Addiction – A Hiding Place in a Harsh World


The chill on the wind deepens and bites. Temperatures plummet.  Daily we add layer upon crucial layer to protect us from the bone chilling cold.  We live in a part of the world where winter is cruel and harsh. It kills every living plant that wasn’t born here – anything that doesn’t have hardiness built deep in their DNA.

I wasn’t meant for this. I was designed for endless heat and when the temperatures soar, I thrive.  At the first sign of fall, my feet grow cold and despite however many layers I pile on, there will be no hope of continuous warmth until spring.

So I pile on layer after suffocating layer.  My car’s seat warmer is a necessity not a luxury.

Bare Feet in Snow

I had a brother growing up that would walk in the snow in his bare feet.  I thought he was crazy.  He insisted he was tough – like his people.  He wasn’t part of the original 10 children that made up our family.  My parents invited him to join our table when he was 12 years old, as there was always room for one more.

We had met him when he landed at a foster home that attended the same church we did.  He had, like so many others, been shuffled from home to home to home over the years and now, at 12 years old, he was officially up for adoption.

Wild and Free

He loved horses.  With thermos lids clenched in his hands he became a mustang – wild and free.   He would toss his mane, paw the air with rebellious thrashing and then gallop away, his makeshift hooves clattering noisily across the patterned linoleum.  Wild and free.  In play, he escaped the pain of his world and became unrestrained and unburdened – a boy on the verge of manhood, playing games most boys had outgrown.

Scarred inside and out.  Round burn-marks on his body that he said was how he was taught to not cry as a baby.  Stab wounds from fights between his mom and her boyfriend.  The worst scars were buried deep below. Invisible internal wounds that never stop hurting and inviting more hurt.  His wounded heart silently screaming for something it had never known but instinctively knew it needed.

At six years old he had watched his sister, in an effort to escape cruel teasing, run to her death under a train.  It was a horrific tragedy, but a worse tragedy took place in the heart of that little boy.  He had failed to protect her.  In no way should he bear that burden.  This unfathomable moment set off a string of events that he has wrestled with his entire life.  Shortly after, he was left behind on the city streets.  His mom unable to bear her own pain, left him.  Child Protection Services picked him up and he began the endless foster care shuffle that landed him in our home.

Our family gave him a home, a place, and a “White man’s name” that he was proud of.  We had no idea how to deal with all that hidden pain though.  Spring would come and he would run away – a little farther every year.  Inevitably he would be found and we would pick him up dirty, stinky and endlessly determined.  At sixteen he found what he was looking for – his mother.  The saddest thing was, even after ten years of separation, she still didn’t want him.  One can only imagine what pain a mother has to be in to push away her own child, not once, but twice. Pain that is not dealt with doesn’t go away, it just spreads.  Addiction was at play here.  Addiction is a cloak that we use to barricade our wounded hearts.

Layer of Addiction

Addiction is like a parka.  It starts when we throw on a layer to protect ourselves from the harsh world.  Similar to the way I feel about winter – unprepared and unable to cope –  addiction offers a layer of protection between us and the harsh cold world.  One layer that no one notices…then we add another layer…and a valiant attempt to hold out the pain that inevitable seeps in the cracks.

  ‘Addiction is the cloak sensitive people use to protect themselves from a harsh world.” 

(Adapted from Glennon Doyle Melton)

Addiction can keep out the pain but it also keeps out the good.  Addiction doesn’t allow us to be loved. Addiction doesn’t makes us forget we were once lovable.  The layers start, often so we can survive in this harsh climate, but before long they block out everything.

“Picture emotions as having very sharp point, like thorns.  When they prick us, they cause discomfort or even pain.  After a while the mere anticipation of these feelings can trigger a sense of intolerable vulnerability..For many of us, the first response is not to lean into the discomfort and feel our way through, but to make it go away.  We do that by numbing the pain with whatever provides the quickest relief.  We take the edge off emotional pain with a whole bunch of stuff, including alcohol, drugs, food, sex, relationships, money, work, caretaking, gambling, affairs, religion, chaos, shopping, planning, perfectionism, constant change, and the internet. And just so don’t miss it in this long list of all the ways we can numb ourselves, there’s always staying busy: living so hard and fast that the truths of our lives can’t catch up with us…We are the most in-debt, obese, medicated, and addicted adults in human history.”.(Brene Brown, Rising Strong)

Addiction is so painful for everyone involved.  Whatever the substance is, it doesn’t heal the pain, it just numbs it.


4 Thoughts To Ponder:

Do you have an addict in your life?  In our efforts to help we often try several things.  Here are 4 things for you to ponder.

  1. You can’t beat the layers off.  Shame, guilt, and punishment only pile on more layers.  Heaping on shame has never cured anyone…ever.
  2. You can’t heat the layers off with our love. Sometimes we assume that because negative action doesn’t work, positive action will.  We believe in love and the power of love but sadly enough our efforts are too often prevented from reaching the core of the person by the layers built up between us and them.
  3. You need to be honest.  Truth gets foggy when we deal with addicts.  We always want them to be honest but just as often we need to flip that around and be willing ourselves to be honest about what we are seeing and how this is affecting us. Because in the end…
  4. The only person who can truly remove the layers is the one who put them on.  That’s their job.

If you are close to an addict you know all too well that, although you want to help, the layers are too thick to actually reach the person.  We use shame, guilt, punishment and when we don’t get results we switch things up and try love, help and warmth.  When that doesn’t work, we randomly flop back to the other, ending up feeling trapped and resorting to manipulation. It is a vicious cycle that, crazy enough, mirrors and inflames the cycle the addict is going through.

We live in a world where piling on the layers has become the norm. The number of overdoses and attempted overdoses are staggering.  This year there have been over 400 deaths by overdose in BC alone.  Over 2000….yes 2000!!!… have been prevented by a new drug that reverses the effects.

So much pain.  So little hope.

So what do we do to help?

 <Insert Easy Answer Here>

I wish I had that answer.  I believe there are many answers.  I believe none of them are easy.  I also believe each answer is as unique and as complicated as each individual.  BUT the purpose of my writing is not to give you tools to fix the world.  Like #4, that states only the person who put on the layers can remove them – the only person you can consistently effect change in is yourself.  (I heard that groan!  Isn’t that a nasty truth!)

What are we to do?

Key #1:  Watch Your Own Layering

Watch your own layering.  It’s a natural thing, when the weather turns cold we start to layer on sweaters.  Often when our internal world gets cold and hard, we start to layer protection over our sensitive hearts – often without even knowing we are doing it.  The dessert you crave goes from occasional to daily to several times daily.  The glass of wine to relax becomes two or three or a bottle, today, tomorrow and the next.  The case of “whatever” disappears despite your best intentions to make it last. The credit card racks up as you indulge in your favorite obsession. Hours disappear as your mind seeks a place of solace. What are you doing to protect your own heart from the pain of the world?

Sharon Hersh writes about addiction as a counsellor and from her first-hand experience, “Most of the craziness in addiction – relapses, frenetic activity to try to save ourselves, and rage and shock at the addicts we love – comes when we run away from pain.  The only thing worse than feeling pain is not feeling pain, because attempts to numb or escape pain will often lead to addictive behaviors.” Sharon Hersh, The Last Addiction.

It doesn’t just happen to “those people.”  It can happen to us.  We may not dive into an addiction that destroys our lives but anything we use to hide and numb destroys a piece of who we are.

Key #2  Look at it Through a Different Lens.

When we remove the guilt and shame of addiction and see it as a form of layering that we all are prone to in order to protect ourselves from a harsh world – things start to look different.  Stopping the layering and feeling the suffering is actually a sign that we are on the path of healing.  “We all get lost in our workaholism, people pleasing, and numbing behaviors and we try to escape the pain of life and the messiness of loving others.  But some of us appear more whole than others, and that may be the greatest danger of all.”  (Sharon Hersh, The Last Addiction)

Key #3  Develop your own Spiritual Life.

Notice I didn’t say “get religious.” The days of religious prayers where we demand that God fix others need to be left behind.  If your religion has led you to believe certain behaviours need to be hidden and covered up, then you will engage in shaming, blaming, and guilt laying – none of which lead to healing.  No one, ever, has been shamed, blamed or guilted onto the path of healing. Developing a spiritual life involves getting honest with where you are and what you are feeling.  Some of us have been numbing those feelings for so long we don’t even know how to feel.

I find it interesting that Jesus said about himself that he is the Light of the World.  A light shows how things really are.  It doesn’t hide or cover up.  The Bible also says he bears our shame and guilt – he doesn’t heap it on.  The people who profess to be his followers shouldn’t either.

There’s a story in the Bible about a woman “caught in adultery” that is thrown at Jesus’ feet and the religious leaders asked for his judgement on her.  In the space of obvious guilt and shame he offered no condemnation and instead turned that light back on those who were pointing fingers. “Let those without sin, throw the first stone.”  What happened?  The religious leaders walked away.  I can see them pulling their layers around themselves before they turned.

I wish that story would have ended differently. I think the saddest part of this story is in the end –  all those wanting to make things right in the world by exposing sin went away hiding their own guilt and shame.  I wish at least one of them had shown solidarity with the woman on the ground.  I wish when Jesus said, “I don’t condemn you either, go and leave your life of sin” that one of them, with tears streaming down his face, would have stepped up and said “I’m just as broken.  Let’s do this together.”

If you are searching to “fix” things, check your own layers first, check the judgemental thinking and realign your own spirituality.  The path to fixing the world starts somewhere in your own corner of it.

I wish I had a happy ending for you.**  I haven’t been in contact with the brother I wrote about in years. I don’t know where he is or what he is doing. In the world of crazy social media, he somehow manages to stay under the radar.  The last time I talked to him, well over a decade ago, he was deep in addiction and despairing of life.  I couldn’t convince him he was loved – numbing blocks out the good as well as the bad.  I pray in his world that spring would come with new warmth and hope. I pray he will find the courage to peel the layers off and teach us a better path to reach damaged boys.  The world is filled with damaged boys…and more than a few girls…that need to show us a better way.

In this crazy world, I think we’ve all been touched by addiction in one way or another.  How are you doing with your own “layering”? 

**I do have a happy ending for you!  In 2017, this same long, lost brother made contact with me after almost 30 years of silence.  He has a beautiful story of redemption and healing.  He is a Social Worker and works in the field of Child Protection.  I can’t tell you the details of the story here (I’m trying to get him to write them in a book!) but I’m excited to stand here and yell…THERE IS HOPE!!! 🙂  If you are a foster parent, adoptive parent or just curious email me, I’ll tell you more!

Would you like to know more  how to deal with those struggling with addiction?  Scroll back up to the top and enter you name and email in the side bar to get my FREE resource:  The Insider’s Guide to Walking with Addiction Without Losing Your Mind

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