Addiction

What is Addiction

Addiction has long been believed to mean an uncontrollable habit of using alcohol
or other drugs. Because of the physical effects of these substances on the body, and
particularly the brain, people have often thought that “real” addictions only happen
when people regularly use these substances in large amounts.

More recently, we have come to realize that people can also develop addictions
to behaviours, such as gambling, and even quite ordinary and necessary activities such
as exercise and eating. What these activities have in common is that the person doing
them finds them pleasurable in some way.

There is some controversy about which of the “behavioural” addictions constitute
scientifically validated “true” addictions, with both professionals and the public
failing to reach an agreement. More research is needed to clarify this issue.

So If You Can Be Addicted to Anything, What Makes it
an Addiction?

Although the precise symptoms vary from one addiction to another, in clarifying what
is an addiction, there are two aspects that all addictions have in common.
Firstly, the addictive behaviour is maladaptive or counter-productive to the individual.
So instead of helping the person adapt to situations or overcome problems, it tends to
undermine these abilities.

For example, a gambler might wish he had more money –- yet gambling is more
likely to drain his financial resources. A heavy drinker might want to cheer herself up,
yet alcohol use contributes to the development of her depression. A sex addict may
crave intimacy – yet the focus on sexual acts may prevent real closeness from
developing.

Secondly, the behaviour is persistent. When someone is addicted, they will continue
to engage in the addictive behaviour, despite it causing them trouble.
So an occasional weekend of self-indulgence is not addiction, although it may cause
different kinds of problems. Addiction involves more frequent engagement in the
behaviour.

But If You Still Enjoy It, It Can’t Be an Addiction,
Right?

Wrong. Because the media, in particular, have portrayed addicts as hopeless, unhappy
people whose lives are falling apart, many people with addictions do not believe they
are addicted as long as they are enjoying themselves, and they are holding their lives
together.

Often people’s addictions become ingrained in their lifestyle, to the point where
they never or rarely feel withdrawal symptoms. Or they may not recognize their
withdrawal symptoms for what they are, putting them down to aging, working too
hard, or just to not liking mornings. People can go for years without realizing how
dependent they are on their addiction.

People with illicit addictions may enjoy the secretive nature of their behaviour.
They may blame society for its narrow-mindedness, choosing to see themselves as
free-willed and independent individuals. In reality, addictions tend to limit people’s
individuality and freedom as they become more restricted in their behaviours.

Imprisonment for engaging in an illegal addiction restricts their freedom even more.
When people are addicted, their enjoyment often becomes focused on carrying out the
addictive behaviour and relieving withdrawal, rather than the full range of experiences
which form the person’s full potential for happiness. At some point, the addicted
person may realize that life has passed them by, and that they have missed out on
enjoying much other than the addiction. This often happens when people overcome
addiction.

What’s the Problem If It isn’t Doing Any Harm?

Addictions are harmful both to the person with the addiction, and to the people around
them.
The biggest problem is the addicted person’s failure to recognize the harm
their addiction is doing. They may be in denial about the negative aspects of
their addiction, choosing to ignore the effects on their health, life patterns and
relationships. Or they may blame outside circumstances or other people in their lives
for their difficulties.

The harm caused by addiction is particularly difficult to recognize when the addiction
is the person’s main way of coping with the other problems they have. Sometimes
other problems are directly related to the addiction, for example, health problems,
and sometimes they are indirectly related to the addiction, for example, relationship
problems.

Some people who get addicted to substances or activities are very aware of their
addictions, and even the harms caused by the addiction, but keep doing the addictive
behaviour anyway. This can be because they don’t feel they can cope without the
addiction, because they are avoiding dealing with some other issue that the addiction
distracts them from (such as being abused as a child), or because they do not know
how to enjoy life any other way.

The harm of addiction may only be recognized when the addicted person goes
through a crisis. This can happen when the addictive substance or behaviour is taken
away completely, and the person goes into withdrawal and cannot cope. Or it can
occur as a consequence of the addiction, such as a serious illness, a partner leaving, or
loss of a job.

Help is available