We’re beginning a series of posts ‘musing’ about addiction. Musing rather than thinking too hard, as the subject is so vast and split into thousands of specialist research specialities. Not to metioned the all too often ignored experiences and ideas of people who have personal acquaintance with addictions.
Words – any words – can be highly misleading. The word ‘addiction’ does not refer to a thing that can be seen or otherwise sensed, weighed, measured. It is helpful to think of it as just a signpost to hundreds of different states which are often barely understood by addicts themselves or expert specialists. No one has, and no one ever will, come up with a unified ‘theory of addiction’ because unlike, for instance, things that can be weighed or measured or seen in a microscope, there are no tight borders around the term. Everything is blurred. In everyday life people talk about being ‘addicted’ to such-and-such a television series or type of biscuit. Such usage of the word belittles the suffering of severe addiction states.
On the other hand, it is accepted as a fact that not only substance dependence but behaviours can be characterised medically as addictions. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition which is one of the main diagnostic manuals used by psychiatrists identifies ‘gambling disorder’ as a clear-cut case of addiction.
Increasingly mentioned in the media are things like ‘internet addiction’, ‘smartphone addiction’ and ‘social media addiction’. Serious research has yet to suggest whether these are ‘true’ addictions – but they certainly have many of the characteristics of addictions.
An interesting case of possible addiction relates to climbers for whom climbing is one of the most, if not the most, important part of their lives. They have reported ‘withdrawl symptoms’ of depression and anxiety if injury prevents their activity. It’s well known too, that many love exercise and the gym so much that they would feel bereft without them. Activities such as exercise and climbing are known to relese chemicals i the brain which produce a ‘feel good’ factor and in some cases, especially when combined with risk, a definite high or ‘buzz’.
On this site we mean by addiction a condition which involves compulsive activity over which an indidual feels they have little or no control, and which produces extremely negative consequences. Negative consequences involve physical and mental health, financial problems, relationship breakdowns and other serious problems – including, of course, death. In some cases, people suffering with addiction will be ‘in denial’ and not realise or admit the devestating consequences of their behaviour; equally, many are only too aware yet feel they cannot stop the compulsion. Invariably, the lives of those close to somebody suffering from addiction are seriously affected too.
More people than today used to talk of a ‘demon’ within, such as ‘the demon drink’. Interestingly, the word addiction in mediaeval times was used to describle priests’ giving themselves up to God. Addiction was a contract, and in Roman times a slave would be ‘addicted’ to a master. We still talk about being enslaved by addiction.
There is still a great deal of stigma around those suffering with addiction (and other mental health ailments too). It is seen by some uninformed people as a character weakness or a moral flaw. In reality addiction is a mental health condition that requires every bit as much understanding, research and treatment as, for instance, depression or anxiety.
In fact, depression and anxiety are often the primary disorders which lead people to ‘self medicate’ or take part in risky behaviours in an attempt to alleviate suffering: addiction may follow (and when it does it usually makes the original conditions worse).
Addiction can strike anybody irrespective of age, gender or social class. While it is true that some addictions correlate with factors such as deprivation, poverty and social exclusion, many addictions do not. There are plenty of teachers, police officers, doctors, nurses, politicians, judges who succumb to alcohol. Online gambling prevalence is highly correlated with middle class professionals. Away from ‘skid row’ stereotypes, thousands of ‘respectable’ people are becoming addicted to over the counter painkillers and prescription only drugs obtained illegally (mainly online).
Current research shows that 9% of men and 4% of women are physically dependent upon alcohol. That is a staggeringly high figure and it may well increase.
Addiction is not, then, something which happens to a few unfortunates or degenerates. It is almost certain that somebody reading this now is on the road to addiction if not already there. And it is completely certain that everybody knows someone suffering from addiction be it at home, at work, among friends. And for each of these people, many more will be suffering too – from their addiction.