I and not-I. Understanding, pre-empting and treating addictive behaviour

By Michaela Glöckler, April 2016

Addiction and dependency are indications of a search – a longing for identity, for a “true experience of ourselves”, for “feeling good”. Preventing addiction thus has as its goal: strengthening the personality, supporting the healthy development of our identity.

Photo: © carlitos / photocase.de

Drug use – isn’t that “normal” today? 

More than 140 new substances have come on to the illegal drugs market in recent years. Substance abuse is currently one of the most serious health problems which places our body and life at risk. But there are also the apparently quite normal risks: for sweet things, sex, gaming and experiences.

Addiction and drugs belong to the world in which we live as something quite natural. Emancipation and isolation lead the individual to experience at an early stage that life is not simple – so at least we want to “feel good” occasionally, enjoy life and escape boredom. Drug use then appears as a welcome escape from a home environment marked by conflicts and lack of understanding, from worries and problems at school or in the workplace.

Since according to the 2015 WHO report a lack of orientation, doubt, hate, fear and worry are increasing worldwide, and do not stop at children and young people either, it is understandable that about every third to fifth person worldwide consumes alcohol and every tenth to fifteenth person is at risk of reaching for other drugs when under the corresponding psychosocial pressure.

It is equally understandable that increasing numbers of people are calling for the legalisation of drugs and thus want to place the responsibility for drug use with the individual. Because how can something be sensibly banned which increasing numbers of people consider to be normal because they “need” it and because “many others” do it as well?

Autonomy and dependence

In his study on the development of human beings and animals, Bernd Rosslenbroich has for the first time set out convincingly, using the methodology of the natural sciences, that the whole of the evolution of species is characterised by the principle of autonomy. That is to say, every step in the upward development of animals and human beings at the same time represents a gain in the capacity for autonomy.

In human development this culminates in the self-determined, “free” personality. Human beings are physically, mentally and spiritually the most adaptable and free: in coping with heat and cold, the choice of foods and meal times, in how much they sleep and work, in the work-life balance, the choice of partner and friends, occupation, religious affiliation, world view and the number of languages they want to learn, in the hobbies they choose, their love life and whether or not they want to have children.

But the capacity for self-determination and autonomy also inevitably has its painful shadow side which consists of not wanting or (no longer) being able to grasp the potential for autonomy. Then we are dealing with addictive behaviour and dependency – the greatest challenge for education in the twenty-first century! How can we prevent the addiction-related autonomy deficit? How can the development of an autonomous identity be supported?

It does not take long – as a rule starting with the third year of life – for the child to discover the idea of its own I and to say “I” to itself from that moment onwards. Here already it is crucial for the further course of events that this experience is associated with a positive experience of identity. From about the age of nine a further dimension of self-experience is added: the feeling what it means to be an “I”: children at this age frequently have adoption fantasies, ask about their origins, experience what it means not to be understood – even by their nearest and dearest.

The natural familiar feeling of belonging cracks. The associated loneliness can be so painful that teen depression can have its origin here, just as alcohol and drug addiction can also go back to this age. At 16, a third experience of identity is added: wanting to stand up for the things for which one can and wants to take responsibility. Questions such as: “What do I really want? For what can I take responsibility? What can I affirm?” start to become real.

These three step in experiencing autonomy within our soul require good and sensitive support if they are to develop in a healthy way. If this does not happen, then the consequence is identity deficits and insecurities. If it does happen, then the young adult is inwardly strong enough and ready to master the most difficult challenge: voluntary self-determination.

The latter can develop and is demanded by life when a crisis occurs and we are suddenly completely at a loss about what to do. Then we face the burning question: what provides support and counts in life when suddenly there is no longer any support? Is there a way to maintain an inner hold even when I am “left hanging”, “am flailing about”, “have lost my footing” or have fallen into utter despair and doubt about myself or the world?

In such a situation only “eternal values” can support us: goals regarding our own development which originate wholly in ourselves and the decisions of our most intimate conscience – out of the connection with God, our higher self we have discovered on our own. In spiritual and religious tradition this is referred to as the secret of the “second birth”: not out of our mother’s body but out of our own spiritual struggle for self-knowledge.

Rudolf Steiner puts it like this in his Philosophy of Freedom: “A person is free who is in a position to follow themselves at every moment in their life.” Such following oneself is, at the same time, the epitome of autonomy.

Seen in this light, today’s problem of addiction and dependency must occur with a certain inevitability as a symptom of drugs and of the experience of identity within a group of like-minded persons taking the place of the increasingly mature competence of the I. If we do not succeed in passing through the stages of healthy identity formation and autonomy development, then a kind of “surrogate identity” comes about.

Prevention and therapy

In Place of the Self is the book, well worth reading, of the Dutch drug addiction therapist and psychologist Ron Dunselman in which he describes the physical, mental and spiritual effects of drugs. In fact the respective drug takes the place of the I in that it replaces the latter’s activity and communicates certain experiences without the person having to undertake the necessary work of inner development themselves.

How much easier it is to take a sleeping pill than, for example, learn to pray or embark on a meditative path through which we can find inner calm for ourselves. How much simpler it is to take tablets which shield us or are euphorigenic instead of practicing the necessary self-education and inner stabilisation so that we can not only cope better with the circumstances of our life but also master them.

On the other hand it is equally surprising and moving to see the suffering to which some people are exposed to whom it would nevertheless never occur to protect themselves with psychotropic and other drugs or reach for the bottle.

Preventing addiction and drug use always starts with strengthening the personality, the will to train and develop oneself. By promoting trust in oneself, respect and social competence, prevention endeavours to make children and adolescents resistant to the risk factor of drugs.

The right relationship and three ways of learning

Drug-dependent children, adolescents and adults are often more sensitive than others. They cannot cope with the hardships of everyday life. They either avoid problems or seek to resolve them by force – they find it difficult to deal with them day after day until they have really come to terms with them. Accordingly drug addiction treatment can only hope to be successful with a great effort from the drug users and a supportive environment. Because the most effective remedy for those in danger of addiction is a “good” human relationship. But what is that?

The answer I repeatedly received in seminars and in discussions after lectures was: the relationship must be honest, loving and leave the person free. Or alternatively: a real interest in the other person and respecting their autonomy. Or I was told: trusting and without conditions attached. People were trying to describe a kind of ideal of human values because they felt the destructive influence of a lack of interest, distrust and coercion of any kind on the nature of the relationship. But there is an additional factor in the prevention of addiction: the radical abstinence from drugs – particularly the socially acceptable ones.

Alcohol as the most powerful gateway drug. Because anyone who demands something of others which they cannot fulfil themselves will not be able to achieve and help a great deal. Anyone who is responsible for growing children and young people – as a paediatrician, as a teacher or pre-school teacher and, dare I say, as parents and close relatives – must be a role model.

Because there are – as Confucius already noted – three ways of learning: through imitation, that is the simplest; through insight, that is the most difficult; and through our own experience, that is the most bitter. If we resolve to be a role model regarding abstinence from drugs we help children and adolescents to process their experiences so that they themselves can develop an insight into what is good for them and what is not!

Children and adolescents react with lifelong gratitude to people who were a role model for them in their critical years of development – and who simply through “being themselves” could provide orientation and radiate confidence.

About the author: Dr. med. Michaela Glöckler was a paediatrician at the Herdecke community hospital and the university paediatric clinic in Bochum, worked as a school doctor at the Rudolf Steiner School in Witten and has led the Medical Section at the Goetheanum since 1988.