Addiction: A Disease of Perception

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Sober addicts, alcoholics, and therapists have called addiction a “disease of perception”. What the heck does that mean? This post will examine how addiction warps a person’s perspective and the ugly effects it can have. Addiction alters our view on the outside world, blocking us off from reality.

Our eyes are the tools that scan and pick up what we see in our life. However, our eyes only record information, they do not analyze or interpret what we see. If you remember taking biology or anatomy in high school then you may remember that visual information travels from our eyes via the optic nerves to the occipital lobe of the brain, where visual processing occurs. It is at this stage of perception that addiction really gets involved, skewing what we see away from reality. What’s an example of a perceptual distortion caused by addiction?

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Addiction Distorts How We See Ourselves and Others

Drug and alcohol, in excess, cause visible problems. These could be hangovers, health issues, consequences, relationship troubles, and more. When these problems occur, ex. we get fired because of our drug use, our addiction changes our perception to defend itself. Rather than looking at the situation and saying “Wow, my drug use is out of control. Maybe I should quit…”, the addicted brain instead goes “Gosh, my boss was a jerk! I didn’t need that job anyway”. Addiction will do anything to keep the blame away from itself. It changes how we perceive the world, blaming others for our troubles or rationalizing selfish behavior. The addicted brain constantly rationalizes its behavior, despite the contrary evidence. As long as our addicted brain views other people and circumstances as the real reason for our unhappiness, we will never suspect that our addiction is really the main problem.

When our perception is flawed, we make judgments based on inaccurate information. I used to gossip and talk crap about my co-workers, based on the assumption that they were talking behind my back. In turns out that they weren’t, and I let an error in perception almost ruin a few relationships. Part of overcoming addiction and helping the addict/alcoholic to see the truth behind his predicament is to provide evidence that proves his perception as wrong. Chuck C, a well-known figure in 12 step programs, says that getting sober is like “putting on a new pair of glasses”. What he means by this is that when we get sober we discover a new way to look at ourselves and the world around us. Our perspective (hopefully) is no longer clouded by ugly emotions like fear, anger, jealousy, dishonesty, etc. Our new outlook on life allows us to take a more tolerant view of others and ourselves.

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Getting sober doesn’t automatically remove our perceptual distortions, it is a process that can take months and even years. Little by little we get rid of our old ideas and prejudices and start to see the world through a new view. In our addiction we saw the world as a broken and unfair place. When we get sober we learn that the lens through which we viewed the world was broken and erroneous. As our recovery progresses, we slowly begin to see the world in a new light; one of kindness, love, and forgiveness.

One Response

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