This is not an easy thing. Addiction is never a topic that’s light on the tongue or smooth in the process, and part of that has to do with just how easily it can happen to all of us.
If you haven’t already watched this video, it does a fantastic job in breaking down all the recent research compiled on addiction as a mental condition rather than a biological dependency. My favorite line is at the end, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety, the opposite of addiction is connection.”
The first thing we usually think of when we hear the word addiction is drugs. We think of street drugs as well, like cocaine or heroine. We dismiss its other applications because it would feel very uneasy for us to walk around thinking something in our current lives could be potentially a harmful compulsion. It’s obvious that any amount of cocaine, small or large, is very harmful, so it makes for staying away from it a matter of staying away from scenes with it — but that scene isn’t the span of addictive behaviors. You could get addicted to an unfortunately diverse range of things, from your work to how you dress to your meticulous diet — and what’s painful about all of these scenes is that they are most certainly not far from any of us.
Recent developments in the fields of experimental psychology and neuroscience has indicated that addicted individuals show significant impairment in cognitive function related to self-control and chosen voluntary behavior (Viens 2007). That sounds like it has been every one of us at some point in our lives. But what’s the catch? Are we all addicts?
This is the problem that researchers are facing. Some have adopted the concept of addiction as a moral condition, one that interferes with an individual’s self-perception with things like responsibility and self-efficacy, and others have called it a neuropsychiatric disorder, which takes on the stereotypical definition of addiction that most of us are aware of. What seems to underlie all attempted forms at identifying addiction however (and this isn’t my personal analysis of it) is its subjective reasoning that may change from one person to the other. Viens defines it as “an instrumentalist moral psychology that places undue weight on the normative significance of desires.” I know that sounds like gibberish, but what that all means is addiction basically doesn’t allow you to act in accordance with your culture anymore, especially when you want to act with it. It becomes a heavy block of lead that cripples your desire, determination and mental ability to act against the compulsive behaviors. To the addict, these actions seemed like a good idea at first, but as the door opened up wider and wider, the addiction became the shackle that they were trying to break out of before they started engaging in the behavior. And what remains, after their inability to perform the way they want to, is a very large gap in their moral processing. They desensitize to dogma quicker, they lose social interest and they surround themselves with people of similar behaviors to perpetuate their sequence of them.
I don’t think how people get addicted is nearly as significant as why people get addicted. Obviously an answer to a question like that involves enumerable amounts of perspectives. Not every addict is an addict for the same reason — but there seems to be a thin, common streak across many of the reported cases that really pinches at the core of everyone’s desire, problem if said desire isn’t fulfilled, and then consequential actions when a fate is in effect.
It’s easy — we all want pleasure. The various forms of pleasure aren’t important. It’s that we want it and feel that we need it that matters. Defining addictive behavior with pleasure as a lucid underlying trigger has allowed researchers to adopt definitions of slight variance that still make for addiction as the “instrumentalist moral psychology” that was mentioned earlier. Whether the extent of the compulsions proceed abhorrently with rational thought or whether a subdued moral compass can’t overpower a cessation of harmful behavior is unaffected by the act of gaining the sought after pleasure and satisfaction (Viens 2007). The body may not need whatever the addict is ingesting or engaging in, it might not even want it, but as long as there is an apparent mindful desire to continue a behavior for an ostensible pleasure gain, then the body subjugates itself to the hedonistic mind of no control. Not the other way around. And that’s really the core of this post — because the concept of addiction seems to have always been promulgated as the body’s chemical and biological need for a substance, but that’s not it at all. It’s the body’s obsequiousness to the mind’s intangible desire for some form of pleasure it wasn’t getting previously. Then after a significant amount of time passes by, motivations and reasons for addictive behavior disappears, and what remains is the behavior itself, done without control or cognitive supervision. And the point in all of this is that there is no superego to consult and reason with, because that’s literally the dissipated part of cognition that could have stopped this addiction of the mind.
And if you’re thinking that normative factors could have clearly driven the addict to their state and removing them from wherever they are would demolish these behaviors, there seems to be a misconstrued element in that conclusion. The example in the video of the war soldiers returning home and releasing themselves from their addictive behaviors seems to suggest that environment shapes addiction — but that’s not the full picture. If these soldiers hadn’t desired to return home with their families, a completely different story would be the case. The fact is that the addicts got what they wanted when they flew back home. And these desires could have differed from soldier to soldier, but receiving the pleasure gain cancelled out the desire to perpetuate in harmful behavior, which takes us back to why addicts get addicted in the first place.
Obviously there won’t be a crystal clear answer that could recast all forms of addictions across all addicts, but the point is that sometimes we neglect the notion that we could drive someone into harmful compulsive behavior all because we didn’t feel like paying more attention or because we were too busy with this other thing.
A close relative of mine has recently entered treatment for addiction and it was crazy for me to think that my family and I could have played an inexplicably salient role in preventing it. Her desired pleasure was love and care — she didn’t receive it and it hurt her, but that one pill made her forget about that pain so she took more and more and more. She wouldn’t speak of it, or show symptoms of it, and for ten years she carried herself with one hand full of pills and another emptied of love.
What an easy thing we could have prevented with an, “I love you” every night. What an effortless thing we could have avoided with a more attentive ear and a smile every now and then. We take people for granted. We forget about people’s roles in our lives. And we stereotype and judge those who aren’t like us. We call them weaker or more corrupt or unlucky. But I don’t blame the addict. They only wanted what we all wanted, and they got it from another door when we could have provided it without a single glimpse of an eye. I blame us, and I blame our fake smiles and words of affirmation.
The opposite of addiction really isn’t sobriety. It really has little to do with our cells that move us. The opposite of addiction is connection, isn’t it? And it’s connection that we stupidly forget to engage in, so we allow for other forms of engagement.
Please, after you finish reading this, don’t forget to tell your mom you love her, and to tell your dad that he’s your hero, and to tell your sister that she’s the strongest woman you’ll ever know. Please pick up your cellphone and call someone you care about and remind them that you’re there for them.
It sounds far fetched, but you really don’t know how close a syringe of heroine is and how easily you can push it away with a “Hey, how are you today?”
If you’re still interested about this topic I highly recommend this article. I have cited a lot of it in this post:
Viens, A. M. (2007). Addiction, responsibility and moral psychology. The American Journal of Bioethics, 7(1), 17-19. doi:10.1080/15265160601064033
endnote: this feature photo is my own photography