We all know people who overdo things. Clients ask me about their loved ones and wonder if excessive habits such as smoking or drinking could open the door to something more harmful, like addiction.
The essence of addiction is that you “can’t just have one.” If a person tries to moderate with 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 with something socially acceptable like alcohol or food.
If a person can truly moderate what they’re doing, then they’re probably not addicted. When in doubt, I 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 it’s sometimes more effective to get the thing to which you’re addicted out of your life altogether. That thing can be alcohol, marijuana (not physically addictive, but definitely a psychological crutch), or a non-drug such as credit cards or gambling. Choosing abstinence can help put that addictive voice to rest, or at least quiet it down.
Several other factors can characterize the addictive personality. One is self-medication. Addictive people are quite literally medicating their stress, unresolved conflicts, anxieties or depression with whatever their treatment of choice may be. Compulsive spending or gambling is likewise self-medicating. The rush associated with buying something expensive or plunking down $500 on a horse race can, in itself, stimulate one’s pleasure centers; providing a welcome, albeit temporary calm. People are often afraid to face their emotions, so instead of doing something about it, they escape into the fleeting distraction of addictive pleasure.
Rationalization is part of the addictive personality. Celebrated author, professor and philosopher Tara Smith defines rationalization as “rigging the conclusion”; using seemingly logical points to reach a conclusion that isn’t true, but still serves some emotional purpose. All of us are good at rationalization, but addicts are experts. Denial is similar to rationalization, in that you ignore crucial facts (like the effect on your health or finances) to arrive at conveniently comfortable conclusions.
Apply these tests to anyone (including yourself) you suspect of addictive behavior: Do you deny or escape from emotional conflicts and problems? Do you rationalize or minimize the effect of your behaviors? If any of these are true, then the subject is 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, there’s no factual basis that physical 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 like 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 addictive behavior by thinking this way, then I suppose that’s fine. But 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 behavior, but when all’s said and done, the addict either discontinues her march toward self-destruction, or she doesn’t.
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