Are we all addicted to something? Interesting question! Dr. Anne Wilson Schaef puts it this way, “Life in the U.S. is so stressful that it is impossible not to become addicted to something. We live in a society that not only encourages addiction, but almost demands it. Some addictions, such as workaholism, are actually applauded in our culture, while others, such as nicotine, TV, internet porn, gambling, and sex addiction, are simply tolerated. But nobody grows up in our country without becoming addicted to something.” Agreeing, but from a different perspective, is Pema Chodron, author of Start Where You Are, who states the following regarding addiction, “It’s simply part and parcel of our human nature. We are restless, irritable, and discontent - we find it impossible to just sit still and BE. So we distract ourselves with activity and entertainment: cell phones, texting, video games, iPods, TV, movies, magazines, non-stop busyness to keep us looking everywhere but inside ourselves. We mood-alter with substances (sugar, alcohol, drugs, nicotine, caffeine, etc.) and activities (shopping, gambling, sex, work, viewing porn, etc.) We are unable to simply be awake and present to life - so we medicate our existential anxiety.” Wow, that’s not particularly encouraging!
But, let’s take a look at recent research data:
- Fourteen million Americans abuse alcohol or are addicted to it; three million American teens between ages 14 and 17 are problem drinkers. (www.alcoholics-info.com)
- The National Institute of Drug Abuse reports that marijuana is the most commonly used illicit drug in the U.S. Over 14 million Americans aged 12 or older used marijuana at least once in the past month; 6,000 people a day try marijuana for the first time; sixty-two percent of them are under age 18.
- Conservative estimates indicate that there are about two million cocaine addicts, 1.4 million regular methamphetamine users, and 800,000 hardcore heroin addicts. (addictionnomore.com and pbs.org/frontline)
- Fifteen million Americans display signs of gambling addiction. Researchers call gambling the fastest-growing teenage addiction: 42 percent of 14-year-olds, 49 percent of 15-year-olds, 63 percent of 16-year-olds, and 76 percent of 18-year-olds. (www.overcominggambling.com/facts.html)
- Forty million adults in the United States regularly visit pornography sites; ten percent of them (four million) admit to having a sexual addiction to pornography. (www.reliableanswers.com)
- In 2007, 60 million Americans (24.2 percent of the population) were current cigarette smokers, 13.3 million smoked cigars, 8.1 million used smokeless tobacco, and two million smoked tobacco in pipes. (drugabuser.gov/infofacts/tobacco
- It is estimated that eight million Americans suffer from eating disorders; 90 percent are women. One in 200 women are anorexic; 2 to 3 in every hundred women are bulimic. (South Carolina Department of Mental Health)
- While it is difficult to obtain accurate numbers of workaholics, compulsive spenders, TV and video game addicts, and other less well-known addictions, we can be certain that they are legion.
- We know from current science that addiction is a biopsychosocial disorder. It's a combination of your genetics, your neurobiology, and how it interacts with psychological and social factors. Though everyone's path to addiction is different—whether he or she tries a drug or a behavior—what's common across all substance and behavioral addictions is their stunning ability to increase levels of an important chemical in the brain called dopamine. Dopamine is a molecule that carries messages across the brain's reward center. It's what gives people the feeling of pleasure and reinforces behaviors critical for survival, such as eating food and having sex. Whether a person experiences a behavioral or substance related addiction, dopamine is the primary addiction driver.
These facts are fairly indisputable, and Schaef and Chodron’s observations are mostly right on, though maybe on the extreme side. So, what do we do with this, information? Whatever you do, don’t make any of it an excuse to self medicate!
As I ruminate on this issue, I have come to several conclusions and “actionables” which help me come to grips with this human condition--or better yet, “human tragedy”!
First, we are all at risk! There is something inherent in the complexity of human beings that likes to keep dopamine levels high–our “pleasure center.” We know from research that some people just have naturally higher levels of dopamine in their system, and some much lower, like a child struggling with ADHD. Running or excessive working out can be addicting because it produces endorphins and elevates dopamine levels; so does taking heroin. It’s interesting how addiction can subtly creep up on a person; something starting as a routine or habit may evolve into a much more difficult behavior to break!
Second, like other chronic diseases, addiction is both preventable and treatable. We all know that breaking an addiction is extremely difficult, but we have the benefit of years of experience, treatment and successes to know Addiction can be conquered!
Third, complicating the physiological properties of addiction, and probably the most difficult obstacle is that of “denial.” “Not me”is the all too common response when addictive behavior is questioned or revealed. It seems that there is a component of addiction that dulls the senses, creates delusions and imposes a subtle blindness which impairs one’s ability to self evaluate. There is a reason that addiction therapist talk about the need for a “wake-up call”!
Fourth, understanding Addiction is absolutely essential for those of us working in the treatment arena, but more so, it is something every adult should understand to a counter the human tendency to judge, and instead build greater empathy for people who are battling addiction.
Fifth, family plays a role in addiction! Addiction is due 50% to genetic predisposition and 50% to poor coping skills--this is where family comes in: genetic predisposition. But family can also help to strengthen and build proper coping skills. Another family connection–children of addicts are eight times more likely to develop an addiction. But, in my book, the most important role that family can play in the life of somebody fighting addiction is to be supportive, definitely not codependent or enabling, firm and forthright, and be willing to hang in there for the long haul of recovery.
So, let’s bring some balance into the conversation. Stretching the term “Addiction” too far serves no one well; it pathologizes too many activities and substances. Any activities or thing that anyone thinks they should not be doing or does more than other people or enjoys too much or causes them to feel some guilt becomes an "Addiction." This description is too extreme, and we want to avoid it! Plus, Addiction stretching runs the risk of trivializing addiction. Addiction is not a quirk; rather, it's an existential condition that, for many, is a matter of life and death.
As we celebrate National Recovery Month, we need to be mindful that this awareness campaign is about recovering from Addiction. People in recovery need to be surrounded by those of us who are understanding, nonjudgmental, supportive, empathetic and loving! Let us never forget the words of 16th century theologian, John Bradford, “But for the grace of God…”