“The Lock and the Key” By Troy Love, LCSW, PHR

The other day I was trying to explain to a client what happens with addiction.  I came up with an analogy that I wanted to flesh out a bit more.

Imagine that there was a box with a key hole.  The box was said to hold great mysterious energy that would make who ever opened the box feel amazing.  The energy of the box could create a sense of power, delight, euphoria, relaxation, or intensity – the likes of which the opener had never before felt.

Great mythic legends about the box had been passed on through generations.  Many had claimed they had found the box.  Others boasted that they could lead anyone to it.  Those who went looking for the box did so, more often than not, because they were not happy with a particular aspect of their lives.  Perhaps they were lonely. Perhaps they were afraid.  Perhaps they had been wounded in some way.  Perhaps they felt rejected.  Perhaps they had lost something of great value.  Whatever the reason, they began looking for the mysterious and powerful chest.

Most of the time, those looking for the box didn’t even realize they were looking for it.  They most likely didn’t realize that they were experiencing pain, sadness, fear, or anger.  What they probably did notice is that they didn’t like how they felt and they just wanted to feel better.

Some of them would ask their friends about the box.  Others were so embarrassed that they would go looking for the box all by themselves.

But finding the box was only part of the hunt.  They also would have to find the key.  They would have to find exactly the right key to open the box.  Some would find and collect many keys in anticipation of finding the box.  Others, however, would find one or two keys… and they wouldn’t want anyone to know that they had a key at all.

And then one day, one memorial day, the seeker would find the box.  The seeker would pull out a key and try to open the box. Some would open the box on the very first try.  Others, however, would have to try a few different keys until they found just the right magic key.  The box would pop open and with it, tremendous power.  The seeker would have the most amazingly, intense, euphoric feeling.  For a few minutes, everything seemed right with the world.  Nothing seemed out of place. Everything felt happy.  For a minute.

What the seeker didn’t notice was that when the box was opened, a link of a chain sprouted on to the back of the box.  Every time the seeker opened the box to get that same feeling (which he could never seem to get again), another link the chain grew.  Soon the chain began to wrap itself around the seeker.  At first the seeker didn’t mind because that just meant that the box was always nearby – easy to access.

But soon, the chain began to be heavy.  It would wrap itself around the seeker so tightly that the seeker couldn’t seem to do the things that the seeker used to be able to do.  The pull of the chains was so tight that even what used to be fun and enjoyable seemed like drudgery. In order to get away from the boredom and heaviness, the seeker would open up the box.

The box didn’t seem to have as much power as it used to.  So the seeker would begin experimenting with other keys, hoping beyond hope that a new key may unlatch the power that once was in the box.  Sometimes a new key would work for awhile, but most of the time, the seeker would go back to his old, faithful key – even though it didn’t quite seem to work as well as it used to.

Now that the seeker was draped in chains, when his loved ones would try to come close, he would get angry.  He thought that they were trying to take away his box and his key.  He didn’t like that.  Sometimes they would point out that the seeker had a lot of chains.  He wouldn’t like that either. He would tell them that they are crazy. He would tell them that he didn’t have any chains.  In fact, he would go to great lengths to try to hide the chains… and the box… and especially the key.  He wasn’t a very good hider, but he thought he was.

In the beginning he set some boundaries for himself.   “I will only open the box when I am alone.”  ”I will never open the box at work”  ”I will never open the box when I am around my family” .  He made lots of those kind of promises to himself, but soon, he forgot that he even made those promises.  His life began to fall apart.  Relationships were broken.  The ability to focus was gone.  And a sense of worthlessness began to permeate his very being.  And then he finally said, “I think I need help.”

In this analogy, the key represents the seeker’s drug of choice…. it could be heroin, alcohol, marijuana, spice, porn, food, gambling, work, starving oneself…. the list is endless.  The box represents unleashing massive amounts of Dopamine, the pleasure hormone, into our brains, which creates a chain reaction that can lead to compulsive and then addictive behaviors.

Many individuals find themselves carrying these addictive keys for the rest of their lives.  At the smallest sign of distress, they open the box with their key hoping to find it will make things better, but ultimately being disappointed that it didn’t last.  They often will find bigger, heavier keys to chase that initial feeling they had when they started, but even that doesn’t last forever.

A more helpful method would be to find another way – a healthy, lasting way to help work through the distress.  Most of the time this can be found through healthy, loving, connected relationships where we are able to share part of ourselves with someone else and that person will not judge us.  We can share our pain with them and they will offer comfort. We can share our fear with them and they will validate us.  We can share our sadness, and they will listen.  It is truly in these connected relationships that we can finally put the key down, pick up our hearts, and share them with others.

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