So many addictions!

Addiction to smoking

Think about all the substances and behaviours that a person can get addicted to. Let’s have a look at just a few of the addictions that people might have.

  • Illegal recreational drugs
    • cannabis (legal in some places)
    • heroin
    • cocaine
    • crack
  • Legal recreational drugs
    • alcohol (illegal in some places)
    • nicotine, whether smoking, patches, gum, etc.
    • coffee
    • chocolate
  • Prescription drugs
    • sleeping tablets
    • codeine
    • valium
  • Non-drug addictions
    • gambling
    • self-harm
    • kleptomania
    • internet use
    • shopping addiction
  • Sexual addictions
    • hypersexuality — a generic term encompassing various compulsive behaviours such as satyriasis, nymphomania, porn and masturbation addiction, sexual fantasy, and more
    • fetishes — there are many of these, including (but hardly limited to) foot fetish, BDSM (bondage, dominance, sadism, masochism), enforced chastity, sissification (forced feminisation of men), violence

Of course, not everyone has an addiction. You might be one of the majority who can drink just one glass of wine without having to keep on drinking until you are drunk. Few people are addicted to chocolate, with most people merely liking or loving it.

But a surprising number of people do have an addiction, especially given how many possible addictions there are. The above list is only a “taster” of all possible addictions.

I shall write about a few of these addictions another time.

Commonalities in addictions

When you look at all of these various addictions, you might feel that they are mostly all different. After all, how could an addiction to (say) gambling have anything to do with an addiction to heroin or kleptomania? And, aren’t some of these harmless anyway, like a foot fetish?

Researchers and therapists are increasingly finding that all addictions, while different in important ways, also have important similarities. When we look at people with addictions that they feel unable to overcome, we tend to find several of the same underlying problems.

A further complication is that not all researches and medical professionals agree on what to call an addiction. For example, some say that pyromania qualifies as an addiction, whereas others say that it is a compulsion but not an addiction. Or, take a foot fetish — what makes the difference between a harmless behaviour and a compulsion that needs treatment?

For the purposes of this article, I am including compulsions as addictions, because the sufferers feel unable to control their behaviour, and they have certain similarities and commonalities with actual addictions. But this is not a medical definition.

It is true that you might find the occasional exception, where a person has an addiction that does not fit the pattern. This is unsurprising, because with nearly 8 billion people on this planet, there is no rule that is true of absolutely everyone. But, the commonalities appear to be true for almost all addictions and addictive-like compulsions.

Do drugs cause addiction?

The common belief is that drugs cause addiction. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? That belief is based primarily on an old experiment, repeated many times, using rats.

Rats in a cage

Rats were given a choice between plain water and water laced with a drug. The rats always took the laced drug to the point where they damaged their brains and bodies.

This belief has also informed America’s “war on drugs” (despite both the historical evidence from the Prohibition and current evidence).

However, more recently, better-designed experiments have found that it isn’t the drugs that cause addiction. In the case of the rats in their cages, in the 1970’s, Bruce Alexander and colleagues realised that the poor rats were stuck alone, bored, isolated, in their individual cages and with nothing to do.

With nothing else to do, of course the rats chose drugs. (Wouldn’t you? Why do you suppose that prisons have such a bad drug problem?)

Rat Park

Alexander and colleagues tried a different experiment. They created the now-famous “rat park“, where the rats were still given a choice between plain and laced water — but this time they had lots of company, plenty of space, toys to play with, and opportunity for mating. Rat park was designed to be a fun, entertaining and social environment for the rats.

In these experiments, the results were clear: rats didn’t become addicted. Every rat preferred the plain water to the laced water, even when the laced water had sugar added. Even rats that were already addicted to drugs and taken from their old dull cages to the new rat park quickly lost their addiction and preferred water.

In other words, it wasn’t the drugs that caused addiction. It was something else.

Other clues

Gambling addiction

One other clue is that there are many addictions that either don’t involve drugs at all or involve drugs that do not cause medical dependency. If drugs caused addiction, no one could have (say) a gambling addiction. After all, gambling doesn’t use drugs.

Another clue is that not all people who try recreational drugs become addicted. If drugs caused addiction, everyone who drank alcohol would become an alcoholic. Everyone who tried a cigarette would become a smoker.

But this isn’t what happens. Some people try a drug and become addicted, while others try the same drug and decide, no, that’s not for me.

Yet another clue is that when people who take an “addictive” drug such as morphine, specifically for pain on the doctor’s advice, almost every patient voluntarily chooses to come off the drug when the pain diminishes. (A few patients become addicted, but the question is whether they would have become addicted anyway. After all, most drug addicts didn’t start their drug habit because of a medical problem.)

In one experiment, patients were allowed unlimited amounts of morphine, and even they decreased the dosage as their pain diminished, down to zero when their pain became easily tolerable or disappeared.

If the drug was what caused addiction, every one of these people would have left hospital addicted to morphine.

Addiction is not the problem; it’s the symptom

What causes addiction?

Unconnected, lonely

Although the conclusion, still contentious, is far from settled, it seems that we can safely say that certain emotional components underly the addiction.

Emotions are complex, but the commonality appears to be a lack of human connection. Johann Hari explains the stories and research that underlie this idea.

I find this quote useful:

I like to define addiction not in terms of the substance you’re taking. … Addiction is any pattern of behaviour whereby you cannot stand to be with yourself and certain of the more uncomfortable thoughts and, more importantly, emotions that come from being on your own. Therefore, you can be addicted to almost anything as long as it keeps you away from yourself, as long as it keeps you away from tricky self-knowledge. … until you know yourself, you can’t properly relate to another person.”

Alain de Botton, Why you will marry the wrong person

In other words, addiction per se is not the problem.

Rather, addiction is a symptom of an underlying problem.

Does lack of connection cause addiction?

I would say that the lack of connection doesn’t in itself cause the addiction, at least not that simplistically.

Rather, a person who is free (and not, say, in jail) might fail to form connections for other, typically complex, reasons. For example, you might find someone who had a brutal upbringing, and feels unable to trust anyone enough to form a bond. Or someone who was isolated growing up, and never learned how to form a bond.

So, although a lack of connection can certainly give rise to addiction, it’s also important to understand that it’s not the primary cause. Instead, it works best to find and fix the problem that leads to the lack of connection.

Does trauma cause addiction?

Maybe. There is evidence that drug addiction is much worse (on average) in people who have suffered trauma, whether that be childhood abuse, sexual abuse, events leading to PTSD, or others.

Does this happen because trauma leads to lack of connection? It’s possible, but by no means proven. Still, it’s an idea to consider.

Curing addiction

Bonding and connection

You might suspect, then, that curing an addiction is as simple as taking an addict, and placing them in a supportive and nurturing community, where they can quickly and deeply bond with other people.

Sometimes, it really is that simple, provided that the community lasts and that the addict can add something of value to the community (involvement is important). But people are complex animals, and that is often not quite enough — although it does appear to be necessary (which is why shoving addicts into jail doesn’t cure them).

The problems with addiction

When a person becomes addicted, generally speaking, their personal growth and maturation stops. That’s because, instead of dealing with their problems and learning from them (and their mistakes), they take the easy way out and use their addiction to feel temporarily better. Of course, the feeling doesn’t last, and generally immediately after satisfying the addiction, the addict will feel unpleasant emotions.

Reported emotions include feelings of self-loathing, disgust, guilt, fatigue, depression, shame, and more. Of course, this leads to further use of the addiction to try to solve those feelings — a vicious cycle!

Do this long enough, and you have an adult with the maturity of a child, unable to deal with daily emotional problems. Such people will often isolate themselves further, feeling fearful of social situations, and thereby descend into a worsening spiral of addiction.

Curing addiction needs a multi-pronged approach. Get the addict off the addiction, even temporarily — because while you are indulging in your addiction, you are unable to learn and grow. During this “sober” time, work on ways to help the addict learn to bond with other people, admittedly not always easy in a modern city.

And, most important, understand and solve the underlying problems that caused the symptoms of addiction in the first place. (This is called therapy!)

What to do if you are addicted?

If you realise that you have, or might have, an addiction, the first thing to do is to speak to your GP. Your GP can diagnose your situation and advise you on the next steps, or refer you to a specialist who will do this.

Once you have your diagnosis and formal help, realise that an addict typically needs all the help that is available, from formal mainstream services via the GP to complementary services, friends and relatives (if you have access to such), and more.

So, after you have spoken to your GP or specialist, look for other forms of help to go along with the mainstream assistance. If you have friends or relatives whom you can trust to support you non-judgementally and respecting your need for confidentiality (if you have such a need), bring them into you confidence.

Also search for other types of therapy that can help. Therapies don’t always have to be complicated or expensive to help. Yoga, meditation and mindfulness are known to help many people, and if money is a problem, you can usually find free sources of these.

Do as many different therapies as you can, though not necessarily at the same time. You will find that some are of great help; some help only a little; and some don’t help at all. This is the nature of therapy — each therapy helps some people but not others, and some problems but not others. A good mix will give you the best possible outcome.

What therapies might help? There are far too many to be able to list them all here. I already mentioned yoga, meditation and mindfulness. I would recommend hypnotherapy (of course, but then I’m biased).

Other mainstream and complementary therapies include CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy); clinical psychology; counselling; EFT (emotional freedom technique); Indian head massage; massage therapy; matrix reimprinting; NLP (neuro-linguistic programming); reflexology; systemic constellations; visiting a spa; tai chi.

As I say, there are many more than these few. Do your research, decide which therapies appeal to you most, and do them. Particularly for a long-term addiction, don’t expect miracles, which is why you need to do several therapies, not just one. But you might be lucky — sometimes, a therapy happens to press all the right buttons and clear you pretty quickly.

A final warning

Regardless of which therapies you choose, it is always highly advised to speak to your GP. Some drugs must be withdrawn at a measured pace. For example, a long-term alcoholic who suddenly goes cold turkey is at risk of permanent damage to their organs, and even death.

Never take herbal medicines, remedies or supplements without your doctor’s consent. Herbal supplements are advertised as “natural, therefore safe,” but ‘natural’ does not automatically mean safe. (Likewise, ‘artificial’ does not automatically mean unsafe. The current popular backlash against “chemicals” in your food is nonsense, especially as everything is made of chemicals, even an apple, and even apples contain toxic chemicals, which your body quickly and easily deals with. The secret is not to always go natural and always avoid artificial, but to use sense, judgement, and reputable suppliers.)

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