What is an addiction?
I pose this question after dealing with my son’s problems with crystal meth, cannabis, mushrooms and alcohol. I have wondered if I had a problem too. I consumed alcohol to excess at parties and I liked to have a few drinks at home after work. Nothing I did ever interfered with my work – perhaps a couple of hangovers when I was young. When my wife left the marriage she was looking for excuses, and she pointed fingers. I have a sense of guilt and sinfulness, and look at myself in the context of addictions for a time. Some counsellors – mainly the fluffy ones who like to find victims and villains everywhere – would have called me an addict not simply because I consumed alcohol routinely but because I did not meet my wife’s expectations. I think their analysis would be that I consumed at unhealthy levels, I was insensitive to my wife’s deep spiritual longings, denying my own spiritual feelings and filling my days with the intoxicating power of working at being a successful male professional, and drinking too much for my health. I don’t accept that kind of thinking any more. Maintaining my own integrity and surviving in a stressful world is not an addiction.
When I try to get down to basic and fundamental knowledge, I can start with medical and biological information although medical information doesn’t help much in this field. A few drugs are addictive in the sense that after you use them, you will suffer physiological withdrawal symptoms. Heroin and other opiates are notorious examples, and caffeine and nicotine may be mildly addictive. But many of the substances and actions that AFM counsellors described as addictive carry no physical withdrawal penalties. Most addictions are psychological rather than physiological. Even where there is a physiological addiction, the addict can withdraw. The risk of re-involvement is psychological and social, rather than medical.
An addiction is a rewarding compulsive behaviour. There has to be some kind of reward or relief connected to the action, or we wouldn’t do it. It also has to be compulsive, rather than merly habitual or routine. People live their lives within habits, routines and patterns of action that may strike other people as odd. We have imperfect control over our impulses. We feel comfortable with our morning coffee and snack, and our glass of wine with dinner. We ease the stress by playing solitaire on the computer instead of trying to write sonnets. It is easy to criticize other people’s compulsions and to forgive our own. Everyone has routines and compulsive behaviours, and defining every habitual and routine behaviour as an addiction is tautological. If I like to have a cup of coffee before breakfast and at the start of a working day, am I a caffeine addict or do I just have a pattern of activity and a taste for roasted coffee beans? There has to be more. Habits are not addictions. Even compulsions are not addictions.
An addiction is a habit or routine that has become compulsive, and is beyond conscious or rational control. In some cases the subject may feel that he is in control, against objective evidence to the contrary. That is an objective element. It can’t be stopped by making a simple decision to stop.
Even then, I am not sure we have arrived at a good definition of an addiction. It also has to be harmful in itself, or harmful past a safe level, or harmful within a relationship. I realize that I have introduced a subjective element to the process – what the partner or family can tolerate. That isn’t entirely logical, but it seems to be a relevant factor.
An addiction is a self-rewarding and uncontrollably compulsive behaviour that causes objective harm to the performance of work or the fulfilment of emotional obligations to friends and family or serious harm to the emotional well-being of a loved one.
On that definition, devotion to work is not addiction. Work can be important to one’s identity and self-esteem, but it is rarely a compulsion. It can be considered as an addiction if the rest of the family want the workaholic to spend more time at home and are prepared to accept the financial disadvantages. I don’t know if spirituality can be described as addictive. It may meet a deep need, and joining a cult to feel good about yourself seems to call for an irrationally high price for peace of mind, but the behaviour is conscious and not compulsive.
So there it is. A quick analysis of addiction. If only I could cure my son’s addictions.