The Pleasure Principle, Hedonism & The Mind of an Addict
by Lizzy Smith for Divorced Moms
October 14, 2015
I have learned quite a lot about addiction over the years and the pathology that leads to those who can become addicts. Addictions aren’t limited to drugs and alcohol-- it can be shopping, gambling, pornography, sex, food… But the mindset of the addict is remarkably similar. And being in a relationship with one is a never-ending hell for you, I promise. There are a few addicts who can get help and truly change their lives. It happens every day and each is a reason to celebrate. But for the rest of us who are living with an addict who is not in full recovery and commitment mode, it is not a fun place for anyone to be—not for you, your children, your family or friends. It is embarrassing, painful and humiliating.
In my own marriage, my husband was an alcoholic. It was a never-ending nightmare of promises to get well, resenting and blaming me for the periods he went dry, wanting a drink, having too many drinks—whatever the combination, alcohol drove everything he did.
At one point, he entered therapy at Kaiser and I, as his wife, was invited to many of those sessions. I liked Rob’s therapist and after one horrible fight between Rob and me, I couldn’t get to our appointment fast enough. Rob was drinking in full glory. To the surprise of no one, Rob didn’t show up. But on my way to the appointment, he called me screaming that he wasn’t even an alcoholic and that his therapist had told him so. He was only telling me this line of shit to try and gain my sympathy so I wouldn’t leave him.
So when I finally spoke with his counselor, it was the first thing I told her. “Rob may not be an alcoholic, but I can tell you that he has an alcohol problem and it is horrible.”
“Wait a minute, I never told Rob he wasn’t an alcoholic. Lizzy, he is most certainly an alcoholic,” she corrected me.
“But why would he lie about it?”
“Because addicts lie,” she said. “And Rob is no exception.”
Of course she was right. He lied about how much alcohol he consumed. He blamed missing wine bottles on his oldest daughter and her friends. He lied about where he was (not at work, really at a bar; not at an AA meeting, really at a bar…). Why was a surprised?
“We got in a really huge fight tonight and he wasn’t drinking, though,” I said. I was confused. “And he can go months without a drink.” Or could he? I would never know because I would never know how much he was actually drinking because he hid it and, you guessed it, lied about it.
“Just because Rob’s not drinking at that moment doesn’t make him a great guy all of a sudden. Alcohol drives everything he does, every decision he makes. Even when he isn’t drinking, he is a dry alcoholic. He wants to drink. For Rob to ever get well, it will take years of non-stop therapy. Besides, he emotionally stopped developing around 13. He has one coping skill—alcohol. If you take that one coping skill he has away from him, he has no coping skills. He has to rebuild it and he will become much less likable in the interim.”
Less likeable? Impossible, I thought. Oh my gosh, I thought next.
And then she introduced me to the “pleasure principle.” “You hear about someone who goes to prison for getting in a car drunk or on drugs and killing someone and then they serve their time and get out. And the next day, they are arrested for drinking and driving again. How is that possible? Because addicts have the pleasure principle going in full force. They will sacrifice anything to have pleasure at that moment. They’ll deal with consequences later but they want the pleasure right now.”
This principle has fascinated me since then. Freud actually introduced the concept as a person that seeks immediate gratification of their own needs right now. Nothing else matters but their pursuit of what they want. Children generally operate on this principle, which is to be expected. What is frightening is that adults should outgrow this and learn about delayed gratification. When an adult hasn’t learned this critical life skill, the consequences are devastating to them and all of those around them. This is when many become addicts—they want the instant pleasure of the drink, drug, sex, shopping high… You get it. The pleasure seeker needs primal gratification this second and if he doesn’t get it, there is an inappropriate outburst of anger, anxiety and tension. Consequences be damned. Boy oh boy did I see this—the wild bursts of screaming, pounding on tables, jumping up and down—classic childlike immature and impulsive behavior. I often wonder what trauma happened in Rob’s life when he was younger that prevented him from learning adult behavior, which is the concept of “delayed gratification.”