With Addiction, Reality is an Acquired Taste
I rarely read books about people's personal struggles with addiction; probably because I hear these stories every day in the context of my work as an addiction counselor. But last week I saw Matthew Perry (Chandler from the TV show Friends) interviewed by Dianne Sawyer and felt compelled to read his memoir, Friends, Lovers, and the Big Terrible Thing. I finished it in a day, partially because Perry is a very funny writer, but also because he does a great job painting a picture of addiction and recovery from the point of view of someone who struggled with the illness for decades. And though I’ve heard stories like this many times, it’s particularly interesting to read about someone struggling despite having such an enviable life: making $1 million per week, dating Julia Roberts, etc.
One of the more interesting things I took away from the book, and, in fact, one of the pieces most often quoted in the media, is what one of Perry's many therapists once told him: "Reality is an acquired taste." I find this to be an interesting (and funny) way to describe a profound part of addiction and recovery. Once addicts like Matthew Perry are deep in their addiction, they spend less and less time being clean and more and more time either being high / drunk or thinking about and trying to be high / drunk. The more time one spends in addiction, the less time they spend in reality. Over time, this becomes their reality. So, when they are sober, they are uncomfortable. All of us, addicts and non-addicts, become comfortable with what we are familiar with. If one is drunk or high all the time, being sober is very uncomfortable and being high is what is familiar. Spending time in reality / sobriety is uncomfortable, if not excruciating. Needless to say, this doesn't apply to all addicts and alcoholics, but it does apply to those who are truly dependent on substances.
At First, Reality Does not Taste Good
For people who are habituated to spending life under the influence, reality does not feel good... at first. It tastes really bad - like black coffee tastes if one isn't a caffeine drinker. Or the way alcohol often tastes when one first drinks. Reality tastes so bad to many addicts and alcoholics that they quickly return to using to avoid the intense discomfort of sobriety. But if they can stay in reality / sobriety, it generally gets better over time. This is partially why residential treatment (A.K.A. rehab) can be so helpful to people with addictions. Being stuck somewhere with a lot of structure and support and where it is difficult or even impossible to find drugs or alcohol (rehabs are often located in the middle of nowhere in places like Utah or Arizona) forces addicts to get past the most uncomfortable initial period in sobriety and slowly acquire the taste for reality. Though ultimately nothing can stop someone from using if they are sufficiently motivated, the more difficult and inconvenient we can make this the better.
How Can We Help?
The main takeaway for addicts and those who love them is that over time if we can help people with addictions spend more time in reality, they will slowly acquire the taste for it. Over time, it will get more comfortable, and life will get better. Of course, being sober doesn’t feel good when you have gotten habituated to not feeling it or experiencing it.
For more information, visit my Drug and Alcohol Counseling page.
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