Science only recently seems to be identifying something that poets and pop songwriters have known for ages: It’s a fine line between love and addiction. Which can raise some difficult to answer questions. Like “Did I put in 12 hours of work today because I love my work, or because I’m a workaholic?”, or “Did we get rip-roaring drunk last night to celebrate our friends birthday, or because we’re a bunch of alcoholics?” Adding to the possible confusion is the fact that the current popular definition of the word “addiction” allows it to be applied to just about anything. The list of possible addictions these days includes gambling, food, sex, pornography, computers, internet, work, exercise, shopping, even self-injury. Oh. And drugs of course. So if you’re wondering if you have an addiction problem, how can you find the answer? Well, there are legitimate online tests for everything from internet addiction to alcoholism, but we suspect it’s just as likely that you can get addicted to addiction tests, and never end up actually doing anything. Another little problem you’ll encounter is that a genuine addiction is in fact very similar to love. Chemicals like dopamine, norepinephrine, phenylethylamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin are all running around suppressing or assisting neural activity and triggering all manner of pleasure and pain responses, and the associated senses of reward or remorse that comes with them. But knowing what all these chemicals are and what they’re doing in your brain right now isn’t really of any practical use; you can’t control any of them on a direct granular level, even with the most sophisticated modern pharmaceuticals. If you could, addiction research wouldn’t still be a multi-million dollar industry.
So How Do You Figure Out If You’re Addicted?
According to the book America Anonymous by Benoit Denizet-Lewis, about 1 in 10 Americans twelve or older are hooked on alcohol or drugs, another 61 million smoke cigarettes, and millions more are addicted to other things like gambling, compulsive overeating, and sex and pornography. So statistically, you have a pretty good chance of having an addiction problem. Below is a quick checklist for what would seem to be more obvious indicators:
- You just wrapped your car around a tree and a police officer is giving you a Breathalyzer
- Your spouse has left you saying “call me if you ever quit [INSERT ADDICTIVE BEHAVIOR]
- You’re reading this on a library computer because you’ve lost your home because of your cocaine budget
This is of course part of the dark humor of addiction and recovery. As a person in recovery myself, I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard at AA meetings that would blow your mind; stories about how far things can go down before a person is willing to look at their drug of choice as a possible factor in their situation. Which highlights one of the first problems in facing addiction. I’m going to make reference here to the legendary poetry of Donald Rumsfeld, i.e., the Known Knowns. If you’re not familiar with it, he made the following statement at a press briefing in 2002: “There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know”. This remark has received a lot of criticism, but is in fact very straightforward and logical. However, it leaves out an important fourth possibility, which is critical to an understanding of addictive behavior. That fourth possibility is the “unknown known”. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek coined the term to describe “unconscious beliefs and prejudices that determine how we perceive reality and intervene in it”. He was using it in a different context, but it is exceptionally apt when exploring one’s perception of their possibly addictive behavior. The concept is more typically referred to by the thoroughly abused term “denial”, which has in my opinion reached the status of “psychobabble” via the constant popular use of the word. I would outline this first problem in recognizing and acknowledging one’s addiction with the following simple list of possibilities that is fairly analogous to the “Known Knowns” concept:
- There are people who truly don’t know they have a problem
- There are people who know they have a problem but don’t care yet
- There are people who know they have a problem but don’t know what to do
- There are people who know they have a problem but are enmeshed in denial
In the case of the first scenario, a person under the influence of a mind-altering substance may be the worst judge of their state, and may take a long time to even realize they have a problem. In the case of the second scenario, the societal norms of the first world may make it easy to mask a serious problem with humor or connoisseurism, so that person may have to have a tragic event like an auto accident before the problem is apparent to themselves. And in the case of the person who “doesn’t know what to do”, it’s easy to say to oneself for years that “I should really do something about this”. The addictive brain is very adept at delaying choice by maintaining varying degrees of depression and impaired long-term reasoning.
Maybe You Just Have Bad Habits
The peril in assessing the possibility that you have a real addiction problem is that a lot of negative behaviors can be thoroughly entwined with the substance abuse itself, and it’s also possible that an individual is “self medicating” a legitimate disorder of some kind. Only a professional can help you assess the latter, and only self-honesty can help you assess the former. But one indication that you don’t have a substance abuse problem is if – duh – you don’t actually ingest an addictive substance! That doesn’t mean you don’t have other “addictions” you might look at. In his book Life! By Design (I haven’t actually read it, for the record), real estate consultant and coach Tom Ferry talks about four addictions that are common for modern people: addiction to the opinions of others people, addiction to drama, addiction to the past, and addiction to worry. This is actually a useful list; routinely if I ask someone if they feel they have one of these “addictions”, they’ll admit to at least one. My personal advice to someone who finds their life blocked up in a manner that’s indistinguishable from that of an addict’s? Explore therapy if the issues are trauma-based or deeply rooted in the past, or find a life coach if they’re not. Sometimes the best action is simply action, and much like with “real” addiction, the first step is admitting the problem, and the next is DOING something about it. The bottom line, in any case – at least as stated by the DSM-IV – is quite simple: “When an individual persists in use of alcohol or other drugs despite problems related to use of the substance, substance dependence may be diagnosed”.
But What If You ARE An Addict?
As someone who has been in recovery for a few years after various failed approaches, I have some simple advice. Therapy – unless the therapist is in recovery themselves – isn’t very productive. And simply quitting is a set up for either using again, or eventually becoming a slightly brittle, slightly abrasive person, the kind of person often referred to as a “dry drunk”. Why do I say these two things? Because after a lot of exploration and personal failure in dealing with my addictions, I eventually discovered that for many addicts (including myself), the problem isn’t just behavioral or chemical, it’s spiritual. And before you run away in terror, let me define what I mean by “spiritual”, because for many, the word tends to evoke images of airy-fairy new age types or “prosperity Christians”. By “spiritual” all I mean is “living correctly”, and by that all I mean is being responsible for one’s actions, taking care of and loving oneself, and as a natural result of these actions, possessing compassion and love for others, and peace of mind. One of the slow and difficult to detect side effects of long-term substance abuse is a slow deadening of the subtler aspects of one’s character. And one of the only effective ways I’ve found to heal this damage is through the fairly rigorous methods of conventional 12-step programs. It took me a long time to embrace this approach, because it takes some real focus and tolerance to attend enough meetings to get the best of what the approach has to offer. Like any spiritual practice or other kind of discipline (including major religions), AA and NA attract all manner of people, from the “Sunday Only” type to the dogmatic and rigid-minded “thumper”. It personally took me a while to filter through the crap to get to the good stuff, which is the basic principles themselves, and the massive support group that is available literally 24/7, at an unbeatable price. Which is FREE. And this support is going to be crucial should you ever decide to deal with your addiction, because your problem doesn’t really go away, you just learn to live with its existence. As this Harvard Mental Health Letter piece points out: “Long-term memories are formed by the activity of brain substances called transcription factors. All perceived rewards, including drugs, increase the concentration of transcription factors. So repeatedly taking drugs can change the brain cells and make the memory of the pleasurable effects very strong. Even after transcription factor levels return to normal, addicts may remain hypersensitive to the drug and the cues that predict its presence. This can heighten the risk of relapse in addicts long after they stop taking the drug.” So those brain chemicals we mentioned at the top ARE important, even if you can’t directly manipulate them in the short term.
In an upcoming piece, I’ll outline what I jokingly call “Alcoholics Anonymous Lite™”, which is a primer for people who – like I did – might miss out on the best that 12 Step programs have to offer, simply because of all the heavy-handed and quasi-religious attitudes that its more hard-core devotees seem to possess.