By Sarah Chana Radcliffe, M.Ed., C.Psych.

We’re All Addicted

The “addict” is usually thought of as a derelict, a misfit, a disturbed member of society. We see him as sick or bad. His activities are illicit: alcohol or drug abuse, gambling, and impropriety. He’s not us.
However, the truth is that the addict lurks in all of us. The only difference between that addict and us, is our choice of substance. Is the “chocoholic” really that different from the alcoholic? Indeed, most of us are highly addicted to sugar and would have trouble removing it from out lives. Just like the alcoholic, we claim we could live without it at any time, but just don’t choose to.
And it’s not just that we’re addicted to our food and beverages. We may also be addicted to “good” activities like exercise, work or cleaning. Or perhaps it’s novels, crossword puzzles, doodling, or daydreaming. Actually, it really doesn’t matter: the underlying mechanics of every addiction are very much the same.


What Is Addictive Behaviour?

Addictive behaviour is any repetitive action or thought process that distracts us from internal discomfort. The valium addict feels anxious; she reaches for her pill to put an end to that uncomfortable feeling. The cigarette smoker reaches for his cigarette to squelch that moment of angst. The food addict reaches for some ice cream, as her mood drops in the evening.
Some people are addicted to certain thoughts such as worrying thoughts, angry thoughts or sad thoughts. In response to uncomfortable inner sensations, they indulge in their favourite thought sequence. For example, a person who has been hurt might go into blaming mode, judging his persecutor, blaming his persecutor, feeling victimised and so on. The whole thought process is designed to distract him from his actual pain, although he has no conscious awareness of the tactic he is employing. He is as addicted to his thoughts, as his neighbour is to his computer!
Addictive behaviour lifts our mood and shifts our pain. Often addictive actions and substances release endorphins into our brain chemistry, causing us to feel “up” again. This is as true of aerobic exercise as it is of illegal drugs. Angry temper tantrums also release powerful pleasure chemicals into our bodies, resulting in the “angerholic” syndrome: the chronically explosive child or adult who is addicted to rage. Salty, sweet and fatty foods each have their special chemical effect on our emotions, making these foods highly addictive; the eating process itself turns off stress and pain in the body/mind unit, (enabling us to “swallow” our pain), making that activity truly addictive for virtually everyone. (Very few people eat only when disturbed by pangs of hunger; almost everyone eats or drinks to alter their mood at some point or other.)
We are all searching for ways to ease emotional pain and stress. We become addicted to those behaviours that work for us.


Healthy vs. Unhealthy Addictions

In our society, we differentiate between healthy and unhealthy addictions. Addictions that get us into trouble with the law, destroy our family life or negatively affect our health, are considered to be unhealthy addictions. Indeed, the typical addict of our imagination is a drunk who has lost his job, has lost his wife and is locked up in prison.
However, certain more acceptable-looking addictions can actually cause these same difficulties. For instance, the health of a coffee addict may be at risk, despite the fact that coffee drinking is considered a legitimate activity. The marriage of a computer-addict may be at risk, despite the “harmlessness” of the addictive substance (spouses don’t like to be ignored.). And the innocent-looking addictive activity of people-pleasing can eventually lead to serious health concerns and emotional dysfunction. (People-pleasing addiction is the unending attempt to keep others happy, in order not to feel the pain of their rejection.)
In other words, any addictive behaviour has harmful potential. Potato chips are harmless, but can put on dangerous pounds in the addict. Being too busy with constructive activities (social, communal or work-related) can, over time, destroy the quality of a marriage. Being addicted to one’s children – obsessively concerned with them – can cause similar problems. The money or status addict may indulge in illegal or immoral activities that can eventually result in legal difficulties, family difficulties and/or health difficulties. All addictions negatively affect relationships, because the addiction interferes with interpersonal and intrapersonal intimacy. They distance a person from herself and from her loved ones. Is there such a thing as a healthy addiction? No.


Is It Addiction or Not?

If you can’t stop the activity/thought process the moment you choose to, you’re probably engaged in an addictive behaviour. You’re on the computer and it’s time for bed – can you turn it off right this minute or do you just need a little more time? You’re eating that cereal, your stomach is full and you shouldn’t take another serving – are you taking one anyway? You know the laws of loshon hora but you really want to tell your spouse that little titbit – did you refrain? You haven’t gone gambling in a long time (because of all that money you lost awhile ago), and you now think that you deserve just a little fun – can you stop yourself from having it? The kids are misbehaving – can you stop yourself from screaming?
Addictions are unbelievably powerful. We seem to be victims in their clutches. Part of us wants to not engage in the activity; the other part wins. The addictive part uses weird logic (“you deserve it,” “just a little longer,” “it won’t hurt,” “nobody will suffer,” “it’s good for you,” “everybody else has it/does it,” “it will solve all your problems,” “it will make you feel better,” “there’s no other way,” “nobody knows, so it’s OK.”); it poisons your brain. It fools you over and over again, no matter how much you’ve suffered from it. And if your suffering is not yet major, it fools you all the more. “What’s the harm in it?”
The harm is that you remain alienated from your true self, your inner world, the real you. All growth is interrupted: you loop into your addiction whenever you experience “stress.” Living is a matter of coping instead of the dynamic, forward motion it is meant to be.


The Cure for Addiction

Some addictions, such as those involving sugar, alcohol, cigarettes and drugs, do have a physiological component in addition to the psychological component. As a result, the body experiences physical withdrawal that can last days or weeks. There are various treatments to help minimise the effect of this aspect of withdrawal, depending on the substance in question. For instance, substitute drugs can help wean a person off of the drug they’re on; nicotine patches can help wean a person off of cigarettes.
However, it is the psychological aspect of an addiction that must be treated in order to effect a true cure. Sometimes a 12-Step programme will be helpful, as it assists a person in turning inward toward self-examination. Psychological counselling may also be helpful in this regard. Any effective treatment must help a person to encounter and endure his/her deepest feelings. Fear, sadness, loss, boredom, emptiness, anger, hurt, anxiety, grief, despair, overwhelm, confusion, rage, panic, self-loathing, depression, uncertainty, insecurity are all gateways to enormous growth – when opened. Addictive activities prevent that opening as they short-circuit the process by stopping negative feelings. The simplest cure for addiction is to sit with your feelings. Don’t give in to your addictive craving and then just see what happens: the itch becomes an intense scream. That’s good. Let it scream (it will probably start off as “I want it, I must have it, give it to me or else!”). Just let it scream and scream and scream. Breathe slowly through it. It may seem like hours, but within minutes the screaming will stop. Very often, other feelings will emerge. Just witness them. Name them if you can. Repeat this process every time you experience the addictive urge. It may not be your idea of fun at first, however, soon you will experience the deep delight of meeting up with yourself. Ironically, the pleasure will be greater than the soothing your addictive tendency brought you. When dealing with strong addictions, the help of a therapist can make the journey faster and more successful.
Addiction is the most normal, common human tendency. It is not, however, healthy. Addictions need to be recognised, faced and dealt with if we are to reach our potential in this world. “Stress” needs to be processed, not smothered with our addiction of choice. Unprocessed stress lurks in our bodies and minds, waiting to explode in physical and mental illness. No addiction can ward off the pain permanently. Once we learn how to contact our stress and release it, we’ll have no further need of addictive processes. We’ll be free.