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Addiction, Recovery, and the Dark Side

Those with addictions are famous for living in the dark side of life. For thousands of years, artists and thinkers have described the lives of the intoxicated as unhealthy, achieving nothing, an affront to good order, poor choice, and an embarrassment.

The dark side is that part of us that dwells on revenge, jealousy, rage, crime, sexual lust, intoxication, paranoia (such as conspiracy theories), and all those other feelings that nice people don’t talk about in public.

Society condemns the dark side not only as “immoral” or “improper,” but particularly because nothing is accomplished. When you dwell in the dark side, there is no progress, no goal, no achievement. The great philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said it’s a circle. You just keep going around and around but never getting anywhere. Addiction is like that. For all the time, money, and creativity expended to get and use drugs, nothing is really gained. No one ever got an award for all the effort and sacrifice needed to maintain an addiction. And the dark side will kill anyone who lives there long enough, anyone who forgets about healthy-mindedness and good order.

You might think we should all avoid the dark side of our nature, but psychologists are now telling us that we should embrace it. Rather than pretending it doesn’t exist, new research suggests we’re better off confronting it directly.

Dr. Paul Wong, a psychologist whose work underlies much of SCHC’s program, confirms that each of us has a dark side. This part of us can be evil, but, he says, we have a choice whether to act out dark impulses or to dig deep within and find courage, perseverance, resilience, creativity, and other character strengths to face them. Viktor Frankl said the same thing. In his best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl describes how inmates at a Nazi death camp behaved under the harsh conditions. Some, for instance, chose the dark side. They stole food from other inmates. But others chose to give their meager rations to the inmates who were very sick. Acting out our dark impulses is a choice.

In this blog, we’ll examine our dark side, what appeal it holds for those who are addicted, and how we can use it in recovery.

What’s Good about the Dark Side

The dark side is a natural part of who we are. Because evolution gave it to us, there must be some payoff.

If you think about the dark side—revenge, rage, jealousy, lust, danger, paranoia—you’ll notice that these emotions are very intense. That’s the power of the dark side. It’s energizing and often exciting. When you live in the dark side, you know you’re alive.

As a former SCHC client put it, “There may be a lot of bad stuff in the dark side, but one this is for sure—it’s not boring.”

A Bad Method to “Embrace” the Dark Side

Sadly, there are many who are in and out of recovery for years. Maurice was one of them. For 11 years he was trapped in a relapse cycle. He would quit the drug and live a life of healthy-mindedness and good order. His wife was happy with him, his kids were thrilled, and his boss patted him on the back.

But Maurice was miserable. After 6 months of attending community meetings, being a responsible worker, keeping his promises, and going to counselling, he was so bored that he “just wanted to scream”.

He knew how to end the boredom. He would take off for a week of daily intoxication, patronizing to seedy bars, starting bar fights, and picking up women. After he ran out of money and energy, he returned to treatment and then home. At least, for another six months until he relapsed again.

Maurice’s solution to his life was to live first in the healthy side, then in the dark side, then back to the healthy side, and on and on. This is not an unusual tactic for some in recovery. The problem is, of course, that it doesn’t work very well.

Mindfulness as a Technique for Embracing the Dark Side

Rather than pretending we don’t have a dark side or denying it, psychologists now tell us that good mental health means facing it. The basic idea is that if you don’t confront your dark side directly, it will force its way into your life. By facing it, you gain control.

Perhaps the most common strategy to confront our dark side is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness recognizes that thoughts and feelings simply come and go on their own. You might be ticked off at the guy who gave you the finger, but that experience will soon drift out of awareness when your friend buys you a coffee. Your feelings of thirst, so strong now, will slip away after you have a drink of water.

In this strategy, a person doesn’t push away anger, jealousy, or lust. Rather, the person just notices them, without judgment, when they arise. Like any other feeling or thought, the dark one is time-limited and will leave on its own.

Mindfulness is recommended in Steven Hayes’ famous addiction treatment, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). ACT helps clients simply accept a dark emotion or thought, without attaching personal value to it, and let it drift away.

Using the Dark Side Constructively

In active addiction, people typically act out their dark side: resentments, anger, jealousy, lust, and so on. But recovery demands shying away from acting out and using the dark side constructively.

If you’ve paid attention to songwriters, poets, painters, actors, and even stand-up comics, you likely realize that many artists are troubled. The media likes to publicize their dark side: suicide attempts, anger over childhood abuse, acts of revenge, or nervous breakdown under the callous pressures of their music industry.

These troubled souls seem to have found an outlet for their dark side in their creative work. Vincent van Gogh, for instance, expressed through his paintings his emotional pain from living with what was likely bipolar disorder. An interesting exhibit (painexhibit.org) displays paintings of those in chronic physical pain.

Rather than acting out the dark impulse, it is more useful to use it in a way that helps you and others. Creating art is only one example. Joining a cause, such as MADD, has helped many who have lost loved ones in vehicle accidents. Some who have lost loved ones to addiction have created foundations to find a more effective method to help those suffering from addictions.

Meaning and the Dark Side

At SCHC, we define addiction in line with the great psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl, who said that addiction is a response to living a life that lacks personal meaning.

Those attracted to chronic intoxication experience life as meaningless, monotonous, and boring. In such a life, no one can feel vital and alive. Dwelling in the intense feelings in the dark side, they feel energized. This is the problem of addiction. Those who are addicted are drawn to the dark side precisely because their sober lives are dull and boring.

Recall a key principle of chronic drug users: They live with emotional intensity as a substitute for living meaningfully. The lure of danger, sexual excess, fighting, anger, and revenge offer an excitement and energy that they don’t find in their daily mundane lives.

So how does a person live an energized life without resorting to acting on dark impulses? The answer is by being true to oneself. When a person lives their life in a way that matches what is actually important to them, they feel vital and alive.

This is why recovery is really about being the active author of one’s life. If the life you live is personally meaningful, then addiction loses its purpose. You no longer need the excitement of greed, revenge, anger, and lust to feel alive.

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