I’ve now gone through one ‘addiction’ that really isn’t one: a pre-disposition to chemical dependency which I have always had and was lucky enough to know about before it became a problem. I’ve also talked about one addiction, in this case a specific chemical dependency, that I have recovered from. Now it’s time to talk about self-inflicted addictions.
I can’t find a latin name for this, which is annoying; but I think it’s just because of the arbitrary effects of google. Every article about addiction includes the phrase ‘fighting addiction’ in it somewhere; but what I was searching for was ‘addiction to fighting’. This seems to be considered as either a form of self-harm, or a subset of compulsion disorders. There’s a reasonable argument for the first, and I suspect that in the case of some people that’s exactly what it was, but it wasn’t for me. For a start I didn’t get hit all that much after I was any good at it. For me it was a dopaminergic addiction.
Now, I haven’t taken my hands out of my pockets since 1999 (when on my own time, as it were: I’ve also been a professional access security agent). Going 10 years clean is something I’m very proud of. It allowed me to figure out how I fell into that pit in the first place. It’s a difficult story to tell, because the origins were quite complicated. I had a temper before I got regularly stomped at a CofE primary school. I had a much worse one after dealing with (effectively) heroin withdrawal at age 11. I left England after only 1 year of Kung Fu tuition: enough to make me dangerous but not enough to embed the disciplines of that art form. But beyond all of that, I got addicted to fighting because I liked it.
Boys like to fight, and I was good at it. I was also being systematically bullied. Then, later, I just liked to fight. Then, later still, I started going to places it was a bad idea to be and hitting people who turned out to have bike chains and flick knives on them. I was chasing a dragon of my own; there is nothing, absolutely nothing, like the feeling I get when I’m in a fight and might get really hurt. There is a level of clarity, a cold reasoning and a hot sense of power: there is a feeling that you are moving faster than everyone else, that you can think and react quicker and better than anyone. It’s a high.
This kind of thing is what people mean when they talk about psychological addictions. Sex, gambling, shopping. Facebook. All of these are things people can develop dependencies on, and the dependencies are not chemical: that is, they do not involve introducing a new chemical into your body which systematically reacts with your pre-existing neurochemistry to create a chemical dependency. This type of behavioural addiction involves causing the body to release chemicals which we are conditioned to like having in our blood-stream. I can’t find an equivalent to this for fighting, but this is what the medical profession has to say about oniomania:
“Compulsive spending results from feelings of depression and emptiness […] spending alters one’s mood in the direction of euphoria” — Kreuger, 1988
Well, that sounds like an endorphine reaction to me. It’s much easier to see with gambling: the reasons for an endorphinated, adrenaline-high euphoria when you’re winning are easy to understand, but addicted gamblers spend most of their time losing. It’s harder to explain why they get a rush off that, so I started looking at them both from a different angle. What if the rush is less to do with the winning, or the spending, than to do with the feeling of purpose?
We live in a culture which has spent 50 years hammering into our heads that our only value is as consumers. We are worth nothing except our power to spend; the rich are valued more by society because they consume more. The US is valued more by the international community than Cameroon is, because… Half a century of propaganda will adequately destroy even the most grounded sense of self-worth, and ours was on rocky ground to start with because of the pre-existing propaganda surrounding the concept of original sin. Both of these are even worse for women, which in part explains why women much more than men seek release in consumption.
But wherever the psychological drive to consume or gamble or fight comes from, what we get high on isn’t “just” psychology, it’s physiology. The emergent property of our brain which is ‘consciousness’ is bound to the monkey it lives in, and if the emotions say ‘This rocks’ (or ‘This is scary!’), the monkey says ‘Have some endorphines and adrenaline, then you can enjoy it more!’ What we’re getting addicted to is not simply the psychology of release, or the idea of shopping. We do get addicted to the feeling, but the ‘feeling’ is in itself chemical. An addiction to metabolic chemicals is no less a ‘chemical dependency’ than addiction to ones which are ingested or injected.
And we’re meant to. Every human is designed to have these chemicals in our blood stream regularly. Being happy is something we’re supposed to do. So is it any wonder that when so many of the ways we’re supposed to get high have been banned for stupid, historical reasons; when emotional stress and psychological ill-health have become so routine (because we live in cities) that one in four Britons will be diagnosed mentally ill: when we work nearly twice as many hours relative to our leisure time as would be healthy, then we latch onto whatever it is that does give us our natural high, and become dependent on it?
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Addicts are not demons. To the primitive mind, the metaphor of possession was an effective one for communicating what addiction was like but addicts are not demons and addictions are not mysteries. We no longer need the superstitions or the dogmas of past ages. What we need is to dissociate chemistry from morality, addiction from dysfunction: focus medical understanding on the one, and social understanding on the other.
Addiction is not an intrinsic problem. Someone can be an alcoholic and never be a drunk; someone can be a drunk, and not actually ever become an alcoholic, though this is only true in the short term with a chemical as physically addictive as ethanol. Someone can be an addict and never commit any crimes or cause any autonomy violations. Yet, they will be as demonized in this society as a willful alcoholic who chooses to kick off at an international soccer match.
We’re all dependent on about 8 chemicals that, because we are all dependent on them, we call vitamins: a person in chronic arthritic pain is equally dependent, if they are to function, on painkillers. There are a number of things that a person can choose to do for fun, to virtually any of which (including all three types of addiction discussed in these articles) they could become addicted. We need to get past the superstition that dependency is demonic: we need to differentiate in people’s minds between having a dependency and having a problem.