OCD, Addiction: How Much is Too Much?

People often ask: At what point is something an “addiction”? At what point has someone gone too far with something, so far that it’s officially a “problem”?

The problem with these kinds of questions is that they assume the definition of a problem is quantitative, not qualitative. ‘If you have X number of drinks in one day, then you have a problem; if you have X minus 1 number of drinks in a day, then you’re in the safe zone.’

But this isn’t exactly right.

The same applies to descriptive labels like “obsessive compulsive.” To an extremely messy person, someone with even minimal cleaning requirements will seem “obsessive compulsive” or a clean freak. To someone who cleans once a week, somebody else who insists on cleaning every day is the person with the problem.

You cannot figure such things out only with numbers and only by behaviors. You have to know something about the person’s cognitive and emotional context. A person with a problem is somebody who, in his mind, treats everything — on a scale of 1 to 10 — as a 10. Now this is a problem. Such a person lacks rational distinctions. He might be able to make these distinctions intellectually, but on the emotional level EVERYTHING is urgent.

Take the cleaning example. If he just dusted yesterday, and there’s already a little bit of dust on the table, he has a reaction, “There can’t be dust. It must be cleaned now.” To a more reasonable person the reaction would be, “I just dusted yesterday. I’ll dust again in due course. You’re probably never going to have an absolutely dust free house.” Notice how the reasonable person makes rational distinctions, while to the obsessive person there’s no objective difference between a little bit of dust soon after cleaning and a lot of dust when a cleaning day is due.

Take the alcohol abuse example. The person without the drinking problem will think, ‘I’ve had two drinks. I might think I want a third, but I really don’t. Plus I’ll be sorry tomorrow. Not to mention DUI risks.” This person is making a rational distinction: There’s a very different outcome from having had one or two drinks, versus three or more. The excessive drinker, on the other hand, will simply think, “Oh, I want another.” And another. There’s no objectivity, no context, no reference to facts. One, two, six, nine drinks ‘ it’s really all the same.

Rational distinctions are a key to understanding the difference between a mentally reasonable person and one who isn’t so reasonable; between one who is prone to addictive or excessive behaviors, and one who isn’t. Contrary to the conventional wisdom, these are cognitive issues, matters of thinking, as much or more than behavioral or even physiological matters. People like to think everything is behavioral or physiological. To them, this is being scientific and objective, and it’s in the nature of finding a cause. But the fact is: Some causes are cognitive. You have to look in your mind, your manner and habits of thinking, in order to better understand yourself, including any behavioral or emotional problems you have.

Notice how the person who makes rational distinctions does so for his own sake. The rational distinction-maker who curbs his drinking is not making a sacrifice. On the contrary, he’s reducing the risk of problems while not taking anything away from his ability to enjoy his evening (which presumably requires conscious awareness.)

Similarly, the person who makes rational distinctions about cleaning frees himself to concentrate on other things in life rather than just dusting. Sure, there’s a time and place for everything. Context matters. In one context, the house needs some cleaning and the time to take care of that is now. In another context, the house may not be perfect, but it’s clean enough and it’s better to pursue other things. All of this serves the interest of the self, and doesn’t involve sacrifice of any kind, even if it feels that way at first.

When it comes to excessive behaviors, the issue isn’t primarily ‘How much is too much?’ The issue is primarily how one thinks.