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Addiction and the Concept of Time

By Geoff Thompson, MA
Program Director
Sunshine Coast Health Center


Weird as it may sound, researchers are beginning to take a long look at how people with addictions interpret time.

One reason for this interest is to better understand a very common phenomenon that all addiction counsellors face. Anyone who has ever worked or been a client at a treatment center knows that it’s almost impossible to get everyone together at a workshop at 9am or have people consistently show up to appointments on time.

Mainstream addiction counsellors often pull their hair out with the lateness and the missed appointments. Interestingly, they make sense of this situation by blaming the addict as irresponsible or, perhaps, passive-aggressive. They think that the self-centered addict is so wrapped up in his own life that he doesn’t care about another person’s schedule. Or they say that addicts’ lives are chaotic (which is why the need a structured program). Or they make sense of the lateness as a typical symptom of those who are trying to assert control over their lives — an unspoken statement that sends the message “You can’t tell me what to do.”

Most addiction treatment programs create structures that leave little opportunity for choice. The argument is that addicts need structure to deal with their chaotic life. Of course, since it’s difficult to get everyone in the same place at the same time, the usual tactic to deal with lateness and missed appointments is, at least in residential treatment programs, to threaten clients: “If you don’t show up on time for programming, then we will discharge you.” But making sense of lateness by suggesting that addicts’ lives are chaotic may not be all that accurate. A growing number of addiction experts tell us that lateness may be more a factor of how addicts make sense of time.

When you think about it, time is actually weird. Of course, we all know that a minute is a minute. It’s 60 seconds regardless of whether it is a minute in the middle of the night or middle of the afternoon, whether it’s a minute in Hong Kong or a minute in Vancouver. (Of course, Albert Einstein said this isn’t true, but for everyday purposes, it’s the same.)

Regardless of this factual knowledge of time, people usually have a different perception of it. For example, you know that time slows down when you are bored. On the other hand, time speeds up when you are absorbed in some activity. Younger people often complain that time moves too slowly; older people often complain that time moves too quickly.

Add to this that we are a very time-oriented society. Almost everyone wears a watch and owns a calendar. It is considered rude to be late for appointments, suppers, and so on. People complain that someone might be “wasting my time.” And there’s the old saying, “Time is money.” It’s almost as if time can be good, bad, or neutral. In fact, we say that we had a “good time” or “bad time.” And “Time management” is very important in our society.

For the nonaddict, time flows from the past to the present and then into the future. But for the addict, only present time is truly important. The present, the now, has the priority. In this month’s online program, we’ll look at the way those in active addiction and those in recovery look at time. Surprising as this may seem, it actually will help you in your recovery. Research is showing that how the recovering person interprets time is linked closely to how well they do in recovery.

Part One – Addicts Want Things NOW

Ryan Kemp, a researcher in the UK, who is interested in how addicts interpret time quotes a passage from the famous artist, Jean Cocteau:
Everything one does in life, even love,
Occurs in an express train racing towards death,
To smoke opium is to get out of the train while it is still moving

Time, for most people in active addiction, is ‘present’ time. What is important is ‘right now’, this moment. “Drugs,” says Kemp, “call out to the addict to be used, and to be used now!” Drugs have no future. How many times have you bought more of the substance that you planned to use—to save some for the future—only to use it all up as soon as possible. Kemp talks about the desire that addicts have to have “now” linger on. They want the present state of being high to linger.

On the other hand, the addict thinks that any state of discomfort will go on forever. If they have to wait to get high, then this is an unendurable wait and seems to go on forever. Drugs can end that miserable state of not being high. The waiting feels like a vacuum—what Sunshine Coast clients have described as feeling a “void” or “hollow.”

Studies on addicts have shown that they will choose a small reward right now, rather than delay gratification for a larger reward later. This is, in part, why many addiction experts say that addicts are impulsive. Similarly, almost everyone in active addiction grabs the immediate reward of using the drug, even though they know it will cause them problems in the future. Getting drunk the night before having to work, getting loaded before having to write a school test, using before the big family supper, getting money out of the bank for the drug even though they know they will have to answer to the family later, and so on are typical behaviours.

The past is not very meaningful for addicts—other than as a source of good stories about how they got away with something or some dumb, but funny, thing they did. For many in active addiction the past is filled with guilt, so they actively work to avoid thinking about it. In any case, it’s not useful for using drugs right now to spend time thinking about the past.

Similarly, the future has little meaning for addicts. Any competent addict knows that it would be useless to think about the future if they wanted to use drugs right now. If they started thinking about the future, then they would think about consequences of their actions, the withdrawal, the guilt, the money spent, and so on.

Part Two — The Problem of the Future for Addicts

Problems with the future give the addict more pressure to live in the present, in the now.

The first problem with the future is that if you live for the future, then you have to have some goal or mission. To really pay attention to the future, you have to be doing something, achieving something, working toward some goal. For example, if you want to learn how to play the guitar—a goal for the future—you have to put in all those hours and months of practice to achieve more competence. Or if you want to get a degree in forestry, you have to put in all those years of study. Addicts have little interest in working to achieve a future goal. They want a state of feeling that is immediate. Now.

Another problem with the future for those in active addiction is that it is not guaranteed. Things may not happen as the addict wants them to happen. The future is uncertain. And one thing that people in active addiction do not like is uncertainty. That’s why we say (affectionately, of course) at Sunshine Coast that all addicts are control freaks. They want to control life, but it’s impossible to control the future. Given that, there is little reason for paying attention to the future.

Part Three — Therapies that Do Not Help with Recovery

There are many types of therapy that are used to help people recover. Every few years, William Miller, a world-renowned addiction expert, ranks how well about 50 official therapies work for addicts in recovery. You may have heard of some of them: solution-focused therapy, motivational therapy (this is Miller’s), cognitive-behavioral therapy, community reinforcement therapy, relapse prevention therapy, and so on.

We have a good idea of types of therapies that just don’t seem to work for addicts. One of the most famous examples of a therapy that does not work is psychoanalysis, the type of therapy developed by Sigmund Freud. This therapy analyzes the person’s childhood experiences to help them understand that their problems are actually rooted in the past.

There’s a lesson here. Therapies that focus on the addict’s past have little success helping the person to recovery. At first, this may seem very odd. It seems reasonable that if the addict could figure out his past and how it left him with poor coping skills or whatever, then this would be useful for recovery. Add to this that these therapies often work well with people other than addicts.

But research is showing that the addict’s perception of time screws up the process. The past is really not the addict’s focus, so focusing on it is likely not that useful. And we’re discovering that any therapy that focuses on the past is not very successful: psychoanalysis, family of origin therapies, and so on.

Part Four — Therapies that Improve Recovery

So we mentioned that any therapy that focuses on the addict’s past will likely not help him very much. Research is showing that therapies that focus on the future are likely to offer much better help.

One of the most famous therapies in the addiction field is motivational therapy, developed mainly by William Miller and Stephen Rollnick. This therapy deals with the present but has a big focus on the future. It helps clients figure out what they truly want out of life and then supports them in achieving their goals.

Another successful program is the 12-step program. If you take a close look at the steps you will notice that they are aimed at the present and the future. This makes sense. Bill W., the driving force behind the 12-step program wanted you to go on and live a great life. He wanted you to feel alive right now, today, the present. The steps that deal with the past are merely there because you need to overcome jealousy and guilt and anything else that would be a barrier to feeling alive each day. But he also reminded you of the future. That’s one of the reasons why the last three steps are called the “maintenance” steps. He knew that you had a life to be lived.

Part Five — Live in the Present but Keep an Eye on the Future

It is interesting that everything we’ve been talking about this month says that recovery demands that the addict make sense of time in a new way.

In active addiction, the addict is concerned only with present time, the now. The past and future have no positive meaning. The past is mainly a source of guilt, and, in any case, it does not help him get and use drugs. Living with an eye on the future demands that the addict accomplish something, follow a plan, live for some future goal. This is not a useful strategy for addicts to keep using drugs. Perhaps worse, the future is unpredictable, and so it can be dangerous. What if things don’t work out? There are no guarantees with the future.

In recovery, on the other hand, the addict needs to live in the now, but be oriented toward the future. For example, he has to work through cravings, which means giving up immediate relief for the goal of abstinence. He might have to put off some immediate reward by going back to school for training, for the goal of getting a new job. He might have to work to take risks and be uncomfortable in the moment, for the goal of meeting someone to love.

If you remember some of the wise people we have talked about in other online blog articles, you’ll recognize how important it is for recovery to keep an eye on the future. The great psychiatrist Viktor Frankl said that each of us has some mission to fulfill, some goal or goals to accomplish in this life. If the person does not achieve this mission or this goal, then they suffer. Joseph Campbell, the famous expert on mythology, said that the recipe for the good life is to “Follow your bliss.” There is a future that awaits you. And, of course, the AA chip says on one side: “To thine own self be true.” You have some life that awaits you if you follow what you truly want out of being alive.

But to find the good life means that you have to live more than in just the moment. You have to keep an eye on the future. This is very difficult for most people in early recovery (and pretty much impossible for anyone in active addiction). But it offers hope. It all depends on whether you choose to pay attention to the future.

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