The Strategy of Addiction

On the home page of this site, I claim that everyone is a addicted to something, and I want to clarify such a big claim.  I understand addiction as a behavior, not a motivation.  While there is a lot of genetic and social nuance to consider, no one is addicted because they’re an addict - that’s simply not how people or logic work.  In my experience, a person performs addictive behaviors because they’re trying to remedy an intolerable feeling they’re having.

This brings us to an important question: how do you determine what’s an addictive behavior, and what’s not?  There are plenty of definitions out there, but for my money I’d say an addictive behavior is one you feel compelled to do even when you know better.  And though I’m writing about this in terms of addiction, it is not a phenomena that always leads to disaster.  This can be as harmless as knowing you have to fold the laundry and watching TV all night instead.

That kind of behavioral process is more dangerous than it appears.  When I was in my early twenties, I came back from a music festival with my car loaded to the gills with camping gear, clothes, trash, bikes, you name it.  When I got home to my apartment I took one look at it and was filled past my breaking point with anxiety.  It wasn’t a very nice car and I sold myself on not cleaning it out with the dual justification that I didn’t mind trashing it and that when I did eventually need to clean it out it would only take 20 minutes.

This pair of justifications was so effective that I let myself ignore the mess for months.  It was gross, but that was only half the story.  Eventually, I needed an oil change and ran into a snag - I realized I was too embarrassed to take the car in for servicing in such a sorry state.  Obviously, the smart thing to do at this point would have been to clean the car, but I let it slide for an anxiety-ridden month and a half.  Finally, consumed by panic that I had destroyed my engine, I cleaned the car.  It took a little under an hour on a sunny afternoon, and I breathed an immediate sigh of relief when I looked at its useable back seat and trunk.

What happened?  Instead of relating to a difficult feeling - anxiety - I attempted to hide from it.  I knew I needed to clean that car, and I was convinced that doing so would bring up intolerable anxiety.  Even now as I remember it, my chest tightens up and my breathing gets shallow - I still don’t want to feel it.  Instead of allowing myself to have whatever uncomfortable sensations I was going to have, I lied to myself that I could just avoid that activity, and those feelings, forever.  I let my fear of anxiety determine my behavior.  In the end, I lucked out and panicked quickly enough to save the car, but it’s not a strategy I would recommend.

This is the exact same process I see at work in the kinds of behavior more traditionally thought of as addiction.  People talk a lot about being helpless toward their addiction, needing to find a greater power to support them, and generally having to look outside of themselves for behavioral control.  While I respect that this approach offers a lot of support and has saved millions of lives, I think that it also needlessly disempowers people.  I agree that people struggling with addiction, like everyone, are helpless in choosing what they feel.  And, just like everyone, these people do get to choose how they relate to those feelings.  Do you hide from it, with potentially disastrous consequences, or do you allow yourself to feel the discomfort in order to remain in control of your behavior?