Everyone’s an ‘addict’ these days if you believe everything you read in an ever increasing number of articles. People say jokingly, of course, things like they’re addicted to doughnuts or Facebook. Ingesting too much of anything or spending too much time on anything may be bad for your health and quality of life but that doesn’t make them addictions.
Certainly, some activities share things in common with addictions. Children whose life revolves around social media, who feel miserable and irritable if deprived of it, are said by some to be ‘addicted’. Yet heavy usage of a substance or activity does not in itself describe addiction. Many heavy drinkers, for instance, are giving a lot of time to drinking, damaging themselves and others, but that doesn’t make them alcohol addicts. A lot of people run into problems gambling: they run into money problems, and a host of other difficulties – but this doesn’t make them ‘gambling addicts’.
Heroin is used ‘sensibly’ by a surprisingly large number of general healthy and financially stable with good employment and quality of life. The substance itself does not contain a demon which guarantees addiction. On the other hand, cannabis which as a substance causes little or no physical dependence, may for some people lead to what is truly addictive behaviours. The characteristic which makes cannabis possibly addictive is its becoming the centre of a person’s life. All else is secondary. The days and weeks are spent ensuring supply, and being in a cannabis induced state (interestingly, one that need not be, and often is not, pleasurable). On the other hand, the vast majority of people who use cannabis represent a spectrum: like alcohol for instance, it may be used occasionally or regularly but without disrupting life: without it, life goes on pretty much as normal.
When it comes to fixed odds betting terminals, there’s a somewhat pointless debate about whether or not they are ‘addictive’. For most people they are not, that’s a fact. For a significant number of people they are. Their design make sthem so. In this respect they are electronically enticing the most vulnerable, which is the basis of campaigns against them. They are unfair and unjust. However, that is a separate issue from the question of what addiction is.
There are thousands of ways of asking and answering this question. One thing that seems agreed is that addiction seems to seriously impact on every area of life. Breakdowns of various kinds, physical and mental health deterioration, misery and so on. Yet what about the concept of the ‘highly functioning’ addict? Somebody who is successful on most measures, thriving, healthy, and so on.
Questions, answers, theories and explainations go round and round ending up in a tangle and a mess. But what follows suggests a description of addiction which many may recognise. It’s not a medical or psychological or other expert viewpoint. It’s abot the being and meaning of addiction in an addict’s life. (In philosophy, questions about being and meaning are ‘existential’ questions). This description applies to both those who have not admitted or realised that they are addicts, and to those who know too well that they are in addiction’s grip, those who feel trapped, enslaved.
Enslavement is actually the original meaning of addiction. In Roman times, a formal legal contract would addict a slave to a master. A slave, of course, has no freedom; his or her identity is simply being a slave. Everything the do, everyhting they think, everything they are is in terms of the master, has the master at the centre. The slave’s life revolves around the master.
Interestingly, in mediaeval times, this meaning was tweaked slightly with monks who ‘enslaved’ themselves to God. This voluntary giving over of one’s whole being to God was also called addiction.
Through metaphor, addictio has come to signify the state of enslavement. Just as a Roman slave’s life was totally determined by the master and the condition of enslavement, and the mediaeval monk’s life revolved around God with all else subsidiary, so the modern addict’s whole life and being revolves around the object of their compulsion. The object may be a substance or a behaviour. While the addict functions in many areas of life or not – employment, family, relationships etc. – these areas are always secondary to the object of addiction. An addict may lie, cheat, steal, do things that they utterly detest doing because their whole being revolves around the object of compulsion.
If this description is on the right lines it offers the intriguing possibility that a ruinous addiction may be defeated not by will power but simply by replacing what is important to being and meaning in life. Certainly there is much evidence that many severely addicted people come to ‘recovery’ not by any method or treatment but by finding meanings and values in life that are more positive. So, for instance, 80% of military heroin addicts in Viet Nam stopped using when they returned home to their families, the latter being the positive meaning and values system that defeated the destructive one. Evidence shows that many young people with addictions ‘mature out’ of them without treatment when they find richer meanings to life, for instance throughs tarting a family or a career.
To employ a somewhat hackneyed word, addiction is holistic. It is a state of being that involves every single part of a person’s life.
– Ade Johnston