What is addiction exactly? Is it using drugs? Is it being drunk too many times in a week? Is it eating more than one should, or surfing the Internet five hours more than one should? How do we define addiction? What are we actually talking about when we say that word?
Actually, the better question is what is someone actually addicted to? What is it that really keeps someone “addicted”, eventually causing problems in their lives? People usually think, “Oh, it’s the feeling of being high of course, duh!” Actually that is only a part of the equation – a big part for sure, but only a part. We use the term addiction to define two things: the “problems” of use and the use itself. Sometimes we say someone is addicted because they do something a lot. We wonder or think they might be out of control. That is one criterion in determining if one has addiction issues, along with consequences occurring and one’s compulsion (cravings) to use. But in the general public we usually look at how much one uses, or what someone is using or doing, in order to conclude if they are addicted or not. We also use the term addiction to describe the whole set of behaviors and experiences of the addict. In other words, that person is addicted because they’ve lost everything, are losing weight, experiencing mental health problems, etc, all because of their compulsions. In some ways, using this word for the behavior and the consequences makes it confusing.
What someone is addicted to, when broken down to the reality of experiential behavior, is the chase. It is not about being high, but about getting high. It is about the process of “going to get.” It is about knowing that in a couple hours or weeks I will be engaging in my favorite behavior that brings me pleasure, whether that is work, sex, drugs, candy, alcohol, food, or exercise. We all look for pleasure and find our sweet spot in different places. Being high or drunk, eating your favorite food, or having an orgasm are all great, but they do not compete with the anticipation of having them. Dopamine is already being released in our brain during this time, which helps with the follow through. Someone explained a study to me one time where they took people addicted to cocaine and sat them down at a table, gave them cocaine, and encouraged them to use. The result: the high was not as good. There was no ritual, there was no anticipation, there was no chase, no excitement, and no foreplay. Addiction is in the foreplay not the orgasm. Addiction is a process not a result. Does this mean that if we are moving toward pleasure we are addicted? No, this is where the other criteria come in and determine if one has lost control, is experiencing negative consequences, and engages or thinks about their behavior compulsively.
Gambling is a great example of this phenomenon. Gambling addiction is about the thrill of the win. Dopamine is being released constantly for the gambling addict in anticipation of the win. Gambling can go on all night, even after the win, so the real addiction is in “playing the game” in hopes that the rush will come.
Why does this help us? It helps those struggling with addiction to know where to pay their attention. It helps those with addiction or problem behavior engagement to understand what the purpose of the chase is in their lives. What might they be able to add to their lives that is healthy, and quenches their need for all that is wrapped up in the chase for extreme pleasure? It also helps to identify triggers and realize when one might already be in the chase but thinking they are okay because they haven’t used yet. For those in different kinds of addictions there is a culture and way of being that goes along with the drug of choice knowing all of that is a piece to the chase will help in knowing what to change.
It is mostly understood that a major reason for addiction in one’s life is to escape. Another big reason is to fill up. The excitement about the chase can often be a welcomed escape into bliss (although the ensuing descent can often bring more intense negative feelings about oneself and life in general) but it also serves many as a way to fill that hole inside, that emptiness that seems to lurk. Addictions such as shopping, food, drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling, and texting, give us the sense that we have something, that we are full, if even for only a temporary moment. We are okay as long as there is even a five-minute relief from emptiness. So is addiction all bad? No, it isn’t, it can actually save lives because that emptiness for some is too much to bear.
Battling addiction, or the maladaptive chase for pleasure, means finding ways to reacquaint with one’s self – what she needs, what he wants, accepting her to the core, finding meaning in his life, not allowing people to treat her badly anymore, learning how to express himself to his most intimate others. There are many different focal points in battling emptiness and many different avenues in our own community. Discovering the obstacles in one’s way to filling up with health, life, love, and vitality is the goal in addiction counselling and treatment – or at least it should be. We naturally want to be healthy and full, we just need to understand what gets in our way from that natural growth.