Note: All identifying details have been altered to protect confidentiality, and permission has been ascertained from individuals described in the article.

Last night an educator in a prominent high school called me after her son had dropped out of treatment. She has always projected a strong and confident demeanor, but our conversation suggested a different side to her. She struggled to hold back tears as she asked, “What do I need to do?” She explained that her position required offering solutions for parents and students – “She needs a math tutor,” “Your daughter will not receive a regents diploma unless she…”  And yet, she now found herself baffled, frustrated, and on the verge of a breakdown. “We did everything right with our kids, we provided them with everything, and yet he refuses to get better.  He sits at home and refuses any help.” Finally, she asked the question that parents and family members inevitably ask, “Why him, what did we do wrong?”

Addiction is an amazingly complicated disease. In Alcoholics Anonymous they label it, “Cunning, baffling and powerful.” Identifying, diagnosing, and treating it are incredibly difficult, and yet understanding its roots – where it emanates from, is nearly impossible.  I do not believe that one single factor can account for the development of an “addictive personality.” However, through my work in this field, I have been able to identify common denominators that exist amongst most of the clients walking through my door.

One of the most frequent indicators of addiction is the inability to experience vulnerability, which is endemic to Western culture. We live in a world where the message is often: emotions=weakness. Sometimes, we even grow up in homes where that idea is communicated. Imagine an eight-year-old who runs home crying after being teased on the bus, and the father’s first instinct is to tell him to stop crying and man up. Or similarly, his mother suggests that he ignore those bullies.  

Both of these suggestions implicitly tell the child that his experience – feeling these negative emotions: pain, hurt, shame, should not occur. He is being told to make-believe, to act as if nothing happened. I have been guilty of doing this same thing with my child. When he trips, grazes his knee, and comes running to me, crying “Booboo,” my gut reaction is to say “Don’t cry, it doesn’t hurt.” IT DOES HURT, or so my son perceives it as such.

Addicts have often described to me the difficulty they encounter when things do not go there way.  Many people, not just addicts, struggle with this.  Similarly, we inevitably experience moments of paralyzing fear, guilt, deep frustration, rejection, and hurt. As a culture, we have been programmed to instinctively react by drowning these out and moving past. We have many techniques that allow us to remain distracted – to not dwell in the negative emotions. So many of my clients come into my office desperately trying to purge all negative feelings – ironically, creating even more anxiety and tension. They boldly state, “Emotions are weakness.” By ‘emotions,’ they are only referring to the negative experiences; they would never purposefully want to dull happiness, confidence, belonging, or excitement.

Drugs and alcohol are probably the best numbing method. However, they are not the only technique we humans use to avoid reality. Just look at the soaring obesity rate, excessive reliance on mood-altering medications (anti-depressants are the most frequently prescribed medication in adults 18-44; their prescription rate has skyrocketed 400% in the last 15 years), extreme debt, and soaring divorce rate. I will not audaciously state that I have a preventative tool for addiction. However, I deeply believe that any movement we make towards accepting our own vulnerabilities diminishes the chances of addiction and unhealthiness cropping out. 

A father once texted me, stating that his father was in critical care in the hospital and things were not looking well. He was worried about his 10-year-old son, my client. I asked how the son was reacting and he responded, “I think he is sad and he realizes it’s serious but I don’t think he really knows how serious it is.  He saw me crying the other day but I’ve been trying to be strong.” I interpreted “trying to be strong” to imply that he was holding back his tears around the son. I responded by suggesting that sometimes it is ok to not be strong in front of him – to cry and express sadness, explaining that it is powerful for him, even if it can make him very sad or even scared.

Teaching our children this same lesson, giving them room to feel painful emotions, is one of the best drug-prevention skills they can ever have.