Managing Emptiness With the Illusion of Control: Women and Addiction

Managing Emptiness With the Illusion of Control: Women and AddictionGrace had been raised by a family with tightly held traditional values—her father was the lord of the house; she and her mother were to be subservient to her father and to make him proud by being demure women who represented their class and their breeding with utmost perfection. She sought her father’s approval above all else, and on a rare blue moon, he poured on the praise—usually after Grace had done something that could reflect highly on him, like scoring high marks and getting into a great college. But most of the time he was filled with criticism, denouncing her choices in dress, her weight (in spite of the fact that she was a healthy weight) and her decision to marry a businessman and not a lawyer, doctor or politician.

Sometimes her father’s words rang in the back of her mind and she wondered if her husband was good enough, but divorce simply wasn’t an option. She was completely disinterested in physical affection or sex, but she performed the duty she believed a wife should, always feeling a bit repulsed during and afterward, something her husband did not fail to notice. Then she buried herself in domestic activity—obsessing over housekeeping and décor, constantly redecorating, and by having children whose every move she could manage to the second. She was a PTA mom, a soccer mom and a stage mom for a daughter who competed in pageants beginning at the age of 6 months.

Grace’s penchant for shopping turned into a clothing addiction which reached into her children’s wardrobes, not just her own. Whenever she was feeling isolated, lonely, bored or disappointed that marriage and children hadn’t turned out to be the ideal her culture had raised her to believe, and that her father insisted it should be, she got online and clicked away: buy, buy, buy. She controlled the finances and had her packages delivered to the post office so her husband wouldn’t realize just how much she was spending. Along with the shopping addiction, Grace spent time obsessively reading romance novels and women’s erotica, binge watching reality television and planning and hosting community events designed to make her feel special and important in others’ eyes. But none of it helped for long; she continued to feel empty. The prescription tranquilizers she’d been given after the birth of her son became a daily habit, and she discovered that taking them with wine intensified the effect. Anything Grace could use to detach from reality and experience numbness, she tried, although she remained blind to her behaviors and never in a million years would have seen how she was trapped in an addictive cycle. Addicts were wretched people, she believed, who lived in depravity and had no morals. She was not one of those people.

Addiction Is Not About One Substance or One Behavior

Addiction is process of dysfunction that reaches into nearly every component of life. It is never about a single problem of attachment to just one substance or just one behavior. Think of the stereotypical AA meeting in which all the members drink pot after pot of coffee and afterward, chain smoke cigarettes. In an effort to control their addiction to alcohol, they have switched—or crossed over—to other more socially acceptable addictions, though many times those addictive issues were there all along.

For many people, addiction begins as the result of a series of emotional deficits that were created in childhood. The attachment to feel-good substances or behaviors like shopping, gambling, relationships or sex manifests in order to fill the void left by these early deficits. That void might be the underlying belief: “I am not worthy,” or “I am not good enough,” or “Nobody will ever love me.” Such beliefs are incredibly painful, and the habit of addiction serves to numb that pain and fill that cavity.

Women Seeking the Illusion of Control

Grace’s family of origin held rather extreme beliefs, but similar beliefs about the role of women in our society continue to exist. We are told that we can have it all, which can feel like a way of saying we “should” have it all, and when we find that this is incredibly difficult to put into practice, we may feel we are lacking something. Our consumer culture is happy to persuade us that we need another beauty product, another perfect outfit, another great shoe and just one more glossy magazine with the top 10 secrets for keeping a man satisfied in bed. It is no wonder that so many women (and men) fall into the trap of seeking illusory control in their external world because they have been sold the myth that they are a mess as they are. And it is understandable how women who succumb to this pressure end up disengaging from the emotional relationships in their lives, only performing, not living.

Addiction comes with a tremendous stigma. Part of the work of recovery is learning that this stigma is a myth, and that believing it keeps people sick, just as believing the lie of the “perfect mother and wife” prevents women from seeing that it is OK to be vulnerable, fallible and real—and that in fact, being vulnerable and real is what makes them truly beautiful, not the right shade of MAC lipstick or serving a perfect meal for a dinner party of 25.

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