Viewing addiction through an existential lens

By Christina Robertson

Increasingly, we are reminded that addiction is a serious problem that threatens the physical, mental, and emotional lives of all those involved—the person addicted, friends, family and loved ones of those addicted, and society at large.

We watch news of famous and talented people, such as Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams. Both acknowledged their lifelong battles with addiction and ended up “losing.”

We ponder the causes of addiction, wonder what could have been done, and grieve the loss—of the individual and the potential of what that life might have been.

When young people are addicted, we hope they will be able to recover before it is “too late.” We see the addictive struggles of young stars played out as “dramas” in the media in our “star-obsessed” society. We yearn for a “recovery” or a “comeback” story. We hope they will “return” before it is too late and they “burn out.”

When the young person addicted is a family member, our feelings are even more intense and personal. Unfortunately, my husband and I speak from experience. Our granddaughter, age 20, has had ongoing struggles with alcoholism and has twice been in rehab.

This past summer, we were encouraged, hopeful, and proud when she achieved a professional accomplishment that would qualify her for the profession she had chosen. And then, what happens all too frequently, she relapsed and had yet another alcohol-related crisis that threatened her achievement and endangered her life.

Recommended read: “How 12 Steps and yoga helped Anjali Talcherkar fight addiction”

Because I consider myself a humanist and an existentialist, it makes sense I would turn to these philosophies to see what they might say about the challenges of addiction and how they might help me understand and cope with a tragic situation.

First, I can understand why adolescents would want to try drugs—friends do it, it is fun, and it is an adventure. I can appreciate the desire to be elevated to a mystical state (although that is probably not the way adolescents would describe it). I remember listening to Huston Smith, the authority on world religions, a number of years ago at a Saybrook residential conference. He talked about a book he had written called “Cleansing the Doors of Perception.”

His book explored mind-altering substances that are spiritual catalysts and produce mystical experience. I remember Smith saying how as a young man he yearned for “the infinite.” Who, young or old, doesn’t yearn for the infinite? The use of mind-altering substances to provide mystical adventures is nothing new—William James discussed in the early 1900s the use of alcohol throughout history to produce mystical states; Timothy Leary and Ram Dass experimented with substances to access other realms in the 1960s.




The problem occurs when substances used to create desired states becomes addictive rather than a periodic adventure. One journal article referred to adolescents’ experimentation with alcohol and drugs as a “rite of passage.” The article suggested many young people are able to use drugs on occasion without becoming addicted. Others are not. Adolescents who are more likely to become addicted are those who experience problems in school, have difficult family lives, have low self-esteem, and are dealing with other mental health challenges.

While there is evidence that family history may predispose one to addiction, when you are young, it is natural to think it will not happen to you. While I know some individuals who decided not to drink alcohol because they had a parent who was an alcoholic, many people do not take this precaution. Who knows why one child is able to use drugs or alcohol on occasion while another becomes addicted? While these questions remain unanswered, they help me to be compassionate and philosophical—even when I feel frustrated, angry, and sad because of the heartache addiction causes.

In our Western culture, addiction is generally considered to be a “disease.” There has been debate regarding whether the disease model is an accurate description of addiction. Suffice it to say that Western cultures generally have agreed to consider addiction a disease. The positive aspects of considering addiction a disease are practical—it means addiction will be treated as a healthcare problem rather than as a “sin” or “moral failing.” Those with alcohol and drug problems are able to receive treatment, services are covered by health insurance, health care groups join forces to address the problem, and biomedical research relating to addiction is funded. Regardless of how addiction is defined, I am thankful my granddaughter has access to healthcare services.




A drawback of the “disease” theory of addiction is that it may make addicts “victims” and release them from the responsibility to make good decisions, create meaningful lives, and be authentic. This is counter to the tenets of existential philosophy. Disease implies they have no freedom in the face of addiction. Humanistic approaches to addiction would build on the individual’s inherent potential to maintain healthy, meaningful relationships and to make choices that are in the best interests of oneself and others.

An existential approach to substance abuse suggests that people become addicted to substances when they use them to numb the disease that is part of the human condition and to dull existential pain. Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, explored the meaning of suffering and the importance of creating meaning for life as a primary motivation for living in his book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” Suffering can be both a cause of addiction and a motivation for recovery. An individual may become addicted to ease the pain of physical and emotional suffering. However, as addiction progresses, the condition produces its own suffering. Some addicts have to suffer the pain of “hitting bottom” to be motivated to reassess their lives, surrender to helplessness, and seek the help they need.

Some recovery programs have a spiritual component. The 12-Step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) presents recovery as a spiritual journey—the steps are a means to achieve spiritual growth. A relative of our granddaughter, a minister, stated she was experiencing a “spiritual crisis.” While I may not share his definition of “spiritual,” I believe any suffering and life journey contains a spiritual component. This is not inconsistent with the beliefs of humanistic and existential philosophers that present a range of religious and spiritual beliefs, particularly when one includes “wisdom,” “self-transcendence,” “achieving meaning,” “developing inner resources,” and “concern for others” in a definition.

A fundamental belief of existentialism is individuals are free to make choices—individuals create who they are by values they hold, the decisions they make, and their actions. Ultimately, every decision made is a “life” or “death” decision—the decision either supports the life we want and who we want to be, our “essence,” or it does not. Making decisions that are life-affirming is a huge responsibility for an individual of any age; making good decisions may be particularly challenging for adolescents whose brains are still developing, are more prone to risk taking, and are more vulnerable to peer pressure than adults.

For those addicted, making the decision to refrain from substance abuse and stay sober must be very challenging, especially when one considers cravings caused by physical and emotional dependency. For those who love people with addictions, there is a point when we realize we have no control over their decisions and their recoveries. All we can do is continue to love them, provide resources to support their recovery, and decide how we will manage our sadness so it does not destroy our own lives.

If we define people with addictions simply in terms of their disease, we are depriving them of their human potential. We are fixing them at a particular stage in their emotional, physical, and spiritual development, and forgetting they have the possibility to make life-affirming decisions—the very core of human existence. For people struggling with addiction, the decision not to abuse substances is a fundamental choice and a life or death decision—one that may have to be made every day, over and over again. It is a decision that requires enormous courage in the midst of great anxiety—the courage to “let go” of destructive behavior in order to “grasp” new possibilities for one’s life and the courage to “grasp” in order to “let go.” I hope those faced with this decision will choose life—the possibilities are endless.


Frankl, V. (1984). Man’s search for meaning. New York, NY: Washington Square Press. (Original work published 1946).

James, W. (1997). The varieties of religious experience. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. (Original work published 1902).

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