No doubt my observations on this most sensitive subject will meet with disbelief from those who have convinced themselves that addiction is an illness, and therefore should be treated as such, with copious helpings of understanding, bleeding-heart liberalism, and guilt laden mercy-mission. This is a position with which I most vehemently disagree, and I have the experience to make the point.
In the early 1980’s I had a very occasional casual relationship with a girl who was a functioning heroin addict. I regret nothing of this – we did not living together, nor did we spend any great amount of time together, mainly because she would disappear every so often for regular sojourns as a guest of Her Majesty, to resurface many months later, ‘clean’ for a short period of time before returning to her old ways. Not so much a friend with benefits as a friend on benefits. In the four or five years I knew her, we probably spent a total of five weeks in each other’s company. She also came from what can justly be called a criminal family. So crime, both petty and serious, was part of her upbringing. She possessed the intelligence to lead a more productive and honest life, but preferred to gravitate toward the comfortable familiarity of her roots. Why I accepted this situation is my business, but I will admit to the fact that at the time, as an entertainer who spent most of the year on motorways, driving from town to town, doing one night shows before boarding an aeroplane to do the same in the next country, the lure of a comfortable and familiar face every so often was convenient. Not irresistible mind you, just convenient – and in any case, a pretty face has always been my weakness. In the end I came to the conclusion that we were both equally guilty of gravitating back to each other for the same reason, and that is, when it came to relationships, we were both equally lazy.
Part of the fascination with this woman was because of my own need to understand why she just couldn’t, or wouldn’t use her brain and get a better life. I mean, why spend half your time foraging for drugs, or worse, whiling your life away in prison, where the only contact was with people whom even she admitted were cretins and morons, when you didn’t have to, when you could be doing more exciting and productive things? It wasn’t as if she was stupid – on the contrary, she had an intelligence beyond the streetwise that made her even more interesting. My search for an answer (I will also admit to some kind of mission of mercy) led me to speak to experts on drug addiction, read innumerable books on the subject, and get her to talk about it – something which she was willing and happy to do. What she told me was not in any book. In the end I became convinced that it was not the addiction to the drug, or the fear of the withdrawal symptoms holding her back, but a simple preference for the life she was used to. As plain as the nose on your face really. That’s all it was – a simple lifestyle choice. In other words, her addiction was… voluntary.
No one forces the user to take drugs, although peer pressure is undoubtedly part of the problem; no one forces the gambler into the casino and no one forces teenagers to spend hours playing World of Warcraft on the computer. In any kind of final analysis, these are choices made by the individual.
In the year 2012, it seems that any and every sort of antisocial behaviour is deemed an illness. Crime is never the perpetrator’s fault, but Society’s. The same is true of addiction. The current wisdom, espoused by an army of social workers, psychologists, nutty professors and general do-gooders, is that the addict is not a very naughty person, but a victim of society’s ills. And I say… bollocks!
The new theory states that any kind of addiction, whether it be to drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography, computer games, religion, checking email or obsessional text messaging, to name but a few, is to the addict an escape from the overwhelming drudgery of everyday life and an attempt (often successful in the short term) to make the awful reality of a shit life more bearable. Those who have had a head start in life are less likely to succumb to the delights of addiction, but that is not to say that addiction is only a council estate problem, because it obviously isn’t. However, it is impossible to ignore the fact that addiction is more prevalent with those with time on their hands, and that’s mainly the jobless, the hopeless, the bored, and the lazy. It is absolutely imperative to understand that any kind of addiction is, first and foremost, a great time-killer. With most addicts, the means to service the addiction provides something to do – a structure in an otherwise empty life. The druggie has to plan ahead: how to get the money to buy the drugs, then find the dealer, who does not keep regular hours, then to retreat to somewhere ‘safe’ to enjoy the delights of their purchase. They only seek the company of other druggies who swap information about the latest prices, where the best pickings are to be found, who amongst their friends and associates has been arrested and bailed or remanded in custody, and more depressingly, who has overdosed. Finding the wherewithal to buy drugs is in itself a twenty-four-hour-a-day operation and keeps the addict busy seven days a week, fifty-two weeks of the year. Public and religious holidays such as Christmas Day are a nuisance because there are no shops open to lift from and no old ladies to mug. (The withdrawal from heroin is no worse than a three or four day bout of flu by the way, just to put it in perspective!)
But the brain is a complex structure, and the more one indulges in certain behaviours, the more connections are established between neurons and the more ‘normal’ the behaviour becomes. Valuable brain space, which was once reserved for morality and value judgement is taken up with sly practice, opportunism and deviousness. In this sense, addiction could be compared to mental illness, but that is only a fraction of the story.
For most people, life is a series of hurdles: making new friends, passing exams, getting on to the swimming team, bettering oneself… All these are tests that most people are able to pass with a degree of application and effort. Giving up a favoured pastime, in this case, a favoured lifestyle, is just another hurdle. So why then, is this particular test so hard to pass?
Our brain chemistry is the slave of our more primitive instinct to overindulge, especially when it comes to food and feeling good. It may be that because of these primordial urges, and the easy availability of an ever-increasing choice of products that promise pleasure, the electro-chemical messages get mixed up. This of course gives the ‘illness’ theory a big boost. It is well known and accepted by anyone who knows anything about psychology that the gratification of craving excites the pleasure centres in the brain and makes the whole addiction thing more irresistible. In the modern world, consumerism thrives because its purveyors make their products ever more attractive. Whether that is a result of putting more salt, fat or flavourings in food, or making the computer just that little bit fancier, that car just a little more desirable, is irrelevant. The main problem is that some of us seem to be unaware of the difference between ‘need’ and ‘want’ and this is surely something that should be instilled at an early age.
And within this ever growing cornucopia of twenty-first century delights, we observe that pornography is getting harder, wine glasses are getting bigger, helpings are getting bigger, and instant gratification more and more desirable, more and more necessary. The advertising/consumer industry has become adept at manipulating our desires and expectations. But this unbridled consumerism has come at a terrible price. We no longer crave only the things necessary for our survival (nutrition, social contact, respect for our fellow beings) but we have unwittingly turned our attention to irrelevancies such as designer clothing, alcoholic drinks, gambling and mind-altering drugs – and that includes the prescription kind. We now find ourselves craving rewards that are not only unnecessary and contribute nothing to our evolution and survival, but harmful to us.
The cure is… Mindfulness. As is the case with almost all of the talking therapies, being mindful of the risks, effects and consequences can lead to conscious avoidance of, and immunity from, all kinds of addictions. That, and the good old-fashioned ability to make sensible decisions, without blaming others for our own lameness.
Let’s take a look at the similarities between gambling addicts, alcoholics, and drug abusers:
They are all preoccupied with whatever it is they are addicted to, twenty-four hours a day. This results in keeping very irregular hours and helps to explain why they are often missing at unusual times of the day or night.
At the beginning, all addicts start to rely heavily on others for money. Sure enough, their addiction spirals out of control so that before they know it, they need increasing amounts of money and will stop at nothing to get it. Pity their sister’s MP3 player or their mother’s credit cards!
They have all experienced repeated, though unsuccessful attempts to stop or at least cut back.
One of the tell tale signs of the addict is restlessness and irritability when they are attempting to stop or cut back.
They all use their addiction as a way of escaping problems or of relieving dysphoric moods – for example, feelings of guilt, helplessness, anxiety, or depression. These feelings and emotions are so intense, they are not just easy to spot, they are staggeringly obvious. The difficult part is not spotting the signs, but making the connection between the symptoms and the problem!
When gamblers are losing money gambling, they return as soon as possible to try to get even. This is known as ‘chasing’ but as we all know, gamblers never get even!
The addict habitually lies to family, therapist and any other interested party in order to conceal their involvement. This is something that they become very adept at very quickly. You’d swear they were telling the truth they get so good at it!
Eventually and inevitably, they all commit illegal acts which get more serious within a startlingly short period of time.
To the addict, nothing is sacred. They will willingly jeopardise relationships, marriages, jobs, educational opportunities – anything for just one more go on the magic roundabout! Alcoholics are the same. So are compulsive gamblers, and er… internet junkies, gluttons, porn addicts, and people who have seen The Sound Of Music more than 167 times – all that lederhosen, nuns and SS uniforms and Julie Andrews!
Addicts are almost universally bad decision makers, exercising poor judgement at a time when good judgement would be a good way to get out of the mire.
Some addicts are, admittedly, vulnerable persons, but by no means all. Many suffer from nothing more than a ridiculously high self-esteem. Try arguing with one and see how far you get. Self-justification comes as second nature, as does the unfortunate habit of making excuses on their behalf. Making excuses for them not only doesn’t work, but is also counter-productive in that it only serves to encourage their feeling of unassailability. I remember on occasion making excuses on behalf of my rather strange amour, but in my defence, I would say that for a short time, the benefits of the on/off relationship far outweighed the nuisance factor.
Drug addicts in particular feel ‘on top of the world’ most of the time, which is why they get caught more often than non-drug using criminals – they make silly and obvious mistakes, mainly because, when ‘high’ they experience a sense of invulnerability and genuinely believe they are untouchable, which makes them careless.
One of the side effects of any addiction, especially drug addiction, is that so much time and effort goes into feeding and maintaining the addiction, they have little or no time left for anything else, like growing up for example. Personality development is put on hold. If there ever was an example of a child’s mind in an adult’s body, addiction provides it. Believe me, it’s really strange watching an adult behave like a churlish teenager.
The vast majority of addicts have specific sociological needs when not indulging in their favourite pastime. Depression, anxiety, dependence, an inability to manage stress – it’s all there. Again, the vast majority of addicts display certain recognisable personality disorders. They all have a very low tolerance for boredom, they are impulsive, have short attention spans, are often thrill-seekers, and end up with a history of criminal behaviour. This is true of all kinds of addiction.
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association recognised pathological gambling as a mental illness, similar to pyromania, kleptomania and a host of other antisocial behaviours. The tranquilising effect that indulging brings; the excitement of scoring the drugs, the lights and sounds of the arcade, the clink of ice in the tumbler, it’s all part of the fun!
Er… Sorry, but I have to stop here and make a point. Life for most people on planet earth is quite frankly, shit. A third of the world’s population live on less than $2 a day for goodness sake! The pressures of modern life in the West are simply not anywhere near as severe as they were a hundred, even sixty years ago. Could it be that addiction is not so much an illness as an opportunity to over-indulge? It seems to me that it is a choice.
I was introduced to one girl who had turned to prostitution to fund her drug habit. She told me that the only way to escape the absolute awfulness of having sex with a sweaty, smelly, dirty old man in a car was to… take more drugs. It’s a vicious circle alright, but one which is still a choice. There are so many people who would be only too willing to offer their support, presuming of course the addict is willing to treat them with just a little respect.
Look at it this way, some of the greatest minds have been addicted to their own speciality, whether that addiction be physics, astronomy, music, or sport. In their case, it’s called ‘dedication,’ and it manifests itself in something of benefit for the rest of us. Addicts have somehow managed to push the self-destruct button, and the clock is counting down. Even so, it’s easier than you think to pull the plug – all it takes is the right decision.
It is always very difficult to get addicts to see the error of their ways, and I confess I also have a low tolerance level for them. So, you can talk to them about it until you are blue in the face, and the old adage that you can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink, was never more true than in the case of addiction. As with all things, the therapist can’t “Change Your Life” despite claims by some to the contrary. The only person that can really change the life they inhabit, is the individual themselves. Sometimes they have to sink to rock bottom before they get the message, but sometimes that is what it takes. One addict told me “there’s only one direction left to go now.” And she was right. Last time I saw her she had cleaned herself up, had got a job and was in the process of buying a flat. Good for her!
I have injected (no pun intended) into this article some things from the experience of people I got to meet in my days as a performing stage hypnotist and late nights in open-all-night bars. Most would probably remain losers, but there were a couple of people, druggies, who did manage to step back from the brink. In both cases, they simply decided that enough was enough. “It was just something I grew out of.” Which kind of makes me want to say: “I rest my case.”
For more information about addiction, particularly gambling and drug addiction, read All in the Mind – Hypnosis, Suggestion and the New Mesmerists. Available from this website.
Copyright Andrew Newton 2013. All rights reserved.