Marc Spetalnik, LSCW :: Licensed Psychotherapist
30 West 70th Street, Suite 1-C
New York, NY 10023
917-674-8787 Contact Me
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Compulsion and Addiction

Illustration of person lost in a maze
In daily life we may occasionally hear casual remarks like, “It’s just addictive!” or, “I could get addicted to that!” In these instances the speaker’s primary intention is to express simple enthusiasm: how pleasurable and worthy of repeating a certain experience has been, be it a fun activity or a first encounter with a new ice cream flavor. Yet, such common offhand statements may also spark some subtle, anxious discomfort in both the author and the listener: It is as if the very use of words related to addiction sparks a fleeting recognition that the option to partake or not could be lost.

Thus, all things that attract us, and which promise and sometimes deliver pleasure, can also threaten to touch a strand of vulnerability woven into us all: the latent potential for any rewarding experience to be transformed into a force operating beyond the reach of choice. When such a condition fully emerges it is called addiction.

As its insidious processes advance, addiction can greatly restrict the range of an individual’s options for feeling and thinking, while it steadily dictates his/her choice of behaviors. Ultimately, addiction’s remarkable, malign psychological power can and often does redefine and dominate the trajectory of an entire lifetime.

The Role of Compulsion

I regard the dynamics of compulsion as central to the onset and progression of addiction. It can be understood as a psychological phenomenon by which any rewarding or pleasurable experience can, and generally does, provide simultaneous relief from emotional discomfort. Thus, once an individual’s unconscious mind registers that a certain gratifying behavior or activity – even a pleasant sequence of thoughts or a fantasy – can simultaneously suppress uncomfortable and unwanted feelings – particularly those associated to vulnerability and helplessness – then that person may be automatically and repeatedly drawn back to that behavior. This can and often does continue regardless of whether there is any continuing pleasure or reward present. Under compulsion an individual is no longer primarily motivated by conscious volition, that is, in pursuit of gratification; instead, he/she acts primarily from an unconscious urge to regulate and attenuate uncomfortable and disturbing feelings.

The progression of compulsion presents as a continually intensifying pattern of behavior to which an individual unconsciously and repeatedly returns, almost as if in a trance, all of which is connected in the unconscious mind with diminishing negative feelings, primarily those associated to anxiety. These feelings may be as much anticipated as they are experienced in the present moment. Compulsive behavior patterns are further reinforced by a subtle, yet powerful “separation anxiety,” evoked within individuals when any habitual behavior associated with providing internal comfort may not be readily available. Thereby, compulsion can gradually take on a “life of its own” as full-blown addiction, its behaviors persisting despite the reduction or absence of any of the original pleasure or reward, and operating beyond an afflicted individual’s capacity even to consider punishing consequences to him/herself and others.

In my understanding and clinical approach to addiction, the dynamics of compulsion function in its very foundation and at its center. Within this framework, I observe that the more intense the emotional discomfort that a particular individual carries within (particularly that associated to vulnerability, shame, helplessness and anxiety), and the more unacknowledged and “un-lived” such feelings remain – as often they do under a myriad of social and cultural pressures – then the more vulnerable is that individual to compulsive processes associated to stark addiction.

I often assert that all aspects of our inner and external life – including those psychological phenomena and behaviors with the most severe personal and social consequences- are best understood and treated as fully integrated to the broad common ground of our human experience. This is particularly the case with compulsion, a ubiquitous psychological dynamic, naturally woven into the complex matrix of all our human motivation and behaviors. Daily, frequently, we all do certain (usually innocuous) things, or we may fantasize about ourselves in certain mood-enhancing ways, primarily in order to avoid feelings which we would rather not have.

Nonetheless, we tend to recognize compulsion and to label certain behaviors compulsive almost exclusively at the most intense points along its broad spectrum. Compulsion generally seems apparent to us only when it presents as stark addiction, evident in personally and socially destructive behaviors of others which may directly or indirectly impact us, or through media reports of individuals’ extreme, desperate or deadly actions: In one way or another we are frequently confronted by stories of persons driven (compelled) to extreme and destructive behaviors which seem to have had a life force of their own. Typically, our society responds with degrees of shock and astonishment, and with deep, well-intended soul searching, while at the same time, some cloud of perplexity and a confusion of explanations often lingers over the events.

Often lost amid these intense moments of collective reckoning is a quite discomforting yet entirely plausible further consideration: that even those most troubling, perplexing and shocking occurrences to which our society is witness may reflect critical psychological tipping points in the life of persons who are not entirely unfamiliar to ourselves. These persons may be driven by emotional forces not so very far removed – except by degrees of intensity – from the mainly benign operations of compulsion present in all our lives.

Yet, such an insight may entirely elude us, as we quite naturally prefer to distance our sense of Self from any sense of potential vulnerability to the dire consequences of extreme compulsion or addiction. Nonetheless, should we pause for a bit of further reflection we might all come to recognize, at least in a fleeting moment, some thread of kinship between our own ways of managing and extinguishing the most uncomfortable parts of our emotional experience – consisting mainly of shame, vulnerability, helplessness, and the intense anxiety that accompanies them – and that which drives the protagonists of extreme acts and shocking headlines.

Instead, we follow a nearly universal tendency to exercise considerable energy and creativity in maintaining within ourselves a generally positive, though carefully curated and redacted perspective on the whole of who we essentially are. Likewise, we extend a similarly filtered view of ourselves to others closest to us, all of which leads us to assume that we and they alike operate primarily or exclusively in the exercise of free will toward positive ends. We thus tend to ignore, particularly in ourselves, any present or future vulnerability whatsoever to the total surrender of our free will to compulsion, and particularly to the most serious dilemmas and negative consequences of addiction. Even as we all naturally partake of some degree of compulsive energy in our own range of behaviors, we seem innately disinclined to identify it as such in ourselves, as well as in those closest to us.

Such an inherent perceptual “blind spot” may in large part account for how often within our families of origin and in the broad social milieu as well, we can sometimes adjust to and “normalize” the most starkly negative, deeply impacting, repetitive behaviors of those among us who are in the firm grip of compulsions and addictions. So often it is the case that individuals afflicted with serious conditions such as compulsive overeating or food restriction, compulsive sexuality, hoarding, compulsive gambling, alcoholism and drug addiction can provoke a great deal of anxiety and even obsessive, futile attempts at control on the part of friends, spouses and family – those who are among the collaterally impacted. It is a commonplace that an addict’s chaotic emotional profile and erratic behaviors can ultimately confound and even paralyze even those best-informed and most well-meaning persons around them. It follows from this that compulsive/addicted  persons and their conditions can, and often do, gain a free hand to persist, unchallenged and untreated, even as they deeply, negatively impact all concerned.

The compulsive-addictive force seems to create a shadow world of sometimes acute perceptual blindness within afflicted persons. Commonly labeled “denial,” such subjective distortion operates as if at the direct behest of the compulsion/addiction, acting in perfect collusion with an affected individual’s creative, idealized self-perception. As if to protect and perpetuate itself, compulsion and addiction tends to present itself to those in whom its operates in the guise of free will; often it is framed as a lifestyle choice or preference. It further provides its sufferers with a false sense of the uniqueness and worthiness of even the most injurious of behaviors, while reinforcing the addicts’ delusion of invulnerability and impunity.

Addiction and compulsive conditions thereby establish a deep internal psychological relationship with their victims; this bond generally bypasses any reasonable perception of the threat and danger that they truly present to those fully in their grip. Simultaneously, secretly, and with tragic irony, the habits and behaviors associated to these conditions come to feel inwardly ever-more indispensable to their victims’ sense of internal comfort, safety and even, survival. Following an essentially tragic course, compulsions and addiction can gradually establish absolute supremacy within the psyche of any human being – and stealthily take an entire life prisoner.

I know and understand compulsive behavior and the addictions;
I treat individuals at all levels of these most challenging and potentially tragic human conditions,
and help them to reclaim and renew their lives.

Among these persons are:

those who still struggle within lives driven by compulsion/addiction, perhaps still unable to acknowledge its presence as such;

those confronting persistent compulsions related to acknowledged addiction,
and those still dealing with addiction’s complex impact upon their lives;

those persons among the many who have been touched by living experience in recovery:
whose compulsions and addictions have been transformed within its unique and rewarding pathways,
and who seek to deepen and enrich their connection to themselves and others.

If you recognize any aspect of yourself among these persons, and you are seeking help, please consider contacting me. Contact me.

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My Perspective on Recovery

AA Recovery CoinThroughout many years’ experience treating clients with histories of alcoholism, addiction and compulsive conditions, I have witnessed the therapeutic, deeply transforming power of the recovery experience as an undeniable living reality.

Therefore, any client’s participation and experience in a recovery program is an entirely welcome and useful presence in our work in psychotherapy. It can provide vital social support, as well as day-in and day-out therapeutic experience according to a philosophy and worldview fully compatible with my clinical perspective and approach. Specifically, the recovery experience facilitates and deeply reinforces positive changes in the overall self-narrative of its dedicated participating individuals: It can impart vital shape and hopeful direction to lives that previously seemed trapped in disarray and despair. An individual’s recovery program is thereby not only wholly synergistic with our work in therapy – the total being greater than the sum of the parts – It is a key element in achieving and sustaining positive changes in any life with a history of compulsive behavior and addiction.

Recovery – also collectively described as “The Recovery Movement” or “The 12-Step Culture” – is usually identified by any of the component programs of its broad sphere: Alcoholics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, Debtors Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and a host of other closely-related fellowships. However identified, these programs of recovery have proven a virtually indispensable resource for persons seeking to create and sustain a lasting remission from alcoholism and other addictions, and for those seeking lifelong manageability of deep compulsions.

The Recovery Movement as a whole – though highly valued and often revered by its participants – has also been a recurring target of basic misperceptions, of mislabeling and at times, of harsh criticism leveled primarily by a media and public naturally self-excluded from any first-hand, personal, living experience of its programs, and therefore, largely ignorant of them. Particularly, those many members of our society who have had little or no direct contact with the lives of addicts and compulsive persons transformed by participation in a recovery program have found its members’ lifelong, rigorous dedication to its culture and activities somewhat odd and alien.

Ironically, such skepticism may be unintentionally reinforced by key, valuable principles central to Recovery culture itself: Among them are opting to attract participants over exercising direct advocacy and active promotion, reflected  primarily in traditional, firm recommendations that its members maintain their “anonymity” in public. This latter principle – of anonymity – serves not only to safeguard individuals from possible stigma associated with being addicted and compulsive, but above all, to limit the possibility that any one individual’s experience with, and association to a particular recovery program may be perceived as a primary and accurate representation of its whole.

Furthermore, for reasons partly related to these guidelines of anonymity, rigorous statistical evaluation of the long-term efficacy of 12-step recovery has been historically challenging. Nonetheless, despite significant anecdotal evidence of addiction relapse among some members of recovery fellowships; despite the natural, foreseeable, sometimes chronic psycho-social struggles of certain individuals who do maintain long-term abstinence from addictions and compulsive behaviors, certain basic truths prevail, and they are unambiguous:

For centuries, addiction, and alcoholism in particular, represented an irreversible one-way path in the lives of those afflicted. These conditions, dreaded and widely reviled, generally led to years of unrealized potential and unfulfilled living. They inflicted physical misery and created immeasurable emotional turmoil in the lives of the afflicted as well as others whose lives they impacted. Until a major turning point in the 1930’s, marked by the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous, the almost inevitable trajectory of an addict/alcoholic’s life was precipitous physical and psychological decline, often leading to premature death.

The eight decades of AA and its related recovery programs have created an unprecedented alternative course by which millions of previously doomed persons have been directed out of chronic suffering, away from self-defeating and abusive behaviors, and often, toward transcendent self-realization over the course of entire lifetimes.