Heroin Use and the Psychology of Repression by Nick Sandberg

March 21, 2012

I hope this short piece about how repression occurs and the kinds of strategies our subconscious mind utilises to deal with it may shed fresh light on addiction issues.

Heroin, known medically as diamorphine, is in essence little more than an extremely powerful painkiller. The essential effect of heroin, like that of any opiate, is to render pain subconscious. To repress that which is causing us to experience negative thoughts, feelings or emotions. A person using heroin, therefore, is not engaging in self-indulgent behaviour, merely seeking to keep pain repressed.

Taking heroin is not a foolish action. It is not a stupid thing to do. It is a quite natural ‘coping strategy’ many people adopt to help them maintain a reasonably stable emotional state in the face of adverse conditions.

The use of ‘coping strategies’ is widespread in our society, and drug use is merely one example. Virtually everybody reading this, regardless of whether they use drugs or not, will be using coping strategies of one form or another on a daily basis. This happens because, in the typical Western childhood, we are all exposed to high levels of parental ‘conditioning’ – the restriction of our natural desire for personal freedom of expression by our parents or other adults charged with our care. This typically takes place via our parents only giving us affection when our behaviour is deemed ‘good’. And having this affection withdrawn when our behaviour is deemed ‘bad’. Parents typically condition their children because the overwhelming majority of cultural influences they’re exposed to tell them it must be done or their children will not grow up to be ‘civilised human beings’.

If we look a little deeper at what conditioning is, and what happens when it is applied to us, we will begin to understand the true reasons why so many people become drawn to heroin use. Conditioning takes place via the process of us being repeatedly compelled to block natural behaviour patterns. Conditioning is what happens to us whenever our parents, teachers or society compel us to behave in a way that is not natural to us, be it for our own good of otherwise. And conditioning can take place because of a primitive defence mechanism we all rely on when we are children – the repression response.

At the age of about 10 weeks the foetus begins to become aware of its environment. And it simultaneously develops a basic mechanism to protect itself from potentially damaging events in its new world. This mechanism is the repression response. Everything that is occurring around us is constantly being monitored by our subconscious mind, below the level of our conscious awareness. When something happens that the subconscious mind believes may be harmful to us, it activates the repression response. This response blocks our full awareness of the event and further suppresses the expression of any pain which may be associated with it. We therefore do not fully experience what it was that happened and do not express fully any accompanying pain.

The intention of the subconscious mind is to block our awareness of the event until such time as it is safe for us to experience what it was that happened and express the pain associated. To ensure that our conscious mind, as we go about our daily life, does not accidentally come across the block of memory and unexpressed pain, it covers it over with layers of fear. By doing this, our subconscious mind ensures that should our conscious mind experience anything that symbolically reminds it of the painful memory, it suddenly experiences fear, and quickly moves away.

Growing up therefore, naturally experiencing events which our young mind cannot yet comprehend and so feels slightly threatened by, the repression response will often be activated. This results in the storing up of a lot of these blocks of memory and pain, all covered over with fear to ensure we don’t accidentally uncover them.

The repression response remains available to us throughout our lives. But, as we progress through childhood, so we naturally develop an improved system known as the grieving process. The term ‘grieving process’ does not apply solely to dealing with the death of a loved one, but to any event that has a negative effect upon us. The process of grieving a painful event runs through several distinct stages and allows the body to re-balance itself at an emotional level and thus soon return to life much as before. It does not involve the storing away of lots of little blocks of pain and memory. And the grieving process proceeds naturally as soon as we become aware of what it is that has happened and express the pain associated.

So growing up, we can release ourselves from the past if we progressively become aware of what it is that has happened to us, and liberate the repressed blocks of memory and pain inside, thus initiating the grieving process. It is a good idea that we do this, for if we do not then the blocks of memory and pain will mount up and anytime we consciously experience something that symbolically relates to one of the repressed memories we will experience fear.

And if we do not take steps to clear out our subconscious mind then so, pretty soon, our life will become increasingly stressful. If bad events have happened in our past, even minor things, so we will soon begin to experience high levels of stress as our mind constantly experiences the little warning bursts of fear that occur whenever it encounters something that in any way symbolically reminds our subconscious of a repressed memory. When this starts to happen, we will find that whole areas of natural thinking and behaviour become painful to us, and so we learn to avoid them. Learning subconsciously to make changes in our natural patterns of thinking and behaviour is called adopting coping strategies.

Back to conditioning. The process of ‘conditioning’ children; compelling them to divert from their natural behaviour pattern, for whatever reason; when it first occurs will cause the initiation of the repression response. The child develops a little block of memory and pain surrounded by fear. The conditioning action could be anything. Perhaps the infant reaching out for food because it is hungry and having it’s hand gently slapped. The little block will be reinforced the first few times the action of conditioning occurs. And then the child will learn. It will learn that if it wishes to avoid the feeling of fear that now happens when it thinks of eating when its parents do not wish it to eat, it must adopt the changes in behaviour the conditioning is intended to induce. But, in doing so, the memory and pain that is associated with the original experience of the conditioning remains repressed. It remains hidden away surrounded by fear in the subconscious mind.

The degree to which we have to repress depends on not only the amount of conditioning we experience. But also on the kind of conditioning. The more painful the memory – the more it deviates from what our instinct tells us should be occurring – the deeper the repression needed to keep it down. And, if all the accumulating fear and pain repressed in the mind is not cleared out, then the child as he or she grows up will be subconsciously drawn to using coping strategies.

If we look around us, we will see that virtually everyone is using coping strategies of some form or another. Some are socially recognised as being such, others are simply regarded as being part of so-called ‘normal behaviour’. I’ll describe a few.

– the use of distractive thinking or behaviour – the frequent experiencing of a sudden need to change the subject or do something else in certain not obviously threatening situations;

– the retreat into a primarily left-brain lifestyle – the world of feelings is more accessible from the right-brain, so if feelings become painful to us then the world of logic and order seems very attractive. Many people in science and similar areas have moved into their chosen field not because it truly interests them, but because the orderly world it represented was comforting terrain.

– the adoption of antisocial or criminal behaviour – a person who experiences little real love from their parents may subconsciously insulate themselves from the memory of this with the fear that they cannot be loved, that they are simply innately unlovable. This is the deepest and darkest fear the human mind can carry and because it is so terrible, it will always be held subconsciously – away from our waking awareness. To escape from this terrifying subconscious fear, an individual will frequently attempt to prove to themselves and those around them that they are ‘bad’. For if they are ‘bad’ then this was the reason they did not receive love, not because they are unlovable. This is the true root of much criminal and delinquent behaviour.

– acting out – the compulsion to symbolically recreate repressed early situations and attempt to alter the outcome. One common example being the girl whose father never showed her affection finding herself later attracted only to uncaring men who she attempts to get to love her;

– co-dependency – the seeking out of a partner who can symbolically satisfy the unmet and unrecognised needs of childhood. Our mind will store the deviation between what its instincts tell us should be happening in our young life and what actually happened. And this will form a powerful drive within the subconscious, dictating much behaviour;

– the devout belief in the Christian God – believing in an entity who refuses to prove He loves you but simply demands total faith can prove compelling to someone who did not experience the unconditional love of their parents they were biologically preconditioned to expect. If such a person can believe that it is normal for unconditional love not to be expressed, but to later manifest with faith then the deviation between what was expected and what was experienced will cease to cause deep pain;

– the craving for fame – very frequently it will be seen that a person who has not had a natural need fulfilled through childhood conditioning – usually the need to experience unconditional love and freedom of expression – will quickly learn not to seek the fulfilment of this need directly, for fear of the pain it knows will result if it is again refused. Instead, they will learn to seek mere symbols of the need. Thus, those who did not experience unconditional love from their parents will naturally develop a deep subconscious desire for fame, for the adoration that fame represents symbolises the love that they truly crave.

– the craving for material wealth or possessions – being wealthy may represent being insulated from the effects of painful events of the past. Furthermore, our parents frequently give us things when they are pleased with us and wish to demonstrate affection, and we thus subconsciously associate material possessions with being loved;

– the craving for personal power – if we found our natural attempts to express ourselves overly restricted by our parents, acquiring personal power and establishing boundaries in relationships will naturally become very important to us;

This is just a brief selection of some typical coping strategies. There are many others. It’s important to remember that there is nothing wrong with any of the above behaviour. It is all quite natural, and simply occurs because as children we have been subjected to conditioning, an unnatural infringement on our innate desire for self-expression; and furthermore denied easy access to any strategy that can open up the subconscious mind and liberate the repressed material within. The other thing worth noting is that not one of the persons described above has any conscious awareness of what it is that is truly motivating their behaviour or thinking. Everything is being run at a subconscious level.

And now, heroin. The key to understanding heroin use is to realise that heroin is a drug that reinforces repression. The system that our mind actually uses to repress material is known to neurologists and psychologists as ‘gating’. The better we can ‘gate’ the better we can hold material in the subconscious, away from our conscious awareness of it.

If we imagine that we are our conscious mind and that a zoo full of wild animals is our subconscious, then ‘the gates’ are the bars of the cages that keep the animals from scaring us. If the gates weaken then repressed material will begin to enter into our awareness where it will become projected onto the situations we encounter and cause us anxiety.

Our gating mechanism is regulated at the opiate receptor in the brain. Taking heroin will increase gating – strengthening the bars of the cage – thus allowing the user to experience less direct interference from the subconscious mind. And therefore less anxiety. People who cannot ‘gate’ sufficiently well to keep painful material repressed; either because their gating mechanism is not functioning properly, or because the material is just too painful; will begin to become increasingly vulnerable to using heroin or other opiates. For such persons, a chance encounter with heroin will frequently turn into a long-term relationship.

So, to sum up. Virtually anyone brought up in Western society will have experienced considerable conditioning as a child. Being conditioned is what our parents do to us in the belief that it is necessary if we are to become ‘civilised’ human beings. It typically consists of the witholding of affection when we behave in a manner deemed ‘bad’, and the granting of affection when our behaviour is deemed ‘good’. Whilst conditioning does cause us to adapt our natural behaviour patterns to those which society deems ‘civilised’, it does so at the expense of us having to repress in our subconscious mind large amounts of painful material. This repression takes place via the neurological mechanism known as ‘gating’. Gating may be thought of as the ‘fencing off’ of separate parts of our mind. In this case the conscious from the subconscious, the aware from the unaware.

As this material mounts up in our subconscious mind, so we will find ourselves increasingly compelled to alter our natural thinking and behaviour patterns to avoid any form of symbolic encounter with the repressed material. The adoption of these changes in behaviour or thinking is known as the taking on of coping strategies. It can be seen that virtually everyone in our society is naturally adopting coping strategies of one type or another. However, not everyone can keep painful material sufficiently repressed by this means. Either their gating system is not functioning adequately or the material they’re trying to hold away is too painful.

Heroin, an opiate, operates at the receptors in the brain that mediate gating. And so, taking heroin will reinforce an individuals ability to repress painful material out of their conscious awareness. For a person whose subconscious mind is having trouble keeping repressed material down, the use of something to reinforce their minds gating system will be very attractive. For such a person, just one chance encounter with heroin could well turn into a lifelong relationship.

So, what can truly be done about heroin addiction? Well, from the above it can be seen that what is truly ailing addicts, and many non drug users, is the presence of repressed material within the subconscious mind, the natural result of all the conditioning we have received as children. And that persons using heroin are people who likely either do not have a particularly effective ‘gating’ system, (perhaps more sensitive or artistic individuals); or those for whom the material their subconscious mind is trying to keep repressed is so painful it keeps leaking through into the edges of awareness, (those who have suffered childhood abuse or similar deeply traumatic events).

In order that these problems be resolved permanently it will be necessary to make conscious the memories and pain repressed within subconsciousness. As a person learns how to approach and break through the barrier of fear that is surrounding the original repressed memory, so they will be able to experience the memory in it’s original context and express the pain held within the system at that point. Once this is done, the natural grieving process will be initiated, and, after it has run its course, the person will be free of the need to repress. Thus heroin will no longer be an issue, for there will be nothing for it to do within the body.

Ibogaine’s activity at multiple receptor sites within the body makes it an ideal basis for therapeutic interventions to counter heroin addiction. The drug can open up the subconscious mind, allowing slow exploration and integration of material and pain lurking within over the months after the treatment. This should happen ideally under the skilled guidance of a therapist, perhaps with ancilliary techniques employed to assist the process. Furthermore, ibogaine’s activity at the opiate receptor ensures that the body’s repressive system isn’t shut down too quickly with the removal of heroin from the user’s life. This provides a comfortable space between the states of being a heroin user and not being a heroin user and will also prevent most of the symptoms of heroin withdrawal, making detox a relatively painless process.

Nick Sandberg, April 2000.

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3 thoughts on “Heroin Use and the Psychology of Repression by Nick Sandberg

  1. VanNistelmooy on said:

    Why is it that addiction specialists insist that an underlying traumatic issue is the only plausible reason for drug addiction? Seriously, who came up with this, Freud during a coke induced psychosis? Having been addicted to heroin for years and having detoxed successfully with Ibogaine I have a much different view on why this drug is so successful. Yes, Ibogaine blocks various receptors in our brain’s neurotransmitters – in particular, opiate receptors – providing addicts with a pain free detox. As amazing as this was for me – the real catalyst for long term change is in the drug’s therapeutic qualities. Yes, the drug provides direct access to our subconscious mind – allowing us clear understanding as to why we do what we do and think how we think. More importantly, it let’s you see how unfounded and irrational these reasons for detrimental thinking and behavior really are – allowing you to permenantly “rewire” your brain. To be clear, I’m not talking about trauma but fears and insecurities related to specific experiences that may have altered our personalities – ever so slightly – throughout our early lives. At any rate, Ibogaine can provide a very profound experience for anyone suffering from drug addiction, depression, PTSD, anxiety disorders, etc. or simply anyone wishing to better understand themselves.If anyone is interested, contact me and I will put you in touch with the most qualified, reasonably priced provider out there. nb5782@gmail.com

  2. Wow Nick Sanburg brilliant. Absolutely! Addicts don’t want to admit emotional defects or vulnerabilities. Addicts like the prospect of genetic reasons for their addiction. That way they can still be “kool” even though they tried to destroy themselves. And your right about one thing that annoys the hell out of me. VanNistelmooy is a typical example of an addict too ashamed to reach into the true and core issues behind the fear. Well at least he acknowledged the fear which is more than most addicts can do in AA. Even though the fourth step and their master Bill W. talks and writes about it beside every self-esteem issue on the strep four grid. And the fear list which most AA’s seldom even acknowledge. One word FALSE-PRIDE. They can’t get past the false pride long enough to admit they just wanted to be loved, feel they are “bad”, and are re-living adolescent struggle’s. Addict don’t know what a lack of nurturing and emotional abuse even looks like. I used to say the same thing-“it’s hereditary”, and “I had a great childhood”. Right if you want to call a father who NEVER showed a drop of affection or love great. And not only did I think I was bad I also thought everyone else was better than me. You described me to a tee. The survival skills in your article are so typical of most addicts. VanNistelmooy you got to the fear but if you don’t express(in a healthy way) the pain behind your core issues of hurt then you won’t heal. You will need meetings the rest of your life so you can keep changing the band-aid of the wound that is seeping. Healthy expression can be crying, screaming, writing, talking, sharing,moaning,groaning about the core issue.

  3. PsyleXx on said:

    It was once said that there are three ways of integrating on our path :

    – Living the experience in full awareness
    – Re-living the repressed memories
    – Getting an illness (the mind dumps the repressed content to the body).

    Sacred entheogens can help you heal these traumas, indeed sometimes a so called “bad trip” is what brings the miraculous healing.

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