Addicted to addiction

Pivot Points is a monthly column by EuroScientist writer David Bradley.

The tabloid media seems to be hooked on addiction, there is no more inane opportunity than to climb aboard the soapbox gravy train or flog the old, dead sawhorses. But, there’s a lot of nonsense talked about addiction. Amy Winehouse recently succumbed to withdrawal and so unfortunately joined several other musicians, including Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin and Brian Jones as the latest recruit for the “Forever 27 Club”, a name that almost glamorises their deaths and certainly bumps up record sales. Meanwhile, the tabloids were also pre-occupied with the death of a young man who suffered the fatal consequences of a deep-vein thrombosis having spent more time than was really good for him playing video games day in, day out.

It is easy to hook a rant on the notion of addiction. After all, there are so many things to be addicted to, aren’t there? Narcotic drugs such as heroin, of course, chocolate, potato chips, the gym, bungee jumping, tobacco, over-the-counter painkillers, caffeine, golf, sex, work, pornography, even the internet and Twitter or Facebook. The media and consequently people in general will talk flippantly of workaholics, sex addicts, chocophiles and others. Technically, however, many of these urges, labelled as addiction are not, despite the problems they might bring, truly addictions in the sense of brain chemistry, they’re commonly merely (bad) habits. They are habits to which those who yield feel they have surrendered. But, while it might be facile to say that someone who eats a large amount of chocolate or drinks a lot of coffee is somehow an addict, addiction is much more complicated than that.

Even, the notion that simply using a drug, whether cocaine, alcohol, or whatever means an inevitable descent into addiction is something of a myth. Many, many people “use” without ever becoming addicted to their “drug” of choice, whether that’s a spin on the overtime hamster wheel, the exercise bike or the roulette wheel. They might even reach the point where their habits consume more of their time, money and concentration than any other activity in which they take part. But, even then taking their “drug” to excess is not necessarily their being addicted.

So, what is addiction? It is almost impossible to define. Not all of those who indulge in a drug habitually are addicted but all addicts use their drug habitually. Is addiction tolerance? The idea that to experience the same “high” the person needs a gradually increasing levele of exposure to their drug. Or is it dependence where absence of their drug leads to the unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal? Is there actually a difference between what one might call psychological addiction or physiological addiction? Many users keep indulging their habit to avoid the unpleasantness of not taking the drug rather than the pleasure of taking it. That seems to apply whether they are snorting cocaine or shuffling virtual chips in an online poker game. How far down do you have to go between highs before it is called an addiction?

Addiction is not just about the ups and downs, and more importantly it is not an affliction of the down and out and/or the rich and famous. It might be that those are the people with whom the tabloids flirt the most. However, reaching a position in which an uncontrollable chemical imbalance in the brain constantly urges a person to seek their fix, is something from which no one is immune. We all have our bad habits and irrepressible urges. But, the flippancy with which terms such as workaholic or sex addict are bandied about in the tabloid media belies a much more insidious problem. The problem that the disease we refer to as addiction destroys lives in ways that are way beyond such flippancy.

Addiction does seem to go hand in hand with certain mood and anxiety disorders. It is wholly unclear as to whether or not one leads to the other or indeed whether there is a genuine causal link in either direction. But, mental illness does seem to correlate with raised dependence with many pundits believing that addiction arises through self medication. Richard A. Friedman MD writing on Amy Winehouse and addiction in the New York Times in August 2011 concluded that genes, environment and psychology are all at play in determining who will become addicted to what.

So much, so obvious. There is no way to unravel the complex relationship between one’s genetic inheritance and one’s environment. Additionally, as to how it could physically be possible to talk of the psychology of addiction without discussing its neurochemistry, I do not know. What is clear is that the tabloid hyperbole and scaremongering surrounding those illicit drugs that society fears the most needs a detailed re-assessment, as does the nature of addiction in realms such as gambling and with other non-chemical stimulants. This is especially important given the flippancy with which the terminology of addiction is applied to problems that seem not to be related to addiction but are simply bad habits.

David Bradley
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3 thoughts on “Addicted to addiction”

  1. ” … but are simply bad habits.”
    the society is digitizing as well as communication and the communication tools,
    The obsessive and compulsive disorders, syndromes associated with, the “dependencies” which often manifest themselves with abuses in the use of means,
    behavior with an incidence of 1-2% of the population with the possible polarization on means / substances
    (games, radio, gambling, video games, TV, in ternet …) and sometimes accompanied by rituals anacastici …
    In this Internet / Facebook-centered little and we can safely use them
    with regret of the digital immigrants or some apocalyptic.

    Dr. Daniele Pauletto

    1. Facebook is a valuable communication tool and facilitates
      “socialization” for the young people we might call the “digital
      natives”, as well as adults, the digital immigrants. However, some
      psychiatrists/psychologists foresee problems in society with this
      digitization. However, obsessive and compulsive disorders, syndromes
      associated with “dependencies” and “abuse” occur with an incidence of
      1-2% of the population regardless of whether the focus is objects and
      substances, games, radio, gambling, video games, or TV. The Internet and
      social networking are no more likely to create addicts than any other
      focus of abuse and we can safely use them, despite what the digital
      immigrants and apocalyptic psychiatrists say…