Arrested development

I’ve been thinking a lot about the saying that (and I paraphrase) “people with addictions stop developing psychologically at the point their addictions take hold” 

I’ve been looking into this a bit and the first thing that struck me was that obviously alcohol is interwoven with mental health problems. in other words Mental health problems not only result from drinking too much alcohol, they can also cause people to drink too much.

Put very simply, a major reason for drinking alcohol is to change our mood – or our mental state. Alcohol can temporarily alleviate feelings of anxiety and depression – I used it myself for this very reason, as do countless others who ‘treat’ themselves to  a drink at the end of a hard day / week. Drinking is often used as a form of ‘self-medication’ in an attempt to cheer themselves up or sometimes help with sleep. Drinking to deal with difficult feelings or symptoms of mental illness is sometimes called ‘self-medication’ by people in the mental health field. This is often why people with mental health problems drink.

Drinking lowers inhibition. Typically, excessive alcohol consumption means fewer personal constraints are in place. Again most heavy drinkers can testify to this, the shame, regret and embarrassment about things done drunk are one thing I never miss about my drinking days.  Alcohol also depresses the central nervous system, and this can make our moods fluctuate. It can also help ‘numb’ our emotions, so we can avoid difficult issues in our lives.

Alcohol can also reveal or intensify our underlying feelings, such as evoking past memories of trauma or sparking any repressed feelings which are associated with painful events. . These memories can be so powerful that they create overwhelming anxiety, depression or shame. Re-living these memories and dark feelings whilst under the influence of alcohol can pose a threat to personal safety as well as the safety of others. I was never an aggressive drunk, I was a sloppy, oversharing, sleepy, messy drunk; but there were times when I said what I thought with less inhibition due to alcohol. Sharing things I might otherwise have kept under wraps, crying more easily, telling people what I really felt.

One of the main problems associated with using alcohol to deal with mental health problems is that regular consumption of alcohol changes the chemistry of the brain. It decreases the levels of the brain chemical serotonin – a key chemical in depression. As a result of this depletion, a cyclical process begins where one drinks to relieve depression, which causes serotonin levels in the brain to be depleted, leading to one feeling even more depressed, and thus necessitating even more alcohol to then medicate this depression.

I’ve had three episodes of ‘clinical’ depression in my life, I now take a SSRI in a decent and hefty dose and I expect I will for the remainder of my working life. The worst episode or anxiety / depression I had,  I was actually sober and had been for 5 months or so. I believe that sobriety gave the clarity and allowed me to see and actually FEEL how bad things were. Its interesting to me that theoretically I SHOULD feel better (less depressed) now I don’t drink, but actually I think I feel MORE depressed (at the moment) because I’m having to deal with everything with no handy ‘crutch’ to take the edge off the difficulties.

So that’s alcohol and ‘mental health’ ; my own conclusions ? In a nutshell … I drank because I liked escaping from my inner demons of self disgust and inadequacy… the drinking however fuelled these feelings and made me feel even worse about myself.


What about the “arrested development”  theory in those with addiction?  What about it for ME? The theory goes that those who venture into addiction often demonstrate a stunting in their emotional development and that this disruption of our psychological development basically stops our growth at whatever age/stage the chemical becomes our focus.

The longer I am in recovery, the more clear it is to me how stunted I was, by my addiction, or by something else? I often wonder if I can pinpoint the age I stopped growing emotionally and spiritually. Seems like it falls somewhere between the ages of 25 and 27, when I qualified and probably started drinking more heavily. Although as I was working one night in three, as well as a standard working week, I was certainly not drinking every day. Drinking every day didn’t start until I was at least 35, when I gave up doing OOH work. Is that where I got stuck ?

I don’t know why I’m fixated on my own immaturity and lack of emotional development. It pretty pointless and just one more stick to beat myself with, and I doubt its possible to predict what ‘I would have been like’ or how my life ‘would have turned out’ If I have never drunk too much…

Lately I feel like I am coming more up to my age group / behaving more like a 50’s ish woman, though I am aware that I still act younger than my actual age. I am not sure whether this childishness is just a permanent feature of my personality or if I still need more recovery time to get my spiritual/emotional maturity up to the level of my actual age. Really it doesn’t matter so long as I never stop growing.

Researchers were able to identify solid links between adolescent substance abuse and adverse adult outcomes. Though adults are expected to display an advanced sense of wisdom and a heightened understanding of consequences, these traits can be stunted by addiction. Those who drink large volumes of alcohol or abuse drugs early in life will generally experience problems with emotional maturity. That’s why most of the choices made during active addiction do not reflect the actions of a responsible adult.

Rose and his colleagues at the Indiana University evaluatued data from more than 3,000 Finnish twins. They found that substance abuse, poor health, physical symptoms, multiple sexual partners, life dissatisfaction, truncated education, and financial problems were consistent among the individuals who started abusing drugs or alcohol early in life. I guess I’m lucky then , in that I have a good education, good job, pretty good health and a satisfying life…

Looking at psychosocial ‘development’ I came across Eriksons theories of developmental milestones. I’m a incomplete novice at this stuff so forgive me if you have heard it all before …

1. Trust vs. Mistrust

Is the world a safe place or is it full of unpredictable events and accidents waiting to happen? Erikson’s first psychosocial crisis occurs during the first year or so of life (like Freud’s oral stage of psychosexual development). The crisis is one of trust vs. mistrust. During this stage, the infant is uncertain about the world in which they live. To resolve these feelings of uncertainty, the infant looks towards their primary caregiver for stability and consistency of care.

If the care the infant receives is consistent, predictable and reliable, they will develop a sense of trust which will carry with them to other relationships, and they will be able to feel secure even when threatened. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of hope. By developing a sense of trust, the infant can have hope that as new crises arise, there is a real possibility that other people will be there as a source of support. Failing to acquire the virtue of hope will lead to the development of fear.

For example, if the care has been harsh or inconsistent, unpredictable and unreliable, then the infant will develop a sense of mistrust and will not have confidence in the world around them or in their abilities to influence events.

This infant will carry the basic sense of mistrust with them to other relationships. It may result in anxiety, heightened insecurities, and an over feeling of mistrust in the world around them.


2. Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

The child is developing physically and becoming more mobile. Between the ages of 18 months and three, children begin to assert their independence, by walking away from their mother, picking which toy to play with, and making choices about what they like to wear, to eat, etc.

The child is discovering that he or she has many skills and abilities, such as putting on clothes and shoes, playing with toys, etc. Such skills illustrate the child’s growing sense of independence and autonomy. Erikson states it is critical that parents allow their children to explore the limits of their abilities within an encouraging environment which is tolerant of failure.

For example, rather than put on a child’s clothes a supportive parent should have the patience to allow the child to try until they succeed or ask for assistance. So, the parents need to encourage the child to become more independent while at the same time protecting the child so that constant failure is avoided.

A delicate balance is required from the parent. They must try not to do everything for the child, but if the child fails at a particular task they must not criticize the child for failures and accidents (particularly when toilet training). The aim has to be “self control without a loss of self-esteem” . Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of will.

If children in this stage are encouraged and supported in their increased independence, they become more confident and secure in their own ability to survive in the world.

If children are criticized, overly controlled, or not given the opportunity to assert themselves, they begin to feel inadequate in their ability to survive, and may then become overly dependent upon others,lack self esteem and feel a sense of shame or doubt in their abilities.

3. Initiative vs. Guilt

Around age three and continuing to age five, children assert themselves more frequently. These are particularly lively, rapid-developing years in a child’s life. During this period the primary feature involves the child regularly interacting with other children at school. Central to this stage is play, as it provides children with the opportunity to explore their interpersonal skills through initiating activities.

Conversely, if this tendency is squelched, either through criticism or control, children develop a sense of guilt. They may feel like a nuisance to others and will, therefore, remain followers, lacking in self-initiative.

The child takes initiatives which the parents will often try to stop in order to protect the child. The child will often overstep the mark in his forcefulness, and the danger is that the parents will tend to punish the child and restrict his initiatives too much.

It is at this stage that the child will begin to ask many questions as his thirst for knowledge grows. If the parents treat the child’s questions as trivial, a nuisance or embarrassing or other aspects of their behavior as threatening then the child may have feelings of guilt for “being a nuisance”.

Too much guilt can make the child slow to interact with others and may inhibit their creativity. Some guilt is, of course, necessary; otherwise the child would not know how to exercise self-control or have a conscience.

A healthy balance between initiative and guilt is important. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of purpose.

4. Industry (competence) vs. Inferiority

Industry versus inferiority is the fourth stage of Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. The stage occurs during childhood between the ages of five and twelve. Children are at the stage where they will be learning to read and write, to do sums, to do things on their own. Teachers begin to take an important role in the child’s life as they teach the child specific skills.

It is at this stage that the child’s peer group will gain greater significance and will become a major source of the child’s self-esteem. The child now feels the need to win approval by demonstrating specific competencies that are valued by society and begin to develop a sense of pride in their accomplishments.

If children are encouraged and reinforced for their initiative, they begin to feel industrious and feel confident in their ability to achieve goals. If this initiative is not encouraged, if it is restricted by parents or teacher, then the child begins to feel inferior, doubting his own abilities and therefore may not reach his or her potential.

If the child cannot develop the specific skill they feel society is demanding (e.g., being athletic) then they may develop a sense of inferiority. Some failure may be necessary so that the child can develop some modesty. Again, a balance between competence and modesty is necessary. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of competence.

5. Identity vs. Role Confusion

The fifth stage is identity vs. role confusion, and it occurs during adolescence, from about 12-18 years. During this stage, adolescents search for a sense of self and personal identity, through an intense exploration of personal values, beliefs, and goals.

The adolescent mind is essentially a mind or moratorium, a psychosocial stage between childhood and adulthood, and between the morality learned by the child, and the ethics to be developed by the adult (Erikson, 1963, p. 245)

During adolescence, the transition from childhood to adulthood is most important. Children are becoming more independent, and begin to look at the future in terms of career, relationships, families, housing, etc. The individual wants to belong to a society and fit in.

This is a major stage of development where the child has to learn the roles  he will occupy as an adult. It is during this stage that the adolescent will re-examine his identity and try to find out exactly who he or she is. Erikson suggests that two identities are involved: the sexual and the occupational.

what should happen at the end of this stage is “a reintegrated sense of self, of what one wants to do or be, and of one’s appropriate sex role”. During this stage the body image of the adolescent changes.

Erikson claims that the adolescent may feel uncomfortable about their body for a while until they can adapt and “grow into” the changes. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of fidelity.

Fidelity involves being able to commit one’s self to others on the basis of accepting others, even when there may be ideological differences.

During this period, they explore possibilities and begin to form their own identity based upon the outcome of their explorations. Failure to establish a sense of identity within society (“I don’t know what I want to be when I grow up”) can lead to role confusion. Role confusion involves the individual not being sure about themselves or their place in society.

In response to role confusion or identity crisis, an adolescent may begin to experiment with different lifestyles (e.g., work, education or political activities). Also pressuring someone into an identity can result in rebellion in the form of establishing a negative identity, and in addition to this feeling of unhappiness.

6. Intimacy vs. Isolation

Occurring in young adulthood (ages 18 to 40 yrs), we begin to share ourselves more intimately with others. We explore relationships leading toward longer-term commitments with someone other than a family member.

Successful completion of this stage can result in happy relationships and a sense of commitment, safety, and care within a relationship. Avoiding intimacy, fearing commitment and relationships can lead to isolation, loneliness, and sometimes depression. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of love.

7. Generativity vs. Stagnation

During middle adulthood (ages 40 to 65 yrs), we establish our careers, settle down within a relationship, begin our own families and develop a sense of being a part of the bigger picture.

We give back to society through raising our children, being productive at work, and becoming involved in community activities and organizations.

By failing to achieve these objectives, we become stagnant and feel unproductive. Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of care.

8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair

As we grow older (65+ yrs) and become senior citizens, we tend to slow down our productivity and explore life as a retired person. It is during this time that we contemplate our accomplishments and can develop integrity if we see ourselves as leading a successful life.

Erik Erikson believed if we see our lives as unproductive, feel guilt about our past, or feel that we did not accomplish our life goals, we become dissatisfied with life and develop despair, often leading to depression and hopelessness.

Success in this stage will lead to the virtue of wisdom. Wisdom enables a person to look back on their life with a sense of closure and completeness, and also accept death without fear.

Erikson’s theory has good face validity. Its easy to read and understand I expect anyone who read this will, as I did, recognise these stages of life development. BUT  Erikson is rather vague about the causes of development. What kinds of experiences must people have to successfully resolve various psychosocial conflicts and move from one stage to another? And what happens if they dont ? and where does addiction fit in? and what if some stages are completed ok, but others not ?

I will write an ‘arrested development 2’ in a few days ….


One comment

  1. Very well researched. I was just noticing my lack of maturity this weekend over Thanksgiving. I responded (mentally) like a five-year-old half of the time. The difference now is that I can reason with myself instead of acting out, like I did when drinking. At least I can start maturing now. ; )


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