Addiction and Magical Thinking

Addiction and Magical Thinking

The Value of Reality

We’re a society of addicts. Just look around you. There are smokers, drinkers, drug abusers, degenerate gamblers. Then there are the slightly less obvious examples: compulsive shoppers, overeaters, workaholics, those endlessly glued to video games or Twitter. When it comes to addictions there seems to be no end to the possibilities. Why?

There’s no one simple reason; obviously, genetics and brain physiology play a part, as does the availability of so many outlets for addictive urges. But there’s another reason, not as readily apparent, one that stems from the way we look at life.

Based in Los Angeles, Phil Stutz is a psychiatrist and Barry Michels is a psychotherapist.

Editor: Nadeem Noor

The modern person lives with a contradiction. We like to think of ourselves as realists; using the powers of science and logic, we pride ourselves on seeing the world as it really is. But when it comes to our own lives all this realism goes out the window. We become children who still believe in magic.

This belief in magic underlies all our addictions. Superficially, addictions—whether to taking drugs, making money, shopping, etc.—are driven by a desire for immediate gratification. But as an addiction deepens it becomes harder and harder to feel satisfied. We repeat the behavior over and over again but something is lacking in the experience.

What’s missing, what we’re really looking for, is magic. Without realizing it, we want that momentary pleasure or excitement we feel to be a passageway into a whole new world—a world of ease. Unfortunately, it’s a world that doesn’t exist. Reality requires us to face three things: pain, uncertainty, and the need for constant work. No one, no matter how famous or rich, is exempt from these requirements.

The easiest way to expose the weakness of magical thinking is to look at people who succeed. I once had a patient, a young actor, who was addicted to meeting and conquering women. None of them ever satisfied him—but rather than work on himself he kept going from one to the next. He told himself that, once he became a star, he’d be famous enough to finally find that one magical woman who would solve his problem and change his life.

That’s not exactly what happened. He did become a star and, unfortunately, it happened suddenly. He was not prepared. He began to date a woman who was as famous as he was. Within months he became dissatisfied with her; she demanded that he actually listen to what she said, interact with her friends, travel to meet her on location, etc. All this took work, as every relationship does. This wasn’t what he’d signed up for.

He went back to his old addictive mindset, started to look around, and was this close to breaking up with her. Then he had the strangest—and most educational—experience. He was at a newsstand (yes, we still have them in Los Angeles) looking at the covers of magazines that feature the air-brushed faces of beautiful young actresses. One face stood out from a distance and he stared at its beauty for a moment, fantasizing that he had to meet this one, she had the magic he needed.

He took a step closer to the magazine and got the shock of his life. The face he was looking at was his own girlfriend, the same woman he’d lost interest in. He was stunned at first. His next reaction was the thought of killing himself. He didn’t think he’d act on it but the thought disturbed him—he had no idea where it came from.

What had happened was that the girl on the cover was the symbol of the magical world he’d fantasized about for years. But she was at the same time a real human being with whom he’d become disillusioned. At that moment he realized his fantasies would never come true, that the magical woman he sought didn’t exist. He thought of suicide because, now that his child-like dream was shattered, there was no reason to live.

Luckily, he didn’t stay in that state for long. His illusion was destroyed, he became willing to learn to exist in reality. That means more than accepting reality, it means being grateful for it. I taught him a tool called The Grateful Flow, which connected him to something bigger than himself. For the first time, he had a real future.