Do Not Hate The Tiger: Rethinking Contempt For Those With Addictive Illness

By Caroline Ridout Stewart, LCSW

tiger in grass

If truth be told, I struggle to sustain affirming thoughts for my son who is now into his 20th year of addictive illness. I love him deeply but often do not like or trust him. He is a tiger in my life; menacing, powerful and strategic with the occasional playful, warm and furry side. However, just as I would not want a tiger in my milieu because of my respect for his predatory nature, I also would not hate the tiger even if he were to menace me. The tiger, just like you and me, is a highly strategic animal hard-wired to get through his tiger day
watered and fed.

My son is currently drug-free but only this past Sunday evening, while “popping by” for a visit from his sober living, ten dollars of change that was handed to my husband at the supermarket went missing. Needless to say, we all danced around the elephant in the living room; you know, the one that seeps into our psyche like ink into a white rug; “I wonder if our son stole the money?” Our mothers taught us the old saying, “Once burned, twice shy.” A tragic hint of contempt permeates the room pulling in old memories of long-lost pieces of jewelry or family silver. It is notable that my son goes out of his way to find the lost cash. He goes into the trash and riffles through the shopping bags. He appears almost manic in an effort to locate the lost money. He joins the dance of avoidance; he knows that we suspect him and he desperately rushes around the house eager to prove us wrong. The money is not found and there is a dark, hopeless fog of blame lying heavy in the room. The painful truth is that we have no idea where the money is; it might have fallen onto the pavement in the supermarket parking lot. Yet sadly, those old intrusive doubts and fears run like a cruel ticker-tape under our narrative.

This business of being a parent of an adult child with addiction is very hard. I hear from my clinical colleagues that more and more research supports a view that addictive illness is highly co-morbid with antisocial personality disorder. That being said, many core features of one’s personality arrives with us when we are born. There is an esteemed Oxford longitudinal study that examined personality in a cohort of people over a lifetime. In the study, the subjects were videotaped regularly from the age of 12 months for over sixty years. The outcome is impressive: we folks do not change much. We arrive on earth hard-wired to manifest ourselves in some patterned way. I have audio-footage of me talking to Santa Claus at age 3. Santa asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and there was not a second of hesitation, “Santa, I want to be a teacher.” LOL: here I am hard-wired after all of these years working hard to temper some of my know-it-all wish to teach and teach and teach some more. I have been trying to edify people for almost 70 years. If we are born as vigilant, scrupulous children, we remain vigilant and scrupulous our whole lives. If we are born with a high degree of goal-directed curiosity; we remain passionate our whole lives to understand how things work. If we demonstrate an early tendency towards risk-taking; we will be life-long risk-takers. Thinking of the Oxford study, I am then reluctant to tag my son as pre-morbidly anti-social as I recall his youthful acts of empathy, kindness, concern for others and his capacity to mirror. There was nothing grossly strategic about my son’s actions when he was a child. He was no tiger-baby; he was a kitten.

So what to make of the high degree of comfort people have linking antisocial behavior with addictive illness? Well, no mystery here. Addicts do steal things and they often lie. They do these things strategically to assure that they are rewarded. The addicted brain knows well what it wants. It has no interest in my antique ring. Sadly, the ring can be pawned and the monies spent on a moment of peace and chemical resonance. It wants heroin or alcohol or Xanax. The craving brain is not a brain that thinks about social mores. The craving brain does not think about the future. It is the brain of a hunter; it is hard-wired to do all that it can to achieve its end to gratify; to gratify hunger, emotional peace and satiation. The craving brain does not project internal visual footage about consequences. For example, if a child saw a $5 bill sitting on his unattended teacher’s desk, the tiger brain might just say “go for it” because there is no internal visual display of being called into the principal’s office or of receiving a dressing down from one’s angry father. For the craving brain there is no past (no regrets, no guilt about past injuries and harms) and no future (no concerns about consequences or outcomes). No, the craving brain is all about the present moment and about seeking immediate gratification or relief from pain in that present moment.

While many people believe that addictive illness and antisocial behavior are dance partners, I more often than not find the opposite to be true. For the past several years, I have run a weekly CBT for an Anxiety Group at UCSD. Imagine my surprise to have over half of my anxiety group patients secretly approach me requesting to be transferred into my newly formed Clinical Strategies for Recovery Group. These highly anxious, scrupulous and self-auditing good citizens are also struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. These folks are the opposite of persons who are anti-social. These are no tigers; these are worker bees. These are the folks who care too much about what others think; who devote their lives to resolving problems. Who knew? Of course, it makes a huge amount of sense to me that people who are chronically anxious would be attracted to either alcohol which would dampen down the anxiety or to stimulants which would distract the person from anxiety.

Finally, while I embrace and celebrate the teachings of Buddha and the import of being mindful, I find it ironic that there is currently almost what could be called a form of fad-infused “guilting” of people to live more in the present. This makes sense for the excessively future-oriented anxious addicts who worry chronically about dissonance; about things out of place. They might need alcohol and Xanax less if they moved into the present and had more acceptance and self-compassion. That being said, the tiger lives his whole life in the present. He thinks nothing of the future or of the past. The tiger does not self-audit. He is simply a biological strategist. Sadly, this present-focus often finds the tiger reviled and imprisoned. We must have compassion and love for both the tiger and the addict. They both walk with Buddha.

Caroline Ridout Stewart is a clinical supervisor, instructor and psychotherapist in the Department of Psychiatry at UCSD. After teaching anthropology for ten years both in Canada and at Cuyamaca College in San Diego, Caroline retrained to become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders, infertility and addictive illness. Caroline’s eldest adopted son suffers from addictive illness, prompting Caroline to become the President of the board of A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing.) Caroline has worked tirelessly for the past 15 years to promote a more clinically-informed understanding of addiction. She runs the Clinical Strategies for Recovery Group at UCSD Outpatient-Hillcrest. Caroline is a writer, artist and poet who enjoys exploring the Southwest desert.