The Danger of Excessive Behaviors

We all know people who overdo things. I often see clients who are concerned about their loved ones and wonder if excessive habits such as smoking or drinking could open the door to an addiction to something harmful.

Indeed, the essence of addiction is, ‘You can’t just have one.’ If a person tries to moderate with, for example, 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?’ For an addict, that’s a hard voice to resist. Even an addition to something ‘socially acceptable’ like alcohol can be 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 in doubt, I usually suggest that people try moderation first. If that fails, then free will must be exercised in order to totally abstain. Moderation can be difficult, and that’s why it’s sometimes more effective to 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 kinds of food. Choosing abstinence can put that addictive voice to rest, or at least quiet it down.

In addition to an inability to moderate, several other factors can characterize the addictive personality. One is self-medication. Addictive people are quite literally medicating their stress, their unresolved conflicts, anxieties 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. The ‘rush’ associated with buying something expensive, or plunking down $100 on a horse can, in itself, stimulate one’s pleasure centers; providing a welcome, albeit temporary calm. People are often afraid to face their emotional states, so instead of trying to do something about them, they escape into the momentary distraction of addictive pleasure.

Rationalization also contributes to the addictive personality. 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 suits some emotional purpose. Although rationalization is something most human beings are good at, addicts can be experts at it. Denial is similar to rationalization, in that you ignore crucial and relevant facts (like the effect on your health or finances) to ‘arrive’ at conclusions that conveniently ‘feel right.’

Apply these tests to anyone (including yourself) you suspect of addictive behavior: Do you tend to deny emotional conflicts and problems? Are you an escapist? Do you rationalize or minimize the effect of your behaviors? If any of these are true, the subject is more likely to be a candidate for some sort of dangerous addiction.

It’s popular to 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 factual basis that heredity accounts for the whole story. I frequently encounter people who had alcoholic parents, but have chosen to minimize their own consumption. While genetics may play a role in the predisposition to addiction, factors such as values, choices, denial, rationalization and escapism can be just as important. In short, there’s a lot more than genetics going on here.

The claim is often made that the addict is ‘powerless’ over the 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 (or should) 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. Loved ones can certainly exercise pressure by refusing to tolerate the addictive behavior, but when it’s all said and done, the addict either discontinues his march toward self-destruction, or he doesn’t. Only he or she can make that decision.

Before I close, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the many, many readers who have commented on or otherwise responded to this column. In fact, you are reading the 300th article that I’ve had the pleasure of writing for The Delaware Wave! Time sure does fly when you’re having fun.