Addicted to Addiction

By Casey Allen

Not all addictions are bad. Some merely serve a basic human need for routine. Since so many things in an average day can vary indefinitely, having something predictable, however perfunctory, can help us stay grounded. This is why often times it is the “little things” we end up missing. The redeeming qualities of a calming routine are usually overlooked until their absence serves as a source of discomfort. All addictions, at least initially, exist for the same reason: the pleasure they bring their suitors. This pleasure may come in many forms, and is often disguised, but is always present in some way or another. Addictions are nothing more than habits, and a fair part of one’s serenity—nay sanity—is dependant on such repetition. Why then is the term “addictive” so often synonymous with “vindictive?”

We most often hear and associate the terms “addictive” and “addict” in conjunction with chemical dependencies; nicotine, caffeine and alcohol being the most common examples. As with any habit, addiction to such substances begins with the same premise of pleasure. Over time its effects will change, and the reason for its continued usage will change along with it. A stimulant such as nicotine or caffeine will, after frequent continued use, loose a great deal of its stimulatory properties. The addict is no longer after the stimulation (or whatever the desired result may be) the substance once provided, but rather the relief from the symptoms they suffer as a result of their abstinence from it. The original result of using such substances can now only be obtained through higher dosage. Increasing the dosage will result in the strengthening of one’s cravings, and their desperation for release from such discomfort. The substance is now used for its calming effects on such unpleasant distractions. The final indication of addiction is usage with less of a focus on the original stimulation and pleasure and more with the secondary effects of satisfaction and relief.

Addictions which can be categorized as dangerous or unhealthy vary greatly in their degrees of destructiveness. The person who feels compelled to drink 5 cups of coffee before their morning commute is (from a medical standpoint) better off than their chain smoking counterpart. For this reason we often see addicts substituting one dependency with another. The rationalization of such substitutions is simple to understand: no matter how distasteful the substitution itself may be, the addict can always respond “at least it’s not what I’m really craving!” therefore leaving them vulnerable to become addicted to not one, but two (or, depending on the amount of substitution, any number of) things. One addiction may wane while the others wax, but all will remain present regardless of their intensity, waiting to return in full force should the opportunity arise.

The substitution of addictions can go one of three ways: laterally, meaning the outcome of its consequences—good or bad—remains about the same, and progressively for better or worse. The alcoholic who, in their effort to escape the anguish of withdrawals, instead swallows handfuls of Tylenol PM in order to sleep though their torment has moved laterally. The alcoholic who, tired of increases in tolerance, begins injections of intravenous narcotics to achieve more intensified forms of euphoria has fallen further down the spiral. The alcoholic who, disgusted with their failure to control their actions and their negative effects, instead enrolls and becomes a habitual attendee of a program such as Alcoholics Anonymous has moved forward. All have chosen alternatives to their original addictions, but the results of each will be quite different.

            Substitution can also involve trickery, both conscious and unconscious in form. The cigarette smoker who finds themselves eating more than usual is performing the routine act they would normally associate with raising a cigarette to their lips. The smokeless tobacco user who chews gum or mints is satisfying their oral fixation by having such foreign objects in their mouth. The coffee drinker who switches to decaf is getting the same aroma, texture and temperature as before. These subtle substitutions can be useful for ridding oneself of chemical dependencies, but the psychological aspects of their addictions remain.

Psychological addiction is much more difficult to categorize and explain. There is somewhat of a grey area between dedication, infatuation and actual addiction. One’s determination to strive for and maintain peak physical condition can hardly be compared to the compulsive gambler’s dedication to winning a jackpot. A dedication to fitness is a goal which one can track the progress of, and the benefits of which can be enjoyed while not actively engaged in its pursuit. The gambling addict who finally strikes his lucky hand will only feel a temporary sense of accomplishment and relief, most often in the form of gratitude that they now have the means with which to continue gambling. It is not the potential reward which they have become addicted to, but the thrill and the risk involved with obtaining the reward which fuels their compulsory behavior. Much like the case of the nicotine or caffeine addict, who no longer receives the stimulation the chemicals once provided, their reactions to the properties of their substance of addiction has changed, along with their reasons for continuing its use.

Psychological addictions are very similar to chemical dependencies in terms of cause and effect. Some might say that such mental addictions are a myth, but one could also argue that psychological dependency involves a chemical element as well. The release of serotonin and the stimulation of the synapses in the brain which carry it is what is responsible behind the scenes for all feelings of pleasure we enjoy. Any action—psychological or otherwise—which is routinely performed with the intention of producing such effects can, in a sense, be considered a chemical dependency.  Mental addictions can be just as powerful as the strongest narcotics. Work, sex, exercise and digital cable can all have similar consequences. The difference between mental and chemical addiction often lies within their symptoms or deprival. While the discomfort of a chemical addiction is often times physical, the cravings associated with a psychological dependency are much more internal, though most often both types of addictions manifest both types of symptoms in one form or another.

Many proponents of cardiovascular exercise have described a sort of “runner’s high” after a strenuous workout. Is this high so different from one an opiate or amphetamine addict might describe? Though very different in terms of safety, long term effects and methods of employment, both provide their subjects with a feeling of ecstasy. Both can evolve into an addiction, one in which the addict will notice a rise in tolerance and a strengthened resolve to increase their dosage to reach the intended degree of elation. The difference between the two of course being one is viewed as a destructive chemical dependency, while the other is commendably regarded as a healthy habit and productive pastime.

We’ve all got our vices, good and bad. Whether it’s calories or chemicals, controlling our unhealthy cravings takes a great deal of willpower and self-respect. When faced with an addiction that is seemingly impossible to shake, it becomes all too easy to throw in the towel and allow it to further its command over you. Rationalizing your actions will only make yourself feel better for the time being. Often times the will needed in order to curb such addictions manifests itself too late—after the damage is irreversible. The saying “all good things in moderation” has never rang more true. Exercising restraint is easier for some than for others, but we all posses the capability if we dig deep enough. Maintaining your resolve after the commitment is made may, however, be the most difficult aspect of self-control. We so often see flocks of newly motivated gym-goers immediately following the holidays, but come spring the depleted attendance proves that only some of us are, as William Ernest Henley’s stated in his 1875 poem Invictus, the “masters of our own fate, the captains of our souls.”