I’m love Diet Coke. I rarely go past noon without having had a 32 oz. cup (albeit filled 2/3 with ice first) of that most refreshing of all beverages. My first Diet Coke of the day puts a smile on my face just thinking about it. My 23andme test even said that I am likely to consume more caffeine than average. Am I addicted?
This weekend I went to see Adam Conover who (ironically, since we were in a bar) spent most of his set talking about why he quit drinking. He told a story about his fifteen-year history of having a few drinks most nights, and he added a watershed event that made him decide to quit. Among other things, he discovered that while he was drinking because it was “fun” and he “liked the taste,” it really wasn’t fun–it was boring and commonplace–and he was drinking to get the effect, not actually tasting any of it. He even disputed the idea that you can taste the difference between most alcoholic drinks.
He compared drinking to the effects parasites have on different animals in nature, taking over their body and causing them to do behaviors that benefit the parasite. The idea of parasites has long been one of my favorite Star Trek themes, so my ears pricked right up. He likened both drinking and advertising to a parasite that takes over your free will and causes you to act in ways that benefit the parasite but harm you. You defend your actions as if they are your own free will and choices, but the reality is that you are just defending what the parasite wants.
He also explained that the way we talk about addiction that isn’t quite right. We say that some people are “addicts,” which is a sad disease, but other people are “moderate” and they are fine. He clarified that all potential addictions are on a continuum. Some people go over the line and need professional help and to cut themselves off completely, but others are less affected by the specific thing. Even in psychology, the line between normal behavior and addiction is hard to pin down, in large part because of these rationalizations and justifications for our behavior. We say we are seeking pleasure, but we are really seeking to relieve the negative effects of withdrawal or of not doing the thing. Because addictive behavior starts as a normal behavior but eventually turns into one in which relief from the pain of not doing it is what we are seeking rather than actual pleasure, it’s easy for people to claim their original pleasure-seeking reasons and to deny that they are doing something to relieve symptoms of withdrawal.
At a recent doctor visit, the physician went down the standard list of behaviors and habits with me.
“How many drinks do you have a week?”
“Any recreational drugs?”
The doctor laughed and said, “Don’t you have any fun?”
He clearly saw the link between pleasure-seeking and potentially addictive behaviors. I immediately thought of the one addiction most Mormons I know have (if it’s really an addiction): overeating in general and sugar in specific. I have often thought that because we outlaw more common types of pleasure-seeking, church members have to pursue their pleasure by other means. Emotional eating can certainly be an addiction (probably not mine, though, as I tend to lose my appetite when I am emotional).
Within the Church, another commonplace behavior is often referred to as an addiction: pornography-viewing. It was even featured in a really cringe-worthy video shown to BYU students about helping a “fallen comrade” who was going into his room and watching porn. Can people become addicted to porn? Potentially, but only when it gets to the point of no longer being pleasure-seeking and instead to relieve the dependency one has on it. Given that definition, I can think of one way to tell the difference, but it seems like it’s going to rule out most porn use as an addiction.
One study I’ve read showed that people who smoke more cigarettes have a higher tolerance for nicotine. In other words, they have to smoke more to get the same effect. This is likely why my DNA result shows that I drink more caffeine. I know, for example, that I can usually drink a Diet Coke right before bed and still sleep. Other people are more affected by caffeine and therefore may drink less of it to get the same effect. These types of traits tend to be common in families, hereditary tendencies passed on through genetics. As a result, though, the amount of caffeine or alcohol or nicotine that would be addictive to one person would not be to another. One person is still getting pleasure, while the other person is going too far, seeking relief from their addiction.
Some people refer to themselves as having an “addictive personality” or being prone to addiction in general, regardless of the thing to which they are addicted. They claim that they are “all in” on pursuing things: relationships, drinking, whatever, and therefore more prone to be addicted to things they engage in. Perhaps, but this would likely only be the case if they are very disconnected from reality as they pursue these things (which is a feature of addiction anyway). Those who disagree with the theory of “addictive personalities” observe that those who claim to have them also have higher levels of exposure to addictive substances and are therefore more likely to develop multiple dependencies.
But can everything pleasurable potentially be an addiction? Years ago, I was in a leadership training when one of the trainers suggested I needed to go six months without reading a book. I was taken aback. Why would I not want to learn as much as I can in my limited time on earth? He said, “You talk about books the way other people talk about football.” Do I read to relieve the lack of mental stimulation or for the pleasure of learning and ideas? Would my time be better spent watching football (which is totally not my jam)? Or am I finding pleasure in reading and therefore it’s a worthwhile pursuit? Would I be able to tell the difference if I was addicted to it?
Features of addiction include a dependency or inability to quit without professional help (according to professionals, natch) as well as harmful side effects. Addicts claim they can quit any time they choose and that the effects are pleasurable and not harmful. That doesn’t make it true, whether they say it to themselves or to others. But under that definition, a whole lot of things that start as something good can become an addiction.
Have you ever heard someone claim in testimony meeting that they know they’d be dead if it weren’t for the Church because they are the sort of person who would become addicted to something and die? Often they will say that this is because they have a relative who was an alcoholic. First of all, no, you don’t and can’t know any such thing. I have to think that there’s a reason you got where you are, with or without the Church’s influence. But secondly, maybe some folks are addicted to the Church in the same way they could have been addicted to drugs or alcohol, acting to relieve negative side effects like guilt rather than to find peace and fulfillment. I’ve certainly met a few people at Church who are pretty zealous and yet don’t seem to be enjoying themselves a whole lot as a result of their involvement. Presumably that’s not how they started out.
You can theoretically tell something is an addiction if you are dependent on it and it has harmful side effects to you. It can be hard to tell when the pleasure you originally sought had sufficiently diminished returns to no longer qualify as pleasure, though, since addicts fool themselves into thinking their behavior is normal or moderate or beneficial. Besides which all behaviors have positive and negative side effects. Very few are purely positive or negative.
- Do you think the term “addiction” is overused or underused?
- If one is genetically predisposed toward an “addiction” or higher use, are they equally accountable or not?