On Addiction

Back in the 80’s, Nancy Reagan declared the semi-immortalized words “Just say no to drugs!” While Mrs. Reagan specified drugs as primarily the addictive substance to say no to, she presumably could have been referring to any other substance or activity which can become a form of addiction. What has always struck me most though–professionally and personally–about these words is that injecting the word “just” into the declaration implies it really shouldn’t take that much effort and self-control to not become addicted to something. Which of course in reality couldn’t be farther from the truth, i.e., for enough people it can take a great deal of effort and self-control to resist addiction in the first place, much less sustain it to conquer an addiction already in place!

In the sections below, I will cover four main topics related to addiction. First, I will offer a definition of addiction which allows for a wider range of behaviors to be defined as potentially addictive than just substances like drugs and alcohol. Then I list what that range of addictive behaviors can include. Next comes a summary of the reasons why it in fact is so difficult to stop an addiction, followed by a section addressed to the significant downsides to addiction. Finally, I will discuss the challenging process of controlling addiction so it no longer controls you.

DEFINITION OF ADDICTION

As noted above, the definition of addiction I use allows for a number of behaviors to become possible types of addiction above and beyond substances. That definition has two main parts: 1) any behavior basically in control of you rather you being in control of the behavior; and 2) as a result, the behavior causes you some type of harm, be it psychological, physical, financial, or relationship harm–or some combination of these. Clearly this definition typically fits for substance addiction. It also can apply though to addictions like, e.g., food, gambling, shopping, lying, sexual encounters, and electronics (especially video games, texting, and excessive use of social media).

On the psychological harm front, any type of addiction can especially take a toll on an addict’s self-respect and overall self-worth. Yet because someone with an addiction will typically deny having any addiction problem, they will also deny these two negative effects on their psychological well-being. Therefore the “benefits” of maintaining an addiction–to be presented below–will remain the conscious or subconscious reasons to continue with the addiction, while ignoring the various negative consequences of doing so–and for as long as possible.

“BENEFITS” OF HAVING AN ADDICTION

This section is mainly addressed to the reasons why it is so hard for so many people to “just say no” to commencing an addictive behavior, much less control it once it has taken control of you. Some of these reasons–i.e., “benefits”–may sound obvious, like excitement, relaxation, escape, and disinhibition. But let me propose a less obvious reason for keeping an addiction in place: “anesthesia.” Medicinally speaking, an anesthetic is of course something used to numb physical pain. Yet as we all know, human beings experience psychological/emotional pain as well, like depression, an anxiety disorder, deep grief, lonliness, or post-traumatic stress. And just as with physical pain, the worse this type of pain is, the more the emotionally suffering person may feel a need to numb it–at least temporarily anyway, just as with a medicinal anesthetic. Especially given the “benefits” just listed, you can see how an addiction of any type can therefore feel like–again, consciously or subconsciously–an anesthetic against painful emotions.

THE DOWNSIDES OF ADDICTION

As powerful as any “benefit” of any type of addiction may feel, there typically is a major price to pay for ongoing addictive behavior. That price–as noted above in terms of the possible types of harm that ongoing addiction can trigger–can be physical, psychological, financial, or in relationships. Physical harm to health can especially result from prolonged heavy use of addictive substances like alcohol or drugs. Psychological harm is manifested in that person’s significant loss of self-respect, for allowing their self-sabotaging addiction to possibly rule their life. Financial harm can result from uncontrolled spending, especially related to addictions like substance use and excessive gambling. Finally, addiction can sabotage important personal relationships, especially when the addiction is accompanied by significant irresponsibility, like law-breaking actions, unleashing of abusive behavior, or excessive withdrawal or isolation.

CONTROLLING ADDICTION

If we return for the moment to the simplistic “just say no” pitch, then you know–to put it mildly–how much easier said than done it is to prevent addiction from the start, much less control it once it is in full force. But if addiction is in fact to be eliminated, several things must come together to increase the odds of success and reduce the odds of failure or relapse. It starts with full acknowledgment by the addict of the reality of their problem, rather than continuing in the mode of denial. There also must come a clear conscious recognition of the psychological and/or physical and/or financial and/or relationship-sabotaging pain caused by prolonged addiction. Next, there needs to be a clear acknowledgment too of what is going wrong or badly in their life, be it, e.g., specific fears, loneliness, frequent agitation, deep sadness, boredom, excessive stress, or a sense of personal failure or shame. There also needs to be a commitment by the addict to do whatever it takes in their day-to-day lives to rebuild their self-sabotaged self-respect, especially in terms of behavioral self-control, goal-oriented productivity, and–where relevant and advisable–making amends to any significant other harmed by the in some way due to their addiction. Last but certainly not least, someone in the throes of some type of addiction must make–and keep–a commitment to themselves to actively and ongoingly pursue a combination of professional help plus involvement in a supportive community like 12-step.

POSTSCRIPT: SOME FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Is addiction a sickness or a disease, as many people define it? From my perspective anyway, it depends how you define those two related but not necessarily identical terms. If the addiction does not cause the person any significant degree of any of the four types of harm listed above, then for all the people out there who I know will disagree with me, I say it is NOT a sickness or disease, but more a very challenging personal problem to try and control. If on the other hand some type of significant harm to the addict does occur, then in my view those two categorizations apply.

But here’s another piece of thought on addiction I’m putting out there to the universe. In my experience, many people judge addicts–especially substance abuse addicts–as essentially “low-lifes” or second-class citizens. Many parents for example will in fact sound smug in their announcing that regardless of anything else their child may not do well in life–e.g., receiving relatively poor grades based on lack of effort, or being a bully–“at least my kid isn’t an addict!” Well, to the innumerable negative judgers out there in the world, I ask you to make a distinction on the judgment front. Specifically, I invite you to muster up as much compassion and as little negative judgment as you can for any addict who is mainly SELF-sabotaging, i.e., has a sickness or disease. In contrast, I totally get negatively judging someone whose addiction leads them to, e.g., often hurt significant others, and/or engage in physically harmful violence. THOSE are the addicts who can be a menace and a “low-life”–until and if they sincerely acknowledge their wrongdoing and seek professional help. But in the absence of these inexcusable behaviors, and on behalf of again primarily the SELF-sabotaging addicts out there in the world, I encourage you to make a distinction, and feel vs. judge accordingly!

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