Adolescence is a developmental process marking the transition from child to adult and ideally the shift from narcissistic interests to a more object related state of mind. For most, it is a life stage characterized by the search for identity and answers to the questions “Who am I“? and “Why am I here”? From my perspective, I believe adolescence can occur at any age and it seems to be a difficult transition for many people, which in some instances can lead to the development of addictive behavior. Most addicts link addiction to the period of their adolescence and it is my argument that addictive behavior is a narcissistic defense against painful feelings that emerge during the negotiation between separation and dependence in adolescence development. Although addiction may well have roots in infancy, both adolescence and addictive behavior should be understood within the social context and framed by the developmental dimensions that characterize the search for self.
Many addicts believe that social circumstances in part, lead to the start of their addiction. Smoking weed and drinking alcohol is accepted peer group behavior and adolescents are routinely confronted with psychotropic substances. How adolescents handle these substances will be formative on their identity development. Caroline Knapp writes in Drinking-A Love Story of her experience of alcohol addiction (pages 81-2):
“I think my relationship with alcohol began to deepen and shift around that time, my college years, moving from a simple tool of self transformation- a way to relax and feel less inhibited, a way to be more sexual and open and light– into something more complicated, a more deeply ingrained way of coping with the world. Looking back I can see how certain patterns were beginning to develop, certain classically alcoholic ways of managing feelings and conflicts in relationships that would grow more entrenched and complicated over time.
Almost by definition alcoholics are lousy at relationships. We melt into them in that muddled, liquid way, rather than marching into them with any real sense of strength or self-awareness. We become so accustomed to transforming ourselves into new and improved versions of ourselves that we lose the core version, the version we were born with, the version that might learn to connect with others in a meaningful way. We are uncomfortable; often desperately uncomfortable with closeness and alcohol has the insidious dual effect of deadening the discomfort” we become too adept at sidestepping the feelings with drink to address them directly. Feel conflicted? Drink. Insecure? Have a drink. Angry? Drink”.
Recovery for the adolescent means finding a stable sense of self and learning to manage painful feelings without recourse to self medicating. It may include sessions with the family helping everyone to understand the disease and how to help everyone recover, setting boundaries and caring without enabling.