Illness, Disease, Addiction: What's the Real Problem? How Being a Victim Prevents Your Power To Heal (Part 1)

I recently watched the Ben Cousins’ documentary Such is Life. While much has been made of the ongoing saga of Ben Cousins, I was intrigued by the way in which Ben and his family, the media, and the AFL portrayed the issue of addiction. While I am not a specialist in this area and make no claims to be, I am interested in the way addiction is often conventionally perceived and tackled without regard for the mind-body connection and the concept of self-responsibility.

Numerous times throughout the documentary Ben’s problem was referred to as a ‘disease’. I have no problem with labelling addiction as a disease, but I do question the usefulness of doing so. The problem with the term disease(applied to any illness, not just addiction) is that to use it in context we have to talk about ‘suffering from it’ or being a ‘sufferer of it’.  Implicit in this way of speaking is the belief that it is the disease that is responsible for the problem, not the person nor the emotional, physical or mental state of the person. When we hold the disease responsible for the suffering we give the disease the ‘power’ and the sufferer is rendered a helpless, powerless ‘victim’. Of course, no one can truly recover from any illness, addiction, disease or problem if they’ve deemed themselves a victim who is powerless to change. This is why the first of the twelve recovery steps in Alcoholics Anonymous is admitting you have become powerless to the substance.  

In Ben’s case, this underlying victim consciousness appears to be one of the real issues. Many times throughout the documentary he duly played the role of the victim. This role was rarely challenged and at stages it was even fed. Anyone familiar with Transactional Analysis will have noticed the Drama Triangle being clearly played out – there was a victim (Ben), a rescuer (his dad) and always someone to blame (the AFL, the media, the police, the clubs that didn’t pick him up). At times this drama was so convincingly played out it was easy to see how the people around him were unable to escape it. For example, Ben’s tantrum over the AFL’s requisite hair sampling had the odd effect of eliciting sympathy. This demonstrated the degree to which he was drawing people into his victim story.

The problem with operating as a victim to illness,  disease or addiction is that it only leaves the sufferer with a couple of limiting options: to either believe overcoming the problem is impossible (‘a disease I’ll always have to live with’) or to believe that only someone else can ‘rescue’ them from it. By now, some of you might be struggling with these concepts. You’re thinking ‘But these people do have a disease, it is an addiction, they are suffering, they are helpless – they need help! Calling them victims seems a bit harsh.’ I agree that it can seem harsh, that’s why the families of people with addictions, mental illnesses, eating disorders,  cancer and so on grapple with this concept and suffer so extraordinarily.  While they watch their loved one suffer or slowly kill themselves they go from believing that they can rescue them to the torturous realisation that they are ultimately powerless to stop their fate. The ‘sufferer’ is the only one who can make the change and they’re not going to do so while stuck in a victim mindset believing that they are powerless to their illness, drug or alcohol habit.  It’s also important to be clear that letting go of the ‘victim’ mindset does not mean letting go of the reality of the illness.  It is real, it does exist and the person’s experience of the illness is real– they just need to stop believing that they are overpowered by it. 

Recognising that you, or someone else is operating with a victim consciousness is the first step towards self-responsibility and self-responsibility is the key to healing – from anything. Self-responsibility means taking the power back. It means recognising that you are responsible for your body, your mind, your behaviour, your actions and your illness, disease or addiction. Self-responsibility sounds quite simple, but why is it so difficult? I believe there are a few reasons:

1) Judgement

Responsibility actually means being “accountable for something within one’s own power, control or management.” Being responsible simply means having the power. However,  in our culture is it is indelibly associated with blame and guilt. The admission of responsibility is reflexively followed by a judgement of the action for which you’re taking responsibility.  For example, the statement “I admit I am responsible for becoming a drug addict and making a mess of my life and that of my family’s” is invariably followed by the thoughts or statements “I am a terrible, selfish, horrible, unloving person...” and more.  Why would anyone want to take responsibility when such judgement and the ensuing feelings of guilt are waiting?

2) Lack of Conscious Awareness and Choice

The reasons for our actions are often so detached from our conscious awareness that we can hardly believe that we are responsible for them! About 95% of our behaviour is driven by the subconscious brain. While we think our conscious brain is calling the shots, our actions are really mostly a result of inner programming, habitual or primitive reflexes and subconscious emotional drivers. Our actions are effectively out of our conscious control. Given that this inner programming is prone to sabotage programs resulting from past traumas, fears and hurts, it’s no wonder that we end up with thinking patterns and behavioural habits that are not in our best interests.

3) The Way We View Illness and Disease

We find ourselves in a culture that is intensely fear-driven, it requires labels and demands that the ‘sufferer’s’ power is routinely handed over to illness, doctors and drugs. In this context,  disease usually equals a death sentence or an incurable burden we just have to live with. From the very start of our lives we are almost scripted into the role of victim – we are taught that the wisdom for health and healing lies outside of us, with the ‘experts’.

In Part 2, I’ll discuss the potential ways to overcome these barriers to self responsibility and how this can begin the process of overcoming an illness, disease or addiction.