I was sitting in a computer lab, struggling to come up with a topic, when this energetic guy comes in, plops down in the chair next to me and logs in. Moments later, I reeled back from the stench of him. I’m not talking about being unwashed, but every time he moves (even to turn a page) the noisome odor of cigarettes rolls over me.

In my mind, I picture people like him surrounded by a symbiotic malevolent aura. He may be a very nice person, but cloaking him is this invisible monster. It spends some of its time controlling him, but the rest of the time, it reaches out to those around him and slowly throttles them. Every time it feels itself start to weaken, it forces him to light up and recharge. Then the man-monster symbiote returns to strangle more people.

No, this isn’t another rant about smokers. It’s an example of reframing. Reframing is a conscious shift of mental perspective. It can go either way. For instance, instead of a malevolent symbiotic entity, I could have thought of the guy as intentionally trying to ruin the day of the people around him. In the first example, he’s only partially responsible being both instigator and victim. In the second, he’s entirely responsible. The first opens the possibility of pity, empathy, or sympathy. The second is almost entirely adversarial.

Anyone who’s dealt with an addiction can see themselves in the first example of reframing. It’s even in colloquial dialog. “It’s the booze talking,” or “[drug] is the only way to appease this gnawing emptiness.” I’m not excusing anything. Addiction is a path that started with a choice. This is the reason so many people take the “blame the addict” stance.

The problem is after that first, perhaps almost trivial, choice, the ability to choose the other way disappears. The addiction grows and slowly takes over the person’s life. It becomes and obsession and a compulsion. It takes control and drives the person to the very edge of sanity, then seduces them back into its arms. It is territorial in that it finds ways to make the person shut out others that don’t share in the addiction. Addiction is a living thing, but only because it is part of the person.

I don’t like being around smokers. I don’t like being around alcoholics. And yet, looking at those sentences, it’s obvious that I define people (at least in this case) by their addiction. I suspect that most people view addicts this way. Fortunately, I have a tool garnered from Alateen: separate the person from the addictive behavior.

Remember that an addict is not a single person, an addict is a symbiote: part person, part addiction. When the addict is temporarily free of the addiction influences, that person may very well be a charming, decent person. It’s only when the addiction decides to sharpen its claws on the scratching post of the person’s soul does the harmful behavior come back.

Thus, when I catch myself thinking of someone in terms of their addiction (smoker, drinker), I consciously try to separate the person from the addictive behavior—I try reframing. The person who sat next to me in the computer lab is not “a smoker”, he is someone who smokes. His behavior, especially the result of his behavior, may annoy the hell out of me, but by blaming the behavior rather than the person opens the door to being his friend. And if there’s anything an addict needs, it’s friends.

Advertisements