience of belongingness, friendship, and loving care.