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An Insider’s Look at Addiction

By Geoff Thompson – MA, CCC

This year is a milestone for Sunshine Coast Health Center. The most obvious improvement is a new building. But the most exciting is a new program that promises to significantly improve the help we offer clients.

Technically, the program is based on meaning-centered therapy (MCT), which was developed by Canadian psychologist Paul Wong. Wong earned his PhD in experimental psychology, but 40 years of research and counseling convinced him that we are more than just chemicals in our brains and our behavior. His essential idea is that some people are vulnerable to addiction because they feel that life isn’t very exciting or comfortable — that it is not personally meaningful. They feel outcasts in the world; they feel they do not belong. Drugs and the drug lifestyle allow them to feel a sense of vitality in their otherwise meaningless, monotonous, and boring life. 

One counsellor I know describes the addict as the kid who is peering into the candy shop window, hoping that someone will let him in. MCT helps them open the door.

This therapy is unique in addiction treatment. Typically, most programs are designed in this sequence: help the addict to quit drugs, deal with the inevitable relapses, deal with personal issues such as anger, and, at some vague point in the future, help them figure out how to live a meaningful life.

Sounds logical, but research is showing that this approach may be wrong-headed. Based on long-term studies of addicts in recovery, researcher William White has shown, for example, that abstinence is the “side effect” of living a meaningful life, not the first step in recovery.

This does not mean that MCT dismisses the biological, psychological, and social components of addiction. Far from it. But it does argue that addressing how to live a meaningful life allows them to overcome their biology and environment.

Most people define the addict based on drug use. But a more useful interpretation is to see the addict as a person who does not feel comfortable day after day, month after month, and year after year without the use of some mood-altering substance or behavior.

This feeling usually starts early. Eric Clapton begins his autobiography with this comment: “From an early age…I began to get the feeling that I was different.” This feeling of being different, being an outcast, not fitting in, not part of, is typical of those who fall prey to addiction. Clapton would soon discover the relief provided by alcohol and drugs. Similarly, the Nobel-Prize winning alcoholic playwright, Eugene O’Neill, told us why he suffered since youth: “I will always be a stranger who never feels at home…who can never belong.” Like Clapton, O’Neill would look to booze to overcome this feeling.

Scientists at the University of California and elsewhere are beginning to put a neurobiological basis to this feeling. The evidence suggests that the things that satisfy ‘normal’ people are not enough for those who are vulnerable to addiction. Addiction experts were never quite sure whether this feeling of being an outcast preceded addiction or was the result of it; however, the evidence is mounting for the former.

Interpreting drug use as a method to overcome a dull and boring life and feel a sense of vitality is not a new idea. In fact, it’s likely the oldest interpretation of why we use drugs. In 500 BC, for instance, the Greek playwright, Euripedes, wrote The Bacchants, a cautionary tale to those naïve enough to believe we can defeat drunkenness. Alcohol had, warned Euripedes, the power of a god. Our thirst for alcohol is our thirst to overcome our dull and boring and painful lives and feel a sense of vitality.

Two giants of 20th century psychology, William James and Carl Jung, argued the same point. James called being drunk “a variety of religious experience”; Jung said that the alcoholic’s thirst for alcohol is his or her thirst for spirituality, for feeling part of a greater reality.

Bill Wilson, the driving force behind the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous, was convinced that the alcoholic is someone “who is trying to get his religion out of a bottle.” Alcoholism was not so much an escape from life as it was the attempt to satisfy the urge to live a more energized and meaningful life. 

Meaning-centered therapy is the practical application of these ideas. It has been applied in geriatrics, occupational therapy, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and even workplace efficiency with good results. Sunshine Coast Health Center will be the first to apply it to addictions.

Many believe that it may well become a dominant approach for the 21st century. In July 2006, an international conference in Vancouver provided strong evidence that the addict is likely a person whose life is feels life is not very comfortable, who feels an outcast. The 100 speakers, from psychologists to recovering addicts to physicians, linked addiction to a lack of meaningful living. Even the pure scientists, such as renowned neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, put a biological basis for this in the brain.

MCT has other benefits. It is a dignified and respectful therapy. There is no confrontational counseling style to break through ‘denial’, no getting mad at clients, no ordering them around, and no punishing clients for breaking rules. Although such practices are the norm in almost all treatment centers, we’ve known for years that they don’t help recovery. In fact, research has confirmed that they are often abusive and can harm clients.

Although MCT is not a “12-step based” treatment, it is the therapy most closely aligned to the therapeutic elements of the 12-step program, known as its “spiritual principles.” These principles—gratitude, forgiveness, and so on—are fundamental parts of MCT.

About the Author

Geoff Thompson, MA, is the Program Director at Sunshine Coast Health Center, a private addiction treatment facility for adult men. His book, A Long Night’s Journey into Day, explores Eugene O’Neill’s life to uncover the truth of addiction and recovery.

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