Can excessive behaviors lead to dangerous addictions?


A Wave reader in Ocean View writes:

Dear Dr. Hurd:


I worry about my brother-in-law and what I think might be his ‘addictive personality.’ He overeats, he drinks alcohol regularly, and he occasionally smokes pot. He’s not a bum, and he is quite successful in his job. But I’m concerned that his excessive habits could lead to much more serious addictions like heroin or cocaine. My question is this: Does the fact that he tends to overdo things mean that there’s a chance he could, down the line, become addicted to something really harmful?


Dear Wave reader

In the simplest terms, the essence of addiction is: ‘You can’t just have one.’ If a person tries to moderate, for example, by having one or two drinks instead of ten, it won’t work if they are truly addicted. Their ‘addictive voice’ will whisper, ‘If you’re going to have one or two, what’s the harm of one more?’ To the addict, that’s a hard voice to resist. Furthermore, don’t treat his drinking too lightly. A true addiction to something ‘less serious’ like alcohol can, over the long run, be just as severe as cocaine or heroin.

If a person can really, truly, moderate what they’re doing, then they’re probably not psychologically addicted. When there’s some doubt, I usually suggest that people try moderation first. If that doesn’t work, then free will must be exercised in order to totally abstain. Moderation can be difficult, and that’s why it’s sometimes easier and more effective to simply get the thing to which you’re addicted out of your life altogether. The ‘thing’ can be alcohol, marijuana (not physically addictive, but definitely a psychological crutch), or a non-drug such as credit cards, sex, or even certain types of food. Choosing abstinence puts that addictive voice to rest—or at least into dormancy.

In addition to an inability to moderate, several other factors can be characteristic of the ‘addictive personality.’ One is self-medication. Addictive people are (quite literally in some cases) medicating their stress, their unresolved conflicts, anxiety disorder or depression with alcohol, pot or whatever their ‘treatment’ of choice may be. Someone with a compulsive spending or gambling habit is likewise self-medicating, although without a substance. The ‘rush’ associated with buying something expensive, or plunking down $50 on a horse, can, in itself, stimulate one’s pleasure centers; providing a welcome, albeit temporary, soothing effect. People are often afraid to face the difficulty of their emotional states, so instead of confronting them and trying to do something about them, they run, escaping into the momentary diversion of addictive pleasure.

Another factor that contributes to the addictive personality is rationalization. Tara Smith, a celebrated author, professor and philosopher, insightfully defines rationalization as ‘rigging the conclusion.’ It means using seemingly logical points to reach a conclusion that isn’t actually true—but necessarily suits some emotional purpose. Although rationalization is something most human beings are good at, nobody can rationalize like an addict. Denial is similar to rationalization, in that you ignore crucial and relevant facts (such as what the addictive behavior is doing to your health or finances) to make room for conclusions that conveniently ‘feel right.’

Apply these tests to your brother-in-law: Does he tend to run from (or deny) emotional conflicts and problems? Is he kind of an escapist? Does he rationalize or minimize the effect of his behaviors on himself or others? If so, then he’s more likely to be a candidate for alcoholism or, like you say, a dangerous drug addiction such as cocaine or heroin. If he has addictive personality traits, then you should be concerned no matter what he uses as his drug—or behavior—of choice.

A lot of people today assume that genetic factors determine problems with addiction. While it’s certainly true that addictions do seem to run in some families more than others, there’s no basis that heredity accounts for the whole story. I frequently encounter people who had alcoholic parents, but choose to minimize their own use of alcohol. While genetics may play a role in the predisposition to addiction, other factors such as attitudes, values, choices, denial, rationalization and escapism can be just as important. In short, there’s a heck of a lot more than genetics going on here.

The claim is often made that the addict is ‘powerless’ over his addiction and must surrender his free will in order to begin his life anew. If an individual can really stop his addictive behavior by thinking this way, then I suppose that’s fine. However, I don’t see how anyone—least of all, a recovering addict—can deny the existence of free will. Just as nobody forced him to abuse alcohol or drugs in the first place, nobody can make him stop either. Others can certainly exercise a lot of pressure and persuasion by refusing to tolerate or enable the addictive behavior, but at the end of the day, the addict either discontinues his march toward self-destruction, or he doesn’t. Only he or she can make that fateful decision.