I remember as a child reading a comic in which a cartoon cat used fishing tackle to catch a mouse. The cat threatens the mouse with great delight – “I’m going to hook you. When I get you, I’ll reel you in and fillet you“! Sometimes we’re slaves or victims of other people, often of ourselves.
My subject today is that of addiction. This seems to be a pluridisciplinary subject somewhere between medicine and psychology. I am not qualified in either subject, but I may have noticed patterns of behaviour in some fields of life which have not yet drawn the attention of the medical profession.
Addiction or dependence is a form of behaviour that is based on a repeated and irresistible craving for something in spite of efforts of the subject to control his own life and find independence from the thing that enslaves his life. Generally, it is a chemical substance like tobacco, alcohol or soft / hard drugs. In the case of some chemical substances, dependency becomes physical and severance is made possible with medical help.
I smoked cigarettes for many years and became addicted. Whilst it was a simple moral matter of willpower and courage, I found it impossible to break the addiction. Many people do. I stopped once for about a month, and the second time I held out for six months, and I was quite depressed. Depression is not merely the result of an all-or-nothing worldview. It is also a physical problem of the brain and central nervous system. The human organism is extremely complex, and the more doctors discover it, the more remains hidden from their scientific knowledge. I finally broke it when I married and my wife got me thinking about addiction not merely as a “moral” problem but a medical problem. There are now medicines that take away the physical craving and nervous depression. The nicotine patch also does wonders and is reduced progressively. Acupuncture, whether the traditional way or using special laser beams (done by a medical professional), is also helpful. It has now been seven years, and I haven’t touched one since – not one puff!
To get off cigarettes, the medical help is great, but there needs to be a very personal motivation in the first place. The usual anti-smoking propaganda is actually quite harmful, and anti-authoritarian people hate being threatened by the law. I found the best motivation, apart from the usual health and financial reasons, was that I was being taken over by an “authority” and was enslaved. Emancipation and freedom were within my reach if I went about it the right way for me. When I was a lad, smoking was a part of the “independence” and anti-authority movement – and that was a way of thinking I had to reason away. I am being more of a “rebel” not smoking than when I smoked. It is also better for other people, and there are only advantages to having kicked it.
There are many other forms of addiction, and I won’t go into alcoholism and drug addiction here. I will reflect on forms of addiction not involving chemical substances and modifications to the organism’s chemical-physical functions. The professionals often talk of being “hooked” of chemicals as a dependence rather than an addiction.
The most known non-chemical addictions are gambling, internet and computer games and television. We are now purely in the field of psychology, and several pathologies are known like obsessive-compulsive disorders. I am not an expert on psychology, and can only refer the reader to books and internet articles written by professionals. Sexual addiction is devastating, as a person often needs more and more of it, and with ever more “kinky” methods of stimulation. This is a developing science as contemporary society grapples to understand what drives paedophiles and rapists. One other thing I see as a possible source of obsessive-compulsive dependency is religion. This is something often picked up by atheists, and there need to be ministries in Churches to help people caught in these behaviours. Such persons are quite easy to spot in churches with stereotyped gestures and habits, and in the way they relate to other people. People hooked on cults and sects – or cult-like communities in the mainstream Churches – display the same pathology.
As a person lives with an addiction, it becomes a downward slope as that person’s relationships progressively deteriorate. Return to normal behaviour and relationships becomes increasingly difficult.
Doctors have discovered that some people are more prone to addictions, including chemical ones like alcoholism, than others. Not all heavy drinkers become alcoholics. It is something in the human psychological mechanism. Certain sports can also become addictive, bringing on a dependency independent from the will.
The word addiction comes from the Latin ad-dicere, say to… In the old Roman world, slaves didn’t have their own names and were “said to” their paterfamilias. Addiction is thus the condition of a slave, someone without independence or freedom. Debt is also a form of slavery and addiction. Sigmund Freud used the term to show a primitive need of all human beings. Children are addicted to our mothers for our very survival, and this is a kind of archetype of all addictions. A most credible definition of non-chemical or behavioural addiction is given by the psychoanalyst Aviel Goodman:
a disorder in which a behaviour that can function both to produce pleasure and to provide escape from internal discomfort is employed in a pattern characterized by:
- recurrent failure to control the behaviour;
- continuation of the behaviour despite significant harmful consequences.
There is also the notion of increasing the “dose” to obtain the same degree of satisfaction of the craving. Whether we are talking of chemical dependency, perverted sex or other behaviours, we find common characteristics like an increasing tolerance and greater difficulty in breaking the habit. The subject can no longer control the degree of consumption by the use of reason and willpower. As the addiction becomes more intense, other social, cultural and leisure activities are neglected.
There is also the term workaholism, the person who devotes himself inordinately and unreasonably to his job. We can become addicted to anything, to things that are usually good for us, like physical and intellectual activity, sport and reading / study.
Addiction is something that has become something much better understood than in the days when it was considered as a lack of character or willpower. There are many theories, and here again, I can only refer the reader to the experts. It seems to be closely related to the mechanism of reward and sensation of pleasure. We remember how we train dogs and small children using rewards and punishments: good = a sweet or a toy, bad = a slap, a smacked bottom or half an hour in “time out”. Where is the dividing line between normal and addictive behaviours?
Can addictions be “cured”? Chemical dependencies are cured medically, like my old cigarette smoking. The doctor gives his patient something to take away the craving and withdrawal symptoms. Then comes the psychological aspect, which will differ from person to person. I still get occasional cravings for a cigarette, but I stopped smoking so long ago and have very little contact with “second-hand” smoke, and can only conclude each time that it is a psychological illusion. Deep breathing and a good stretch usually do the trick – and life goes on.
How does a doctor treat someone who is addicted to the internet or gambling? There is no chemical dependency, so it is more simple and complicated at the same time. Different professionals have their methods and theories. One example is internet addiction, and games in particular. Blogging can also be addictive, as can be going on forums and commenting. I often wonder whether the behaviour of “trolls” is not also a form of addiction or compulsive behaviour.
From some of the articles I read, one goes “cold turkey” – shutting down the computer – and going to residential behaviour-modification programmes. Like establishments for alcoholics, restrictions are placed so that the addiction becomes impossible. So, no alcoholic drinks for alcoholics and no computers or internet for internet addicts. That seems to make sense. These centres also forbid electronic gadgets. They find life as it was thirty years ago – opportunities for reading books, listening to or playing music and good old-fashioned board games. One re-learns practical things in life: making and repairing things, cooking, looking after animals and physical exercise. Walking outside does wonders.
Those involved in this kind of work have noticed the effects of Facebook and Twitter, which seem to be designed to hook you like a fish. There is the old drawing of the Facebook player who had several thousand “friends”, and when he died, there were only two or three people at his funeral. That alone is sobering. Addictive use of the internet can become something like “electronic cocaine” and “mind-rot” like excessive amounts of time spent watching television.
Internet can make us information-saturated, and this is very unsettling. We need to spend more of our leisure time with sports, outdoor exercise, music (playing an instrument) and reading old-fashioned books. Some may need to stop using the computer entirely. For others, it suffices to ask ourselves whether we have a good reason to use it: for work or getting information. A good exercise is to keep our daily “survey of the blogs” to a minimum time. I would say that ten minutes a day is enough, plus not more than half an hour for reading articles and writing well-reflected comments. Personally, I don’t think my use of the internet is compulsive, and I recognise the signs of “overdoing it”.
We all need to examine ourselves and see if we tend to be addicted to things. We need to begin to understand the mechanism of addiction so that we see the warning signs in ourselves. It is simply a question of our own health, our freedom and independence in relation to slavery imposed by other people and our own compulsive behaviour.