The Pleasure Principle, Hedonism & The Mind of an Addict
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October 14, 2015

635272515569524063Fotolia_58719080_XS.jpgI 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 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 likable? 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.”

Because mature adults learn to endure pain, defer gratification (“I’m hungry now, but I’ll wait to eat until I get home”, or “I want sex now but I can wait until my husband is home from his business trip and my vibrator will suffice” or “I want a drink but since it’s the middle of my workday and I need to pick up the kids and driving while intoxicated is a bad idea, I think I’ll finish the work day and go home with the kids safely in the car”…). Delayed gratification obeys principles, laws of order, and is capable of making wise choices. Pleasure can be postponed, even if it isn’t always fun or convenient.

Most of us have heard of the term hedonism but what is it? It is part of the pleasure principle. It is the idea that life should be lived to its fullest—full of fun, adventure and other behavior that brings a “high” of some sort. It is alcohol and drug excess, sexual addiction—anything that will help the hedonist avoid pain or the realities of life. When Rob’s dad died, instead of mourning like one might expect, he was getting drunk every night. It was horrible and wildly inappropriate.

When his daughter had problems that were really extreme, instead of getting her help, he drank more than ever. And went diving. If there was work that needed to be done at home, he hit up the bars with a vengeance. He endlessly planned out trips or dinner parties or dive events to the point that I was exhausted. It was the only thing that typically made him a happy drunk. He did anything to keep that momentary and immediate pleasure going right now, this minute, pain be damned. Anything that got in his way was to be ridiculed, screamed at, and blamed. Until he calmed down and apologized profusely, promising that it really wouldn’t happen again—this time.

The reality that drugs, alcohol, heroin, prescription pills—mind-altering substances—offer powerful surges of momentary “pleasure.” This rewarding feeling helps feed the addiction. Even if an addict is able to stop the behavior for a long period of time, the memory of how pleasurable it is to satisfy a craving is a powerful reason for frequent relapses, so beating addiction is extremely difficult and quite rare, tragically.

So when one tells me that they are living with an addict, my heart breaks. The chances that he will get well for the new girlfriend, or God forbid if she marries him (like I did), the new wife, are next to zero. And how true that is for my ex. His wife tried to get him help, he made all kinds of promises to her and their children. It didn’t happen.

Lots of lies and deceit. When he started dating and pursuing me with a vengeance, I think he thought that I would be enough incentive for him to get well. A new relationship, he was madly in love/infatuated with me. Surely that would make him strong enough to stop drinking so much and be a better man and husband. Of course, that didn’t (couldn’t) happen.

He made those same promises to our children and me. But he is an addict. And not one of the few that could stick with a program long enough to achieve real change and healing. The odds that he will ever recover, sadly, are about zero.

So whenever I can, I hop on my soapbox and tell those who are with an addict to GET OUT. There is not “better.” Hope is futile. You will live in your Hell for as long as you stay with him. His promises are empty. Things will not get better for you, but they will get worse. And you will lose your self-respect, your sanity, your joy and your zest for life.

If you have children together, they will learn some frightening lessons on what relationships look like. They will likely end up messed up adults or needing therapy themselves in order to recover from their childhood.

For more information on the pleasure principle and hedonistic behavior, visit:

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