Severe Addiction and the Destruction of Imagination and Hope

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To say severe addiction strips away or erodes a person’s agency is a viable candidate for statement of the most obvious. Work with enough clients, be connected to people in the deepest throes of addiction, or live with your own, and you’ll see that rational capacities become increasingly compromised.

Means-ends thinking may go on the fritz. Patterns of justification and explanation defy any regular sense of logic (but may make sense to others struggling with addiction). People may also lose the ability to regulate their emotions. Emotions may become overly muted or outrageously overblown and directed in the wrong directions. A person’s emotional palette shrinks significantly. Understandably, these losses have captured most of the attention of addiction and treatment researchers and professionals.

The Essential Arts of Personhood

Humans are beings who can imagine and hope. These two capabilities belong to what philosopher Annette Baier calls “essential arts of personhood.” Severe addiction can destroy these, but their destruction often goes unnoticed. Their destruction may be a significant impediment to reducing harmful use, being in remission, or in recovery.


Imagination has fascinated philosophers for centuries. More recently, hope has become an important topic in moral psychology.

Imagination is the ability to consider things not as they are, but how they could be.

Imagination may involve possibilities in the past, present or future. Imagination enables us to consider actualities and do all sorts of interesting things to them. To imagine something doesn’t necessarily involve trying to make it be so. In fact, one may not want our imaginings to be the case.

Consider the fact that many of us can imagine worse case scenarios in a millisecond. People struggling with addictions may be very adept at imagining those scenarios. Others will be equally adept at flights of fancy where they are able to stop using easily and instantly and all the troubles that plague them disappear. Imagination is so very powerful because of its relationship to our agency, that is our ability to act in a deliberate way.


Hoping – or more specifically hoping well – is equal parts gift and skill. Hoping is also an important component of human agency. We humans learn how to hope, not unlike how we do to a host of other activities. We can do it well, or we can do it poorly in at least two ways.

Philosopher Victoria McGeer describes “wishful hope” as a failure because it relies on external forces/realities to realize hope. A wishful hoper is one who doesn’t really act enough/responsibly to bring about what he hopes for. Someone who hangs around waiting for good things just to come his way is a wishful hoper. “Willful hope” is more complex since it involves questionable action. The “willful hoper” is the person who invests all his energies in his hopes regardless of the cost to others. He may try to bend external reality to his hopes. In this sense, he fails to be responsible to others because his hopes always carry the day.

People who struggle with severe addiction may be prone to either of these two failures of hoping. The person who wishes the urge to use will simply go away overnight and all her problems be solved is a wishful hoper. Willful hopers are perhaps a little harder to identify when it comes to addiction. The person who blames his drinking on his stressful job, nagging wife, and demanding children who quits his job and abandons his family fits the profile of a willful hoper.

To hope well is, at minimum, not to hope wishfully or willfully. Hoping well involves having aspirations that are appropriate and don’t require others to make them come true or trod over the aspirations of others. Hoping well involves acting in a responsible way to make the hopes actual. Someone who hopes well uses her imagination to consider options and scenarios and then to take deliberate actions. Hoping well is a balance of recognizing limitations, making effort, and acting in ways that are responsive and responsible.

Can’t Have One Without the Other

Imagination and hope are fundamentally connected; one must be able to imagine possibilities before he can even hope for them. Only when one can hope can imagine ways to make the hoped for possibilities actual. Imagination is a species of rational thought. When one’s imagination is compromised (able only to imagine the horrific or unable to imagine something positive), a person will have a much harder time acting and living differently.

Philosopher/Psychologist William James clearly understood the relationship between imagination, hope, and the possibility of a person’s radically changing his life. In The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), James uses the term “conversion” to mean a radical transformation of a person’s “habitual center of personal energy.” For James, conversions happen by a variety of means; there’s no need to posit a divine being who changes a person. A person can change himself under the right sort of conditions.

James writes:

Two things are in the mind of a candidate for a conversion: first, the present incompleteness or wrongness…which he is eager to escape from; and second, the positive ideal which he longs to compass.

Hope Well in the Present, Draw From the Past

A person who is eager to escape a life in which he is actively addicted still has some hope. He can see that his life has gotten off the track he had earlier set it upon; he may not recognize his own life. What’s crucial is the quality of his hope; is he wishfully hoping, willfully hoping or hoping well? What kind of actions is he willing to undertake to get himself out of that “present incompleteness or wrongness” of his life? The first move, James claims, is to say “no” to that present way of living.

As a person becomes more severely addicted, he faces more obstacles in imagining “the positive ideal.” Perhaps he’s gotten habituated into all and always imagining the worst case scenarios. He has plenty of material or experiences to draw from producing negative or horrifying imaginings. Without some positive experiences and material, imagining a positive ideal is difficult if not impossible. Where might those positive experiences and material come from?

Someone who develops an addiction later in life might be able to to generate a positive ideal by drawing from experiences before his addiction became so severe. Imagination allows us to draw from the past and chart a course for a future. A person might be able to hope well in the present by drawing from the past.

Not everyone will have positive experiences that can function this way. One of the reasons why mutual support groups can be so helpful to people trying to stop using is that they can see others who shared an addiction but have altered their use.

In hearing stories about a person’s transformation, this may be the material for another person’s imagination. Someone else’s positive ideal may function as his own in the beginning. At some point, that person may be able to imagine possibilities for/of himself, begin to hope well for them, and take concrete action to realize that ideal. Doing this, James would say, is embracing that ideal with a resounding “yes.”

Images Courtesy of iStock


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