June 13th, 2014

Guest Post: Can Addiction Ever Be A Gift?

Editor’s Note: I first became aware of Dr. Norman Rosenthal in the 1980s when he was doing ground breaking research on seasonal affective disorder. Since then I have admired his examination of non-traditional treatment approaches through the eyes of a scientist.  As a practicing psychiatrist, he necessarily addresses issues relating to addictions, which are reflected in his most recent book The Gift of Adversity. I am grateful for his willingness to contribute as a guest to the Kolmac blog. 


Dr. Norman Rosenthal
Dr. Norman Rosenthal


By Norman Rosenthal, M.D.

Can addiction ever be a gift?  I know this may sound like a ridiculous question, but in trying to collect together those life experiences from which I learned the most, I reached a conclusion that was surprising (at least to me). I learned most when things went wrong – when I suffered setbacks or disappointments and, especially, when I made mistakes. From that realization I came to the organizing principle of my most recent book, The Gift of Adversity.

When discussing my book, I routinely ask audiences, “How many of you have suffered significant adversity in your lives?” Always, a sea of hands goes up. Then I ask, “And how many of you learned something important from that adversity?” And to my astonishment, time after time, I observe almost the same sea of hands.  I have concluded that Nietzsche was right when he said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Likewise, I endorse the saying, “You can’t become a master sailor on calm seas.”

Now if we think about addiction as just one form of adversity – albeit a very formidable one – why shouldn’t it conform to the general rule that every cloud has a silver lining? I believe it does. Think about how many times you’ve heard an addict in recovery say, “I am a better person than I would have been had I never suffered from addiction. I would never have found recovery, which has transformed my life.”

Now the first part of Nietzsche’s famous saying is as important as the second. Adversity can kill. It can also disable and be unbearably painful. So, I certainly do not recommend that anyone seek out adversity, nor do I take a Pollyanna view of human suffering.

As your mother might have said, “Don’t go looking for trouble.” However, in my experience, you don’t have to look for trouble. It will find you. And when it does, there are certain strategies that can be very helpful in dealing with adversity and ways to harvest its gifts. The Twelve Steps, for example, provide just such an invaluable set of strategies. In my forthcoming talk at the Kolmac Clinic in Gaithersburg, I plan to discuss those strategies and others that I have found useful in my 35 years as a psychiatrist and researcher.

And what about the gifts? You may ask. Start by seeing how many you can tally up for yourself, and I hope that I might have a few additional ones to share with you when we meet at Kolmac on June 20th. I look forward to seeing you then.

Dr. Norman Rosenthal is the world-renowned psychiatrist and author whose research in describing seasonal affective disorder has helped millions of people. His 2011 book Transcendence was a New York Times bestseller, and his latest book The Gift of Adversity was a Los Angeles Times bestseller.

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