What Is Addiction?

addiction
In my experience, people who don’t like alcohol, and especially hate the people who do enjoy it, often tend to blame the alcohol as being addictive. I’ve always found that odd, since not everybody who takes a drink automatically becomes an alcoholic, unable to stop drinking. In fact, it doesn’t work that way for most people, and certainly nobody I’ve ever met. It should be obvious to everyone that some people have more addictive personalities than others. Whether that’s genetic, learned or some combination of the two is still an open question, but what’s clear is that it effects different people differently. That alone should let alcohol off the hook, but it never does. Many people remain convinced that addiction is confined to the traditional instruments of sin: booze and drugs.

But gambling can be an addiction, can’t it? And there’s certainly food addictions, in part foisted on society by unscrupulous processed food companies who add sugar and salt and fat to everything. But the point is that as the list of accepted addictions grows, it confirms what I’ve believed all along. That addiction has to do with the addictive personality — the person — and not the object of the addiction. There are, of course, substances which have addictive properties. Tobacco springs to mind, but even it doesn’t effect everybody the same way. Over the course of my life, I’ve had the odd cigarette, and even enjoyed the occasional cigar, but have never felt like I *had* to have another one. That may just be because I don’t have an addictive personalty for such things, or it may take more repeated use before it kicks in, though I doubt it. It seems more likely it’s the former. So while I have no doubt that cigarettes are bad for me, I don’t fear they’ll grab hold of me and I’ll be unable to stop smoking.

So why is it that the neo-prohibitionists seem so reluctant to include personal responsibility as a factor, if not the factor? It boggles the mind. They seem far more interested in blaming the alcohol companies for trying to “hook” people in with advertising, as if people have no choice but to fall prey and begin binge drinking. Some anti-alcohol groups have gone so far as to portray alcohol in a syringe in an attempt to paint heroin and beer as the same.

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With the publication this May of the new DSM-5, the bible of psychiatric disorders and treatment that’s put out by the American Psychiatric Association, “compulsive gambling” will be added to the list of accepted “addictions.” The DSM-5 also replaced the term “dependence” and goes back to using the term “addiction” again instead. Why that’s the case is a fascinating story in and of itself, which you can read an overview of in Blinded by Biochemistry. Oddly enough, compulsive “binge-eating” and “hypersexuality” are both not considered addictions, at least not yet. As Stanton Peele, author of Love and Addiction, writes, “Binge-drinking can bring on addiction, but not binge-eating? How come?”

I’m convinced that’s because of the social acceptability of eating, as contrasted by the demonization of alcohol. Drinking has been treated as a sin and a moral failing by alcohol’s opponents for so long now that the very concept has been absorbed into the culture at large. The DSM-5 is merely reflecting that prejudice in our society.

But as Steele points out in a more recent article, What Is Addiction? Addiction isn’t what it used to be, the New York Times recently identified new trends of addiction, that of being addicted to “junk food” and playing “mindless games.” (How those can be considered “new” is also quite puzzling, frankly.) But as I can’t quite shake the notion that it’s not the substance of the addiction that’s at fault, but the individual’s reaction to it that makes it addictive, Steele offers some confirmation that I’m not off my rocker.

What makes such a thing an addiction? And it is no more the existence and consumption of junk food, repetitive games or other video stimulation, or placing a bet that makes it so; it is the way the individual interprets and reacts to the experience of the thing in the context of his or her life that creates an addiction (think of heroin addiction in Vietnam, soon left behind by most vets on their return home). When a powerful experience is welcomed for its reassurance and as a life solution, when it become preoccupying and detrimental to the consumer, and — finally — when the individual him or herself comes to see and to believe that the experience is addictive — voila!

addiction

But as Steele wrote earlier in Psychology Today magazine:

Addiction is the search for emotional satisfaction — for a sense of security, a sense of being loved, even a sense of control over life. But the gratification is temporary and illusory, and the behavior results instead in greater self-disgust, reduced psychological security, and poorer coping ability. That’s what all addictions have in common.

As he points out, we can never agree on a exhaustive list of all of the stuff one could become addicted to, because it’s not about the object of addiction, but the addictive person’s reaction and relationship to his particular obsession. And that’s where, in his opinion, the new DSM-5 is still taking the wrong approach by “viewing the nature of addiction as a characteristic of specific substances,” because it doesn’t recognize the basic truth that addiction is more complicated than just banning anything that someone might become addicted to. Steele continues.

[T]hink about obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): People are not diagnosed based on the specific habit they repeat — be it hand-washing or checking locked doors. They are diagnosed with OCD because of how life-disruptive and compulsive the habit is. Similarly, addictive disorders are about how badly a habit harms a person’s life.

And that is, or should be, the point. How a person reacts to anything, and alcohol in particular, is almost as individual and unique as they are. Most people can drink beer responsibly and without their lives falling into ruin. A few can’t. But can we please stop targeting the beer and use those same resources to get the minority of people who can’t some help?

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