Is It Possible To Be Free Within An Addiction?

This blog is challenging for me to write because in all honesty I don’t know the answer to this question.

My aim is to put this question out and see what happens as a result.

Is it possible to be free within an addiction?In the recovery community, there is so much talk about “freedom from”, “going beyond”, or “breaking free from” an addiction. This makes sense as most people experience addiction as a suffering that they long to be free from. Perhaps this is why the premium therapy and coaching package I offer to my clients is called Freedom from Addiction. I really need to call myself out on this one though. In reality, I can honestly say that I have yet to meet someone who is, completely free of addiction. Including myself!

Experience tells me that addiction is a miserable place to be. Whenever I have spent time in that place, I am barely functional due to the crippling shame and anxiety that arise as a result of being out of integrity with myself. It’s a frightening place to be when I don’t feel in control and have lost connection with myself.

When I am caught up in the cycle of addiction, everything in my life suffers. My health, my business, my relationships, my spirituality, and anything else that I value, is negatively impacted. At least that’s the way it is here.

When I am no longer connected to myself, how can I be truly connected to anyone or anything else? For me freedom, as a living day to day experience within an addiction, is not something I experience as being possible. At least not yet! And I am certainly not about to jump into any addictive behaviours to find out if such a freedom is possible.

For me, freedom from addiction begins with abstinence. Then there is a chance of sobriety. If I am not sober, then no freedom is possible. In sobriety, I am at home within myself and able to navigate the challenges of life with much more awareness and clarity. When I am sober, I am much more in ownership of my life, and am able to respond to what shows up rather than react.

When sober, if I identify something that I want to create, I get busy doing what’s needed to make it happen. If I am not sober, I am much more likely to be in victim mode.

When I am caught in addictions, I find myself wallowing in self-pity and resenting those who have what I don’t. In this place, life feels unstable, and I find myself reacting to life in conditioned and unconscious ways that often lead to more messiness and confusion.

Now, I can almost hear the sound of spiritual/personal development police sirens here.

“If you have to be sober in order to experience freedom, then that means your freedom is conditional!”

“True freedom is not dependent upon anything!”

“Freedom is your true nature, regardless of what behaviours you indulge in.”

“You are never disconnected from yourself, no matter what you do.”

OK, great…. Thanks for that! Firstly, I define freedom as a living experience, not a concept! I know from personal experience that such statements hold some truth here. I have glimpsed these truths in the midst of addiction, but these glimpses didn’t create a lasting experience of freedom. It was the actions I took as a result of those glimpses that created any freedom I have today.

Most of the people I hear spouting these kinds of things have little or no experience of addiction, or are so fully in the grips of it that they use such terms as a way of bypassing/disowning their behaviours.

These people certainly aren’t free within their addictions, unless you count passivity in the face of the habitual destruction of one’s potential, AKA denial, as freedom, which I don’t!

With all of this in mind, it’s easy to turn to black and white thinking. It would be easy to think that the only way to find freedom from addiction is to simply be abstinent. Experience tells me that if I am abstinent for some time, then I will sober up in my thinking and that my emotions will settle down, so I reconnect with myself and experience a relative freedom.

And yet, I have seen too many signs of something else being possible. I have met too many people who appear to be free within their addictions for me to think about this in such black and white terms.

It is common knowledge that some of the most beautiful sutras and art have been created through alcohol-drenched brain cells. Some of the greatest poets and mystics throughout history have had strong vices and yet still served as powerful conduits for the divine. I used to believe such people were rare, until I started meeting them here and there in daily life.

When I lived in Zurich, Switzerland, I used to spend time walking the streets of the old town district. One day, whilst walking those streets and contemplating life, I came across a drunken old man who began a conversation with me.

I didn’t want to speak with him at first, and tried to avoid engaging him. He started speaking to me in Swiss German, a language that I have difficulty understanding, and then in English when he saw that I was not getting his words.

He was of Spanish decent and his name was Tiago, short for Santiago (St James). As I connected with this man and listened to his story, I sensed a kind of archetypal energy that I had often dismissed as a beautiful myth. And yet, here before me, was a very real human embodiment of Zorba the Greek, Jalāl ad-Dīn Rumi, Sinbad the Sailor, and even the shepherd boy, whose name was Santiago, in my favourite book, The Alchemist – by Paulo Coelho.

This man, Tiago, was free within his addiction. The shame, guilt, regret, the lost potential, were all there as the burden of his alcoholism, and yet he was incarnate as pure being, with a heart as big as the sky. He was a living expression of what Jung would call in his work on archetypes ‘The Lover’.

Tiago is just one of the many people I have met who is/was, as far as I can tell, free within an addiction. Who knows if he even thought of his alcohol consumption as an addiction? Certainly he had an alcoholic body, but his spirit/soul was so much bigger than any of that.

In Thailand back in 2001, I met a man who had the crazy wisdom of a Zen master. A man whose life had clearly been blighted by all kinds of addictions, but at the same time had been in service of something much greater. He was a Schichidan in Aikido, and spoke with tender affection for his master Ryōkan, whose poetry he had read every day for almost 20 years.

For a few years I followed a teacher who had a very powerful presence. His life was committed to passing on the transmission he received from his teacher, and yet he had unresolved addictions which came to light in 2006 when his foundation fell apart after revolations about a sexual affair with a female student.

I recently attended a TRE class in North London. The leader of the class was a man who embodied similar qualities. He spoke about his addictions with an open heart and I could see his pain, but also his deep acceptance, love, and gratitude for this life that he had been given.

These are just a few examples of people I have met who somehow refuse to allow addiction to get in the way of them living with an open heart. When I put it like that, it sounds like a choice that they made to live in that way.

Perhaps at some point it was a choice? Perhaps at some point the pain and suffering of their addictions got too much to bear and, in the powerlessness and inability to change their behaviours, they instead surrendered to the fullness of their human experience – imperfect as it was/is?

I am asking these questions because I do not know the answer. To me this feels exciting and dangerous, but it also feels very alive. Living life in the place of being a victim of addiction is no life at all! Suppression of addiction is not much better.

The sobriety I have found in my own life has created the space for some wonderful things, but I would not be totally honest if I said my recovery journey feels complete. I still carry minor anxiety, self-doubt, and shame about my past, and somehow believe that I need these things in order to keep myself vigilant against the dark days returning.

Now I am asking the question “What if there is another way?” “What if there is another step to take?” I don’t mean another way in the form of finding freedom within an addiction, but I am drawn to what I see as a living realization in the Tiago’s of this world. I love the way they transmit the essence of the lover, and their refusal to allow their light to be dulled. They live with an open heart, in love with life, even if it hurts. Perhaps one day I will be a lover like them?

At the same time I am left wondering what might have been for these people? What could have been had they lived more deliberately? How could they have served in a greater capacity if their precious life force had not been bound in the cycle of addiction? We are all free to choose our actions, but we cannot choose the consequences. Who knows how the lives of those closest to them have been affected by their addictions? Perhaps others have carried the burden for them in some way?

When I ask if there is another step to take, I’m thinking that this is really all about balance. What I can learn from the Tiago’s of this world is the possibility of living with a more open heart so that, if failure happens, I can at least open in the face of it rather than close down into over-protection. I think that the Tiago’s of this world can also learn something from the likes of me in discovering the power of a committed and sober life.