Addiction and The Divided Self

By Steve K.

Human Beings are complex and the nature of our minds and behaviour is in many respects still mysterious despite all the resources of 21st century science. Although much has been learned by modern science about addiction it’s still a controversial topic among many experts in the field, e.g., brain disease vs maladaptive learned behaviour, choice vs compulsion, nature vs nurture etc. The truth is most likely a middle point between these binary positions.

The addict is often characterised as a tormented soul suffering inner conflict and existential angst. This inner conflict is sometimes referred to as the “divided self”. (1) The concept of the divided self goes back to the ancient Greeks. Plato used the allegory of a charioteer being pulled by two flying horses to represent the human soul. One horse being beautiful and noble; it wants to soar into the heavens. This horse being our higher self. The other horse is ugly and bad. This horse represents our base nature, driven by passions and irrationality. The charioteer is our rational self, trying to keep control between these two opposing forces.

Sigmund Freud theorized a similar view of human personality within his concept of the Id, ego, and superego. The ego representing the rational self, managing the tensions and conflict created by the amoral, irrational, desire driven Id, versus the moral conscience, values driven superego. The Id, ego, and superego are sometimes referred to respectively as the ‘pleasure principle’, the ‘reality principle’, and the ‘morality principle’. The Id operates unconsciously, the ego on both a conscious and unconscious level, and the superego is largely unconscious in its workings.

The physical structure of the human brain is represented in similar divided ways. The ‘tribune model’ consisting of the ‘reptilian brain’ responsible for instinctual responses, the limbic system, which is where our emotional life is generated, and the neocortex, which is the centre for our reasoning and decision-making processes. Alternatively, there’s the concept of the ‘left brained’ vs ‘right brained’ personality type. The left brain being associated with logic, language, and specific detail, and right brain functions being linked to emotion, intuition, creativity, and seeing the bigger picture. Both these portraits of the brain are distinct and compartmentalised, although research suggests that the brain operates in a more complex and integrated way.

Regarding addiction to alcohol and other drugs, the struggle between the divided self is manifested through the inconsistent behaviour of those who express a genuine desire to stop drinking/using, and yet at the same time continue with their unwanted addiction. This ambivalence creates a cognitive dissonance or disturbance which addiction therapists attempt to increase with motivational interviewing techniques. Theory suggests that the greater the cognitive dissonance, the greater the motivation there is to change unwanted behaviour to resolve this inner disturbance. The inner conflict between the part of the self that wishes to abstain, versus the addicted self that wishes to continue drinking/using, is a common hallmark of addiction and regularly experienced by most attempting to quit their unwanted habits. Jekyll and Hyde, light and dark impulses seem to be a part of our human nature.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a classic tale representing the divided nature of man.

An ‘Honest Desire’ to Stop Drinking and the Divided Self.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) offers mutual support to those suffering from addiction to alcohol. The only requirement for AA membership is ‘a desire to stop drinking’ as stated in the fellowship’s ‘preamble’, which provides a concise definition of AA. The original version of the AA preamble, first published in the Grapevine in 1947, included the words “an honest desire to stop drinking”. (2) This phrasing came from the Forward to the first edition of Alcoholics Anonymous, aka the Big Book. However, the word honest was removed from the preamble in 1958 by the General Service Conference. Conference members felt that as the word honest was not used in the Third Tradition it was inconsistent and may cause confusion. It was also felt that it is impossible to determine if a person’s desire to stop drinking is honest or not.

My personal experience of addiction was characterised by the inner conflict described in Plato’s analogy of the charioteer and two winged horses. A large part of me genuinely wanted to stop drinking alcohol, but at the same time my addiction (‘illness’) was unwilling to fully surrender to complete abstinence. The result was intermittent binge drinking followed by strenuous efforts to maintain sobriety. I was struggling with Step One of the AA program for a long time.. torn between two opposing aspects of myself.

This is no doubt a simplistic picture of the inner complexity of inconsistent behaviour. However, the concept of the ‘divided self’ helps to explain the insane behaviour of those who have professed an honest desire to surrender their addiction and who make genuine efforts to do so, but then still engage in the harmful behaviour they have sworn off and made efforts to avoid.

Given the complexity of the human mind and its various motivations (conscious and unconscious), it was a wise decision that was made by the 1958 AA General Service Conference to remove the word honest from the AA preamble. I believe that my desire to stop drinking was honest, but it conflicted with a part of my will that desired an altered state of awareness.

These inconsistent dual desires plagued me for years before my exposure to the mutually supportive environment of AA, and its principles, eventually strengthened the part of me that honestly wanted sobriety. Over time, this exposure, and my genuine efforts to abstain from alcohol, resulted in freedom from addiction and my internal struggle. The addicted self is now dead or dormant, whichever you choose to believe. Many in AA would suggest that it’s arrested or in remission, contingent on working at my recovery. The science of addiction suggests that the brain largely repairs itself in recovery (via abstinence), but that treatment doesn’t provide a cure and that relapse is possible.

The collective experience of those in recovery would suggest that it’s foolish to judge if someone’s desire to be free of their addiction is honest or not. Who’s to be the judge? Many in the ‘rooms’ of AA have struggled with the dual desires and inner conflict common to early recovery. They would have been prevented the mutual support of recovery fellowship if denied membership due to a perceived lack of honesty. The whole point of the 12 Steps and AA fellowship is to provide a method of change which restores whole thinking and sanity to the alcoholic. This process takes time and much support for most attempting to recover. Let’s avoid judging them.

  1. The Elephant and the Rider- The Integration of the Divided Self.
  2. Fragments of AA History: The AA Preamble. AA Grapevine, May 1992.

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