The Autumn Newsletter for The Machine Zone and Beat the Fix.
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The Autumn Newsletter for The Machine Zone and Beat the Fix.
Click here: newsletter
If you bet on something you are calculating odds. You’re using attention to form, your experience, a set of skills. Sometimes, of course, if ‘attractive’ odds on an event are offered you may take a gamble: though probability is against your winning, it’s not by any means impossible. People who bet once a year on the Grand National very often are simply gambling. They may pick a horse for its name, they’re not using the skills of a seasond bettor.
Buying a single National Lottery ticket is a gamble always (with odds of 45 million to one). There is no way of using skills to predict the result. While there are professional gamblers who use complex probability odds, for most of us a spin on a roulette wheel will produce a random result. There are various gamblers’ fallacies such as a near win suggests you are getting close to winning, or a number that has not come up for ages must be due soon. These fallacies ignore the fact that every spin is random. Each new spin has an equal chance of the ball landing on any number.
As said, the distinction between gambling and betting is blurred often. You can bet on the winners, losers or draws in six football matches but if you are predicting the actual scores you’re taking something of a gamble. (Though, currently, betting that Manchester City will beat Bournemouth 6-1 is a reasonable bet).
In the past, bookmakers’ premises were solely for betting. Although we still call them betting shops, punters have been introduced to a wide range of gambling as well as betting. There are ‘virtual’ horse races, for instance, screen displays of digitally designed ‘races’ (not totally dissimillar to those ‘derby’ races we played in amusement arcades).
The most controversial gambling products are Fixed Odds Betting Terminals, and the controversies are well known, explained on this site and in the posts. The most popular game on them is roulette, and they offer similar random odds. The difference between casino roulette and the achines is that the latter are designed for fast play, staking every 20 seconds if desired, and, critics suggest, with features as well as speed to entice players into a ‘zone’ where rational control is severely diminished. On a point of language, they are not betting machines and should rightly be called Fixed Odss Gambling Machines.
Outside the bookies, there is a growing normalisation of gambling and betting opportuniities. Many are concerned that the majority of these use consumers’ own digital devices such as smartphones. Saturation advertising on television and social media, it is felt, encourage ‘convenience’ gambling and betting. There is particular concern about the confluence of opportunities, promotion and normalisation upon young people, including children, whose social learning is sensitive to the environment. It is now easy to gamble on a fruit machine with children’s cartoon characters, or on a roulette wheel, 24 hours a day.
There are those who suggest that this is scaremongering, that individuals have choice and forms of betting or gambling are irrelevant. Probably the future for society comes down to policy makers betting on the risks, and gambling on kids’ wellbeing.
Others campaign fiercely to call for the machines to be banned completely or at least be very heavily regulated. This website gives a background to the some of the debates and controversies. The site’s Facebook account is a useful archive of recent items from research, the media and other sources.
If you haven’t heard of fixed odds betting terminals (or FOBTs) and are unaware of the issues you won’t be alone, despite massive media coverage in recent years. Bottom line claims that the machines found in high street bookmakers are addictive, unethical and dangerous pass under the radar probably for most people. After all, there are hundred of issues that people do not know or care about: humanitarian crises, wars, refugee displacement, famines; in the UK, poverty, homelessness, inadequate mental health services, misery caused by austerity and universal credit, women’s pension right – the list goes on.
This post focuses on just a few aspects of the FOBT debate and suggests reasons why it is an important social and political issue.
Fixed odds betting terminals are not betting machines at all. They are gambling machines. The most popular ‘game’ is roulette and each spin is unconnected to other spins. The fact that the machines allow £100 stakes every 20 seconds is one of the major causes of concern. An other is that the design of the machines, and the speed of play is itself the key factor in making them addictive.
Among those to speak out against them in the last week are the generally right wing ‘think tank, Res Publica and the conservative-leaning columnist Melanie Phillips who describes them as ‘wicked’. This is significant because generally conservative attitudes include a strong emphasis on personal responsibility, business freedom and minimal state intervention.
There are those outside the betting industry who consider the storms of anger against FOBTs as coming from no more than ‘middle class do-gooders’ who are ‘jumping on a bandwagon’. Typical of these commentaors are the ‘libertarians’ Brendan O’Neill and Chrisopher Snowdon. There is also a strong narrative from the industry and its supporters that the campaign against FOBTs is the result of commercial competitors seeking to damage their rivals. The campaign ‘Stop the FOBTs’ is led by a millionaire who has made his fortune in gambling industries, and he is often the target of attack.
The ‘debate’ often appears as little more than a slanging match. Headlines and soundbites manifest polarised standpoints and drown out any more thoughtful discussion. There is, though, a lesser noticed side to the issue which is very significant. There are people who genuinely wonder what the ‘fuss’ is about. Often gamblers or betters themselves, or in recovery, they argue that so much attention to FOBTs is pointless since gambling problems have always existed and always will, that a gambling addiction is totally independent of any particular method of gambling, that people will always find a way to become addicted even if FOBTs were completely removed. Some of them point out too that exclusive focus on FOBTs diverts attention from much broader, serious and deep-rooted structural developments in gambling and betting industries.
And they are right in most of what they say. Except that nobody involved in campaigning against FOBTs believes that successful outcomes will remove gambling problems in general. There are many campaigners who are ‘ordinary’ individuals who have been badly hurt, sometimes ruined, sometimes on the verge of suicide, who bet and gambled normally until they were introduced to the machines, whose addictions to FOBTs is very specific. They bet and gambled normally until they were introduced to the machines. Becoming familiar with research to back them up, they point to evidence that the machines have addictive qualities, are dangerous, and deserve their popular epithet as ‘the crack cocaine’ of gambling. Such ‘hard gambling’, they argue, should be in casinos, not on the high street.
Succeeding in restricting the supply of cheap, high strength alcohol will not make a significant reduction in problem drinking. But it will be a statement. Similarly, the attention to FOBTs is the focus of general concerns about developments in gambling and betting, the weekly increasing markets, the television advertising, and most of all the alarming dangers of online gambling. The latter, conducted on home digital devices such as smartphones, reflects almost precisely the most dangerous aspects of addictive betting shop machines, it is claimed. The same fast speed stakes, the same features no coupled with enticements of ‘free bets’, and as a Sunday Times front page recently highlighted, a potential targeting of children.
As we await the Government’s triennial review on gambling when it is expected that action of some sort will be taken on FOBTs, perhaps no more than reducing the maximum stake to £20 or £30 (campaigners have demanded £2), it’s important to remember that in addition to addressing the harms of FOBTs, beneath this are much bigger stakes.
Do addicts bring it on themselves? Are addicts morally weak? Do addicts repeatedly fail in recovery because they refuse to take on responsibility?
On the other hand, it can be rightly claimed that all this emphasis on the individual is distorting an understanding of addiction. If, as some claim, addiction is a ‘disease’ how can people be responsible for it? Why is there virtually no alcohol addiction in Saudi Arabia (where alcohol is prohibited by law)? What social factors play a part in addiction? Do some commercial products – tobacco is an example – ‘hook’ some people in the right circumstances?
There is no such thing as an addict; there are only individuals suffering with addiction. Everybody is different, but some groups seem more prone to addiction to others. In the professions journalists, the police, doctors, entertainers, sportspeople and politicians have high rates of addiction. So too do people with multiple and complex disadvantages such as homelessness, poverty, lack of educational and cultural capital, mental illness, criminal background, adverse childhood experiences, trauma – or just one of these.
And people from different social backgrounds seem to be treated very differently when their addictions come to light. Newspaper readers will weep over the death of a pop idol through drugs; a politician will be praised for his ‘brave struggle’ against alcohol. In popular culture – films, books and television – we have come to expect our flawed heroes often to have an addiction problem as one of their flaws, a lonewolf cop bucking the rules and knocking back malt whisky while meditating on a case, a singer in rehab, a public figure making public penance.
Less favourably are seen the ‘scagheads’, the ‘junkies’, the street addicts, the working class addicts. Although victims all their lives of unequal and unjust social conditions, turning to drugs or drink or gambling to escape if only for a moment, it is they who are most harshly blamed and despised for their lack of responsibility – while those with a lifetime of advantages are treated with adulation and sympathy.
In his remarkable book, Good Cop Bad War, former undercover cop Neil Woods charts his journey of increasing knowledge through the ‘low life’ of desperate addicts (in contrast to the venomous gangster business cartels that bring drugs to market). He grow increasingly sympathetic to the friends he makes while pretending to be himself an addict. Apart from their addiction, most are essentially decent, often intelligent, kind and caring. One such friend , Cammy, tells him his heart-felt news that he has heard a good friend has died. Neil asks whether he will go to the funeral to say goodbye and Cammy replies, ‘I’m not going to the funeral. I wouldn’t do that to the family. The last thing they want is some dirty junkie turning up and ruining everything.’ As Woods observes, ‘No matter how society may condemn and look down on the addict, it is never, ever as low a view as he has of himself.’
That internalisation of social attitudes and stigma is something all addicts have to deal with. Part of them remains ‘clean’ and is a constant accusing voice; the addict hates themself. Guilt and shame alone can maintain an addiction – that belief of such utter worthlessness that there is no point in trying to stop, instead seeking that absurd temporary negation of inner torment with a fix.
Of course, those with a lot going for them tend to do better. Not everybody, of course: the nature of every individual addiction, while having common attributes, is unique in the complexities of an individual. It’s probably easier on the whole if you’re, say, a teacher to have three months leave on full pay to attend rehab, or just to get your life together, than if you are without any money, any support, any care, any love, surviving in brutal conditions. Though yes, many who seem to have well insulated lives with all the support in place do succumb, grow sick and die. And yes, too, some at the very bottom recover and flourish.
There are as many as 40% of addicts who recover spontaneously, relatively painlessly, without any intervention by ‘experts’ or support organisations. A well known example of this is ‘maturing out’ whereby young people who have addictive or risky tendencies literally grow out of them when they settle into employment, get married, start a family. Another famous example is how 80% of American soldiers deemed heroin addicted in Vietnam lost their addiction when they returned to the States and their families. Against this, many others in recovery are certain that addiction is a disease for life and that the only way to manage it is by faithfully following a programme such as a 12-steps one.
A word is needed here too about dependence versus addiction. Through force of habit, culture, lifestyle, many drinkers, for instance consume not only health-damaging amounts but quantities which make them physically dependent. The withdrawl from physical dependency can be life threatening and ideally requires medical supervision. Yet many heavy drinkers then go onto just stop or greatly limit consumption: they were heavy drinkers, not alcohol addicts. There is an additional dependence which is separate from addiction – psychological dependence. Partly this is just the force of habit, neural correlates in the brain ‘speaking’ loudly to perform an action when certain triggers arise. Usually one can become psychologically dependent on a substance or activity to avoid stress, negative feelings or often an undiagnosed mental disorder such as anxiety and depression. Dependence can, and often does, lead to addiction but it’s still possible to recognise a dependence and take responsibility for halting it with acceptance of necessary effort and suffering which will vary greatly in terms of time and intensity according to unique individuals in unique circumstances.
Addiction by its very nature, the heart of addiction, disowns the individual’s core self. It disowns the possibility of being responsible for one’s destiny, for making deep choices. No addict will be able to understand what is going on. They are fully aware of the misery they leave in their wake, of their loss of pride, reputation, money, health, relationships, status, children. They desperately want to stop. But they can’t. In the old days people spoke of a demon inside that controlled them. The demon took them over. This degree of inner torment varies from individual to individual. It’s certainly true that there are many ‘highly functioning addicts’ in all walks of life, folk nobody begins to suspect as being an addict, and, of, course, another core attribute of addiction is the addict’s propensity to deny their addiction. It’s for this reason that common wisdom has it that people must ‘hit rock bottom’ before they can start to recover. This is, fortunately, a myth. It may be true that a secret gambler’s addiction only comes to light when the bailiffs arrive to take the family home and he or she spirals into heavy debt, bankruptcy, prison or failed suicide attempts. But in many cases – often in consort with worried others – many are lucky enough to address their addiction before absolute calamity.
The foregoing suggests just a few of the strands in the complexity of an individual’s addiction. If there is a common attribute of addiction it is that to take responsibility for recovery one must already have made a vital move. This vital move, this perception that one is not only the addicted self, is the precursor of recovery. For some, this vital move is totally unconscious and involves little pain and effort, for others it is a lifelong process.
To conclude, to return to the topic of addiction and responsibility. All of us are a product of our environments, probably more so than products of our genes. Children have been sold drugs from icecream vans (dealers do not ask for age verification or advise responsible use of their products) so 12 year olds have become heroin addicts. The vans are part of the environment, behind the vans are networks of the drugs business, also part of the environment. People continue to smoke cigarettes but on the packets is written ‘smoking kills’, and tobacco is more and more restricted by government policies: it’s recognised that tobacco addiction is not the result of weak responsibility in individuals. Campaigns to restrict and limit junk food (itself addictive), sugar, salt, fat are not controversial. People argue about minimum pricing for alcohol, but the argument is not see as being around any bizarre claims. In short, government and industry are seen as having a major role in addressing the damage that harmful products may do to individuals and society, including addictive products.
Current debate about addiction is skewed towards a focus on individual responsibility. Just as a parent is deemed responsisible for feeding their children high doses of sugar and fat (these being by far the cheapest foods to buy for those in poverty), so the addict is held reponsible for choosing their addiction (even if this was motivated by a need to escape misery and despair into 20 minutes of artificial paradise). There are no jackpots, magic fixes that will ever beat the scourge of addiction but government and industry have to stop denying their role and play their part in attenuating it.
(An academic, nuanced discussion of responsibility and addiction is in The Journal of Gambling Issues)
Coffee and biscuits in the atrium then the delegates move into the large lecure theatre.Professor McEwan welcomes them, expresses her pleasure that so many experts are assembled in the same venue. She is delighted to introduce the world famous Emeritus Professor Nathan Bronowski, acknowledged as one of the world’s leading authority on addiction. Fulsome applause accompanies his walk to the podium. Then follows an avuncular talk interspersed with good humour which brings ripples of appreciate chuckling from the audience. Beautiful slides on the big screen bring images of complex neural activity, statistics and the chemical structures of the latest pharmaceutical medications which evidence has shown to be efficacious. He is humble enough in his lecture to acknowledge the work of others in the field, but he deftly dismisses their theories almost with sadness.
The day proceeds with further lectures and workshops in which various experts gather by speciality. A delicious banquet is provided in the university’s great hall in the evening, then delegates retire to the several bars. Somewhat ironically, some of them fail to hide their hopeless addiction to alcohol and make fools of themselves. Others, more fortunate, bond in pairs that find their way to the bedroom.
The second day, a little less enjoyable for those nursing hangovers or guilt, ends with Professor McEwan’s rapturous celebration of how successful her conference has been. The delegates disperse. Journalists from the BBC and the world’s leading media send their stories through the ether to sub-editors who will headline them with claims that huge advances in the treatment of addiction have been discovered. Within a week, everybody will have forgotten the conference and the media stories – except for Professor McEwan who will already be thinking about her next big event as she continues her ruthless climb towards the top of the academic tree. So it goes.
The proceedings of the conference are made available in a publication which, like most academic publications, costs a great deal of money to compensate for the fact that there will be very few buyers and even less readers. Perhaps a PhD student will discover it in a few years’ time and refer copiously to it safe in the knowledge that neither his supervisors nor the world at large will have the slightest inclination to examine the primary material. The said student may with equal safety discover and refer to perhaps a hundred or two such dusty tomes in a university library, and go on to produce a thesis which does indeed add ‘an original contribution’ to the field of research, a remarkable tapestry of totally random material made whole and coherent through the application of academic discourse. Such tapestries – and there are very many of them – reveal great skills of weaving and stitching If the successful PhD candidate is lucky and possesses rudimentary knowledge of self-promotion the thesis may be the basis of a reputation such that other academics and journalists will regard him or her as an authority. So it goes.
Those of us who are not academics and who lack the humility to look up to them, are not lacking in access to experts on addiction. Since most people are addicted to something or other these days, not surprisingly there is money to be made. Anybody can set themselves up as a private therapist, for instance. With some capital you can establish a recovery retreat centred around holistic principles and involving a diet almost totally of watercress: you could charge, say, £2000 a week. In publishing, there are so many magazine and newspaper articles, so many books that will cure you in a week, so much drivel on social media (a place people go to when they have lost the capacity to live in the world), so much of it all that I lack the will to say more (although doubtless a different kind of person may find it a rich area for PhD enhancement). Suffice it to say you could end your life still addicted having spent it reading about how to beat addiction or paying a fortune to people to beat addiction for you. Or eating watercress.
But addiction isn’t funny. And though it’s fine to be lighthearted about academia, we acknowledge too that getting a PhD, doing research are not easy. Most are doing their best to add a drop to the ocean of knowledge, most are passionate about their work, many are deeply motivated by wanting to make the world a better place. Like addicts, academics, are human beings first. An addict or an academic may be a murderer or a saint. Anyway, addiction isn’t something to be treated lightly. It’s certainly unlikely too that all the academic research in the world has made or is likely to make any immediate difference to an actual addict, a unique human addict. ‘Expert’ theorists of addiction argue wih other, often vehemently, defending their position and attacking their ‘opponents’. The situation is as bad or worse for us ordinary mortals who equally support this idea and strongly oppose that idea. 12 steps enthusiasts can be unshakeable in their belief of the power of the programme; others have a strong aversion to it. ‘Born again’ ex-addicts can be evangelistic: for them it’s not enough to have recovered, they have a mission to convert those left behind with ‘the indusputable truth of the way’.
In fact, addiction is a messy concept. We can get rid of the cases where it’s used metaphorically such that people say they are addicted to Game of Thrones or chocolate. We can be left with a clear idea of devestating addiction where life is slowly destroyed at many levels, but it’s still a pretty tangled concept. A jingle-jangle as Bob Dylan refers to in Hey, Mr Tambourine Man. The experience, the being, of addiction can’t be categorised neatly, objectively. Like severe depression (which often precedes, accompanies or follows addiction) the experience is different for every person. Even a gifted writer has trouble explaining what it is or was like for her or him, but there are some excellent addiction memoirs which demonstrate the uniqueness of the experience for each unique person. (There are also many more dreadful memoirs. Not everybody has the gift of writing well).
Nevertheless, there are some commonalities which most addicts would recognise. Some of these factors are overlooked, ignored or counted as unimportant in therapy and research. It is much more straightforward to categorise addiction as ‘impuse control disorder’ or to concentrate on the neural pathways involved in orbitofrontal cortical mediation: such precise ‘scientific’ approaches are neat and can be investigated, and do add something to understanding addiction. But they’re not the complete picture by any means. Many of the factors overlooked are subjective feelings which cannot be seen by the scientific gaze.
We could call these factors ‘the human factors’ since they appear in everybody, not only people suffering with addiction (and incidentally, ‘addict’ is a word loaded with negative connotations which is when used here is simply for brevity. The language of mental health is a serious topic in its own right).
In everyday language we are familiar with the word ‘shame’ which refers to a fear of what other people think of our wrong actions The word ‘guilt’ refers to our conscience, it’s a negative feeling brought on by judging ourselves. In addiction, both of these factors are greatly amplified, partly because of the damage caused to self and others, partly because the addicted person’s mind will be hyper-vigilant, in extreme anxiety which over-arouses negative feelings. And partly because of stigma – related to shame, the shame that society stigmatises, ‘casts out’ the class of people with addictions, and related to guilt because of self-stigmatisation. The addicted person as a member of society has internalised the norms and values of the culture, and is then in the terrible situation of ‘casting out’ themselves as worthless, not fit to be in public. It is not unusual to hear of people in such extreme states talk of hating themselves. Yet how can one ‘recover’ if one feels deeply that one is worthless? And, unsurprisingly, it is to be expected that people then feel ashamed of being ashamed like this, ashamed of feeling worthless – so they have to put on some sort of front, a mask just to survive in the family, in public, in the doctor’s office.
In many cases, especially in connection with gambling addiction, it will not be only the guilt, the shame, the loss of dignity and self-respect that goes with addiction. The person may well have done things that anybody would feel ashamed or guilty about. especially theft, conning people, perhaps violence.
Clinically the person will suffer to varying degrees from depression and anxiety. There may be complex underlying mental health issues that have never been diagnosed. Mental distress such as chronic depression may have been what led a person into addiction in the first place, a means of relieving pain through self-medication. Adverse childhood experiences are known to be particularly strongly correlated with not only addiction but other adult problems, and often the person may suffer from addiction as well as developmental problems. In the case of gambling addiction there is an extremely high correlation with alcohol dependence and/or other drug dependence.
People with addictions often present with what are called ‘multiple and complex problems’. Some are mentioned above. Others include imprisonment, homelessness, severe debt and long term unemployment.
We’re a long way from the lecture theatre and the academic research. In each individual any or all of the above factors may ‘cross cut’ through the central problem of addiction. It’s a reasonable supposition to claim that there are many who face a much harder road to ‘recovery’ than others. Reasonable but not always the case. Experience demonstrates that some facing the most severe obstacles not only beat addiction but turn their lives around. On the other hand, some who seem to ‘have everything going for them’ find it impossible to overcome their addiction. Sadly, not everybody does recover. But the majority do, and of that majority most do it ‘on their own’ with little or no help from doctors, support groups, books or social media gurus.
To label somebody an ‘addict’ is wrong not only because it carries a lot of negative stigma but because it misses the point that somebody suffering with an addiction is a unique person first and foremost, with a complex and singular individuality. There are therapists, doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists and others who can relate to the human factors, and through their art (as opposed to their science) provide some help. Help but not a magic wand. Maybe medication is a necessary help. Maybe being housed or helped with money worries. Maybe just being treated with respect and loved.
Anxiety is a normal and essential part of life. It acts as a motivator. It is a function of the ancient need for vigilance, an evolutionary ‘must have’. As a part of the full spectrum of our lives we feel anxious much of the time. We worry about our children, about having to gave a talk in public, about a job interview. Wemay have lef the house then worry that we have not locked doors and windows, or that we have left the oven on.
However, anxiety goes beyond the normal range for millions of people. Anxiety is one of the commonest mental health conditions. Depression often accompanies anxiety. Anxiety is not simply a ‘mental’ state: it affects, and is affected by, the body and all its organs. . A hangover – which is a temporary illness – often brings severe anxiety to join its unwelcome symptoms. Severe anxiety, apprehension of doom or death, accompanies some heart attacks.
Among clinical anxiety orders is included a diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder, a chronic unease and state of worry. Anxiety can directly affect the body with digestive disorders, ‘butterflies in the stomach’, irregular heart beat. A very intense and unpleasant experience of anxiety is in panic attacks. In panic disorders one may feel that one is about to die, that something dreadful is about to happen, even that one is abou to die. Obsessive compulsive disorder is classed as a severe anxiety disorder.
There is no neat line between ‘ordinary’ and ‘clinical’ anxiety. Mental ‘disorders’ are best seen as extremes on a spectrum of normal human experience, exremes which have a significant impact upon quality of life and funcioning. Such extremes are treated by medication, counselling and ‘talking therapies’ such as cognitive behavioural therapy.
Some people are more anxious than others because of their constitution, the genetic factors: they are in higher states of arousal, classically the condition of introverts who are uncomfortable with too much social interaction; shyness is a form of anxiety. Others are made anxious by experience. Adverse childhood experience is a key factor: abuse, inadequate parenting, trauma in a young child who lacks all the adult defences may scar permanently. Such childhood experiences can lead to a range of other problems later in life including addiction.
One of the commonest reasons for addiction taking root is given by the self-medication hypothesis. This essential states that a mood of distress such as anxiety is found to be relieved by a substance or behaviour such as gambling. Not all addiction follows this course, but where it does, recovery must take account of the underlying factors.
There are other ways of looking at anxiety than through medical or therapeutic perspectives. For instance, it’s interesting to note that the word itself has its roots in the same Latin word which means anger, and that Latin root itself came from a meaning of choking or strangling. Anger itself is one of our basic emotions, a response to danger which is often immediate and without thought. It’s not hard to feel how some forms of anxiety are experienced as an angry turmoil. Anger is strongly related to fear. Anxiety has been likened to fear ‘without an object’, a vague but very uneasy feeling of fear that something very dangerous but ubknown is very near. When a person is anxious, having no object to be fearful of, they may ease their anxiety by turning it into fear of a specific object. Hatred and social evils such as racism are related to this process wherein a deeply anxious, fearful person projects anger towards an object.
In those many parts of the world where chronic absolute poverty, starvation, war and other horrors exist, everyday life is largely fearful of specifics. Where is the next mouthful of food coming from? Will the soldiers come tonight? But in rich nations here basic material needs are largely satisfied, for many who have everything there remains a deep underlying unease. hen all the material needs are satisfied what is the person left with? Many people prosper and live satisfying lives; many with similar material security do not. A chronic anxiety fills the days. The poet W.H.Auden coined the term ‘The Age of Anxiety’ for a long poem in the 1930s.
The sense of this sort of anxiety – unexplained fear – is accompanied by a sense of emptiness. The experience can be one of racing thoughts all going nowhere, restlessness, inability to be at peace with oneself and the world. One reason that such unease occurs in rich countries is that we have the luxury or horror of facing fundamental human problems. We spend a lot of mental energy, for instance, pushing down the fact that not only are we going to die but e may die in the next moment. We learn to block feelings of dread when people close to us suffer and die. Alone, we seek distractions to stop thinking deeply. Much – much more! – has been written around such cheerful points by philosophers and others, but the essential point is that everyone faces these questions or, more commonly, refuses to face them.
Addicts are no different. When you label someone an addict you often disguise the fact that they are as much a human being as anyone else. If you label someone a doctor, you can forget that more importantly they are a human being. In some ways people who are addicts are extreme examples of individuals who have sought and found a means of escaping a world that is ultimately meaningless. The world escaped from is full of anxiety, suffering, death – and the hard, hard work of getting along with other people (‘Hell is other people,’ the philosopher Sartre wrote). The addictive moment, when an addict engages with the drink or the gambling machine, is also an escape from time. Time is the demon at the heart of anxiety. It is the fear that the future, the next hour, the next minute, the next second will bring something overwhelmingly dreadful. The worst anxiety is Dread.
Starting in the United States, the phrase ‘the machine zone’ was employed to refer to the unique state of being between gambling machine and user. The zone is a time one more than a place one, or rather a timeless zone. All the Dread and anxiety associated with time dissolves. The ‘zone’ is a double whammy. It removes the deep negative anxiety of time and provides a positive experience of intense power, independence from the flow of time, and something akin to those ecstatic moments produced by drugs and some religious rites. The latter themselves may be deemed a form of addiction. To a lesser extent, the ‘ordinary punter’ may escape anxiety by shopping, bargain hunting, social media, internet addiction, hoarding, proud housekeeping, fooball, reading, climbing, exercise, over-eating… Addiction seen this way is an extreme example, a very harmful one, of ordinary human behaviour. Most people have a range of distractions, some healthy and some not, but addicts centre their lives around one major objec of desire.
The wealth of modern rich economies is built less on coal and steel than on consumer products. Businesses that provide these products to a large extent reach the need of customers to chase distractions from the pressures of life, and to fill what would otherwise be a terrible emptiness. Business practice is as much a reflection as a driver of culture, its own practice dependent upon and informed by the culture(s) we all live in. Some business, however, also sets out to exploit vulnerable consumers, and this can be seen in financial products including respectable high street names credit offers. The worst cases are exorbitant interest fees for loans and cheating old people of their savings and homes. In he case of gambling and drinks industries it appears that those most vulnerable to harm are exploited. Cheap high strength alcohol is made available for pocket money prices.
Moving towards a conclusion now, i can be argued that states like anxiety and depression are common experiences and we seek ways to escape them. Some ways are relativelt harmless but addiction brings with it not only severe life and health problems but an increase in both anxiety and depression. Addictive engagement seems to bring about a quick way of switching moods very quickly, that switch is the attraction. This isn’t the case for everybody: addiction is a complex condition dependent on many factors peculiar to the individual. But it’s certainly true that many people have felt ‘lost’, anxious, depressed, unable to concentrate as thoughts race. These feelings are not uncommon in society as a whole. Many who are a long way from clinical anxiety and addiction nevertheless live a life permeated by unease, a vague pervading anxiety. In the case of full blown addiction, this unease is intensely powerful and negative, and the only sure ‘way out’ seems to be the ‘fix’ which will lead, of course, to deeper anxiety, guilt, shame, all the impossible attributes of feeling helpless, powerless in the drive to do the one thing one desperately does not want to do.
Those of us who have known addiction or are struggling with it may acknowledge that we have not learned the coping strategies of facing everyday unease. The psychiatrist Sigmund Freud said that his therapy was designed simply to move people from ‘neurosis’ to ‘common unhappiness’. Even the happiest, most contented people have periods and episodes of unhappiness and unease, but they have found positive things in life against the negative background – family, music, donkey racing, clmbing, music, reading, exercise, volunteering, whatever. Recovered or recovering addicts lapse often because the negative unease persists, and perhaps it’s here that medication or other therapies are most important. But when people do recover they don’t become saints or bundles of joy: they slowly come to terms with the anxiety and unease that is part of the package that all humans have to live with to be alive.
The word ‘addiction’ started life in Roman times. A slave was addicted to a master by a formal contract. In mediaeval times monks wre similarly ‘addicted’ to God. In both the case of slave and monk, the whole being was given away. One’s will, one’s desires, one’s idetity were no longer one’s own. Every thought and action was under the sway of Master or God. One had given oneself away, one had lost oneself. All choices, all decisions such as they were in a very limited spectrum were determined by the Other.
Similarly, today, we talk of addicts to substances or behaviours as having lost their self, having given themselves away. All thoughts, feelings, actions are determined by the centrality of the Master, God, Other. Just as every aspect of a slave’s or monk’s life was determined beyond themselves, so the modern addict is enslaved in every aspect of their life to the object of their addiction.
That is why those who talk of the addict’s responsibility and choice are not only cruel, they are ignorant of the nature of addiction. Addiction is a state of being in which one has disowned oneself. A slave would have many moments of hating the Master, of wishing to be free, yet they were bound firmly. A monk may waver in his faith, wish to be free of the strict demands of God, but having given himself over he must endure.
We do indeed talk today of an adict’s being enslaved to the object of their addiction. We may say too, for instance, that alcohol is a drinker’s god.Yet there is a big difference between today’s addicts and the original ones of slavery and monasticism. An addict today can become free.
The experience of most addicts who start on the road to freedom is important. Often, usually, by will power alone they can stop the behaviour they wish to be free of. But then they relapse. Clever scientists suggest that the brain has ‘pathways’ which strongly affect our behaviour. Addictive pathways are literally, biologically laid down in the brain and are powerful. Linkages between the parts of the brain that control impulses are weakened. The good news is that these ‘pathways’ can be altered. The brain is said to be ‘plastic’. It is not fixed, but constantly changing in the light of new learning.
Some evidence suggests that relying on will power alone to defeat addiction can be counter-productive for every time you fight the brain pathways they fight back! There are evangelical claims that such and such a therapy – 12 steps for instance – is the one and only way to ‘defeat’ addiction. Yet words like ‘defeat’ suggest fighting, using yourself to fight yourself. All addicts know this dreadful experience of inner struggle, trying not to do what they don’t want to do while at the same time wanting to do it!
Another aspect of addiction, depending on how long it has lasted, is that every part of life has adapted to it. With the object of desire as the central command all else revolves around it: relationships, work, money, leisure, love. An addict may function in society, have a job and family, but she will place these as second to the object of desire. That is why we hear of ‘trusted’ employees stealing from work, husbands stealing from wives, betrayal, broken promises, bankruptcy. Substance addicts will slowly be committing suicide via the damage to their bodies. Actual suicide may occur in the case of addicts who have struggled so hard for so long against themselves and lost.
An addict who starts young will never learn healthy relationship and social skills, monetary skills, impulse control skills. Recovering from addiction needs much, much more than simply stopping. It may mean learning from scratch what was never learned through natural maturation. On the other hand, those who have been addicted for a short period may have the foundations from earlier life to return to and build upon.
It is often overlooked that there is a strong recognition that most addicts recover by themselves, without any input from specialist services or support groups (and it is sadly worth pointing out too that many who enter specialist services and support groups do not recover. There may be something very naive – if very profitable – in private clinics’ offering 12 weeks ‘recovery’ cures). Young people who are addicted in their energetic teens and 20s are known to ‘mature out’ when they start a family, settle into employment and replace one way of being with a healthier way of being. The famous study of Vietnam soldiers, addicted to heroin in Nam, shows that 80% of them recovered naturally when they returned from the war to their families. A ‘bad’ thing is wiped out by a ‘good’ thing.
One of the great potential benefits of any recovery method is that the addict has taken responsibility for owning their condition. Remember, there are many millions of addicts who deny their condition at first: some will go to the grave denying it. For some, and by now means all, group meetings provide a weekly or daily regularity that has been missing in life. For some, by no means all, the very sociability of groups takes the addict from the well known deep self-centred thinking to the beginning of entering the world of social interaction. These benefits, rather than the particular programme, may be what accounts for their success for some, but by no means all.
There is absolutely no such thing as a typical addict. Somebody with an addiction has a unique history, is a unique person. Yet one may perhaps allude to a certain common problem facing some in the early stages of recovery. It’s almost like dread. You’e done three, six, twelve months but you feel empty, lost, nothing grabs your interest. Not uncommonly there is a state of clinical depression and/or anxiety. Underlying mental health conditions which brought about addiction in the first place may surface. These can be treated clinically. But there is also often a deep unease at the level of being. After years sealed off from life, what is life? What is my life? I’ve stopped drinking or gambling or my sex addiction but my life doesn’t feel any better for it. What’s the point? Remember that such feelings will amost always be accompanied by intense negative feelings of guilt, shame and bitter self-recrimination.
The bad news is that there is no magic answer, whatever evangelical gurus or sellers of this or that method say. Addiction is every bit as devestating as cancer in those cases where statistics show the numbers that sadly don’t make it out. The better news is that most people do recover, more often on their own than not. And one thing seems to help above all others. Whether with or without support, it’s finding healthier, deep meanings to life. The psychiatrist Viktor Frankl survived most of the second world war in concentration camps because he was used as a doctor. He wrote a book* in which his central insight is that the dreadful conditions of the camps brought people to their kneees, physically, mentally and spiritually Yet some died very quickly. Others in identical circumstances survived. Those who survived, he said, had deep within them some core meanng to their lives; for some it was religion, for others it was their family outside the camps, for some it was music or literature or writing, for some it was helping others. This idea of having a deep meaning for being (or reasons to be alive) is seen as crucial to surviving the sufferings life throws our way.
Addicts by the nature of addiction have developed a specific sense of time peculiar to addiction. The time of the ordinary world is filled with boredom or threat, but the immediacy of engagement with the object of desire shuts out that ordinary world. In the ordinary world the biggest dread is not of pain but of meaningless, something much deeper and more intense than boredom. Unease with time is relieved by triggering the addictive process which provides not only a relief from unease but a sharp and powerful pulse of energetic feeling. (This process is described particularly acutely in the experience of playing electronic gambling machines: it’s called ‘being in the machine zone’. Note the word being).
Recovery has to come to terms with recovery from that addictive way of handling time. It means finding meaning in long term feeling, thinking, doing, being. For some it may need no more than becoming ‘addicted’ to the love of one’s children and grandchildren. For others, trainspotting is enough. But after the years of fury, and the early period of srtuggling recovery, it is true that, after all, time heals.
* Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning
GAMBLING is called the ‘hidden addiction’ for several reasons. The main one is that you cannot ‘see’ it in the way that you can see a substance addiction, although even here it’s true that many functioning or highly functioning addicts will hide their state. Gambling addiction has a low public profile; there is generally more ignorance about ir than substance addictions. In service provision for helping those with severe gambling issues, there is little in the way of national strategy and provision, just one NHS clinic in the UK. GPs and probably most psychologists and psychiatrists lack experience of it. Only 5% of people with gambling problems seek help, only 1% receive it. These figures are much lower than, for instance, those for alcohol addiction.
Addiction is a mental health issue. Unfortunately, addiction is often made separate to mental health. Service providers talk about ‘mental health and addiction’ for example. This is despite the fact that the majority of people with addictions also have other mental health problems such as depression, bipolar, anxiety or a second addiction. In this confused state of affairs gambling addiction receives less than the attention it requires. A current statistic is that 0.7% of the polulation have severe gambling problems but in Northern Ireland and Wales the figure is higher. Add to this estimates of less severe but significant and ‘at risk’ gamblers and the figure rises to 5% of the population. Other mental health conditions are classed on scales of severity. Depression for instance is roughly mild, moderate or severe, though other ratings such as Beck’s identify four degrees.
Gathering data for epidemiology of addiction is notoriously difficult, and more so in the case of gambling addiction. While stigmatised heavily still, there is less stigma around substance addiction than gambling. Individuals are more reluctant to reveal a gambling addiction, and it is often harder to spot by those close to them. That is, of course, util the ‘rock bottom’ is reached in most cases. Some people will, though, modify gambling behaviour with lesser shocks.
All mental health problems can affect anybody in society, rich or poor, young or old, educated or not, male or female. However such a statement needs interpreting carefully. In public discourse we tend to hear most from the better educated, usually those with more material assets and cultural capital. It is well known that middle class people are better equipped to access scarce mental health resources. This, of course, is a generalisation and as such can never apply to individuals with unique life stories and contexts.
However, as in the the body politic as a whole, those most voiceless tend to be the more deprived in society. Deprivation can include material, educational and cultural capital. There are unquestionable demographic strata linking deprivation with mental health problems. While those we are likely to hear from most about the impact of gambling addiction provide vital testimonies, we need to be aware that many who suffer the results of gambling have little or no access to having their stories heard.
We are not surprised that bookmakers and their electronic gambling devices cluster in deprved areas. It’s important to recognise that the money lost to gambling by many is phenomenal given the mean disposable income available. Proportionally, like regressive taxation such as VAT, a loss of as little as £50 can lead to a spiral of debt, loss chasing and other negative consequences. It has been repeatedly pointed out the design of machines is responsible for gambling behaviours in those who can least afford to play. The proliferation of machines, not just in bookmakers, but in arcades, pubs and bingo halls, provide enticement to play fast and hard. Whether the stake is £2 or £30 or £100, the impact of any losses will be directly proportional to the circumstances of the player.
It’s true, of course, that as well as slots, similar dangers accrue to online casino-type games. Here, interestingly, research suggests that the heaviest player population is young professional classes. It’s early day sin data gathering but the take-up of online gambling opportunities seems more than likely to increase. With the normalisation of betting and gambling – and this includes not only advertisements on tv around sporting fixtures but lotteries from big charities – a major worry is about children’s behaviour in the future. May of them may already sitin a family setting when watching a football match and their father or sister may be more interested in the time of the first corner, or the score at half time rather than the game itself. In this, as most things, parental guidance and some educational input are important.
It is often pointed out that most people bet and gamble responsibly, which is true. The tension thus arises between regulatory practice and personal freedom (business freedom too).
It does seem, though, that some electronic gambling machines by their very design encourage dangerous gambling habits, firstly in those who already are vulnerable via pre-existing problems, and secondly by enticing new users who become ‘hooked’ on the experience. If ‘reponsible gambling’ is to mean anything, a good share of the responsibility must rest with those who provide the machines. No matter how low the stakes become, if the design does not change the money will keep pouring in from those who can least afford it, the voiceless and largely hidden population suffering the ‘hidden addiction’ affecting the populace as a whole.
OF ALL the many terrible attributes of addiction one which can be the most painful is being not understood and being blamed for one’s own misfortune. Stigma against all mental health problems abounds in our society. It can heap on an ill person the vicious taunts of those who state or imply that she or he is worthless, scum, a moral weakling, something unclean. Indeed an addict is weak but not in those ways. More weak in the way that anyone who is ill becomes weak. Bullies, of course, choose weak and vulnerable people as their targets.
Imagine giving someone with an alcohol problem a bottle of whiskey as a present. Then imagine that the person who drinks the stuff becomes very ill, maybe even dies. Then the fool who gave them the alcohol says in defence, “Well, they didn’t have to drink it. I didn’t make them. They could have given it to the local church as a prize in their raffle.”
It is unfeasible to think that substances like alcohol or other drugs will ever go away, and addiction is likely to always be a problem. But to deliberately and knowingly provide someone who is the vulnerable state of addiction with a product that is deadly to them, while not illegal, is morally reprehensible. The fact that you cannot stop the production and distribution of alcohol and other hard drugs does not remove your responsibility, your moral responsibility, to do whatever you can to limit access by those in danger. Any decent person would surely be appalled if just that was being done by high street business brands.
The very nature of addiction is that it robs a person, disowns them, of their power of responsibility. It literally embeds neural pathways which disrupt inhibition while enhancing compulsive excitation circuits. There are thousands of research studies about the nature of addiction, but those in recent years which use brain scanning are pointing more and more to precise neural substrates which are involved. Whether addiction is ’caused’ by social factors, adverse childhood experiences, culture, experiential learning, genetics or some combination of these is not the point: the result is the same.
While the good news is that many, probably the majority, of people with addiction can and do recover – often with no support from agencies or health providers – the fact is inescapable that people who are totally at any given time pierced by addiction are vulnerable to exploitation. To say that society should provide opportunities for individual recovery is a good thing. But it is a very bad thing for society to turn its back on the merest whiff of business or industry deliberately exploiting human misery. It is the responsibility of every citizen to fight such evils.