We’ve all heard someone say that they don’t have an addictive personality. This arrogant statement is usually followed by a citation of all the most common addictions to which they are not enslaved. But their claim isn’t just pompous and irritating, it’s also inaccurate.
When someone claims that they don’t have an addictive personality, what they mean to say is that they aren’t susceptible to the most common forms of addiction. This statement is also false, since they would likely become addicted if they were forced to undertake the addictive behaviors to which they believe they are immune.
If we were to give such a person a hit of crystal meth, for example, the outcome would likely be equally grim for them as any other person. What they should be saying, if anything at all, is that they have no desire to engage in common addictive behaviors or that the limited behaviors they have engaged in have not yet produced an addiction (that they’re aware of).
Sometimes people will make claims about the addictive properties of a substance or behavior in order to further their argument against it. For example, those who believe that humans should not consume wheat gluten will point to the fact that it contains opioid peptides, which are from the same family as opium. Obviously something that is related to opium must be bad, right?
Well opioid peptides are actually produced naturally in the body and are found in other foods such as soybean and spinach. Apart from that, the fact that something is addictive doesn’t necessarily mean that it should be avoided. People suffer a wide variety of addictions, including addictions to exercise, reading, whistling and social media, but that isn’t reason enough to conclude no one should engage in these behaviors. We all know that addiction can be dangerous, but our understanding of this issue is often limited to a narrow group of common afflictions. Most of us would define addiction in a dictionary-like manner, and it would look something like this:
1. the state of having strong compulsion to repeatedly consume something or perform an action. Every night Danny goes to the bar and gets drunk; I think he might have an addiction.
Although this definition is certainly accurate in many cases, it’s far too vague to be used to determine whether or not someone has an addiction, much less what should be done about the thing to which they are addicted. In order to illustrate this, please indicate which of the following subjects are and are not addictive:
- Chatting Online
- Collecting Things
- Lip Balm
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
- Social Media
- Video Games
Many of our definitions, opinions and interpretations are easily shattered by the introduction of subjects that lay on the fringe, and this is also true of our understanding of addiction. Everyone knows that cigarettes and gambling are addictive, but what about things that are less-obviously bad, like lip balm, music and talking? If an addiction is simply a powerful compulsion, then aren’t we all addicted to everything we crave? Perhaps a more thorough understanding of addiction is necessary. The American Society of Addictive Medicine uses a more comprehensive definition:
“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.
Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.”
But even this nuanced understanding fails to differentiate between an addiction and a simple urge or craving. Let’s analyze each key component of the definition.
“Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations.”
This section merely describes addiction as a disease of the brain that manifests in a multitude of dimensions and doesn’t explain what it looks like.
“…an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief…”
The term pathologically is used to imply that the subject is suffering from a mental disorder, but this must be established beforehand in order to determine whether or not the subject is addicted, so it doesn’t really help us here. Also, this description defines pretty much every behavior, since we are constantly eating to relieve hunger, entertaining ourselves to relieve boredom and so on.
“Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive…”
Again, abstaining from most healthy behaviors will also produce these symptoms. In addition, sometimes people can regularly engage in what many would consider an addictive behavior and suffer no ill effects. There are also people we might consider addicted who may suddenly abandon the behavior and immediately experience permanent freedom from the craving. Finally, the requirement that addiction must continue to progress excludes those who can maintain a constant level of craving even if it completely disrupts their life, so this should not be necessary for the definition.
“Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities… [addiction] can result in disability or premature death.”
Now here’s where it gets interesting. Most definitions of mental disorders include a similar requirement that the condition negatively impacts the subject’s life in some way. Many mental disorders are merely extreme forms of a natural, healthy behavior. We all feel some anxiety and paranoia, we all feel depressed at times, we’re all traumatized by our past and we all have mood swings. For most of us, of course, these symptoms are within manageable levels, so they are not classified as a mental illness. However, addiction is different. Addiction is something that we all naturally feel toward certain things. Hunger, for example, is a very powerful craving that can lead to any and all of the symptoms listed above, and yet we all know that hunger is not an addiction.
So there appears to be a hidden ingredient in addiction that these definitions have failed to include, and it’s something that we all understand. We all know people who suffer from addictions – we know what addiction looks like – yet we can’t articulate it. We know that the man who drinks his paychecks away is addicted, we know that the woman who keeps taking painkillers long after her surgery is addicted and we know that the teenager who stays up till 3 A.M. every night playing World of Warcraft is addicted. We know this regardless of any consequences they suffer, the growth of their addiction and presence of a relapse. There’s just something fundamentally different between their cravings and something natural like hunger.
Here’s a new definition of addiction that attempts to grasp what makes addiction recognizable:
1. a powerful synthetic craving brought on by the introduction of unnecessary stimulus, or a natural craving magnified to an extreme degree.
This definition obviously doesn’t include the aforementioned requirement of a negative impact on the subject’s life. Although this is an important part of diagnosing a mental illness, this is not a medical definition; it is meant to help everyday people understand and recognize addiction.
Another issue that we’ve avoided until now is the question of which substances and behaviors are addictive. As we’ve already discussed, people can become addicted to a huge variety of substances and activities, but that doesn’t mean that these things are addictive, does it?
To answer this question, we could take a scientific approach and discuss substance dependencies, how habits are formed and chemical reactions in the brain, but we’ve already learned that such subjects are not relevant to our everyday experience. In other words, who cares whether or not we can prove that a substance or behavior has innate addictive traits?
One obvious answer to this question would be to inform people about which substances or behaviors to avoid, but we already know that people can become addicted to almost anything and that just because something is addictive doesn’t mean that it’s bad for us. In addition, the fact that something is both highly addictive and extremely bad for us doesn’t mean that society will reject it. After all, 87.6 percent of Americans consume alcohol, 15 percent of those people abuse it and around 90,000 Americans will die this year as a direct result of alcohol consumption. And yet we still promote drinking in films and television, advertise it in magazines and on billboards and sell it at grocery stores and at sporting events.
If you’re concerned about an addiction, don’t rely on the government or the Internet to help you make a decision. Listen to those who love you.