Imagine you’re taking the bus to work one morning. You just happen to hear the two people behind you talking.
Person A – “Did you hear about Janet? What a nightmare for her family!”
Person B – “I sure did. It’s the talk of the whole office! You know her dad’s an alcoholic, right? So it’s no wonder Janet is too.”
Person A – “Yeah! No wonder. I heard they’re trying to talk her into going away for treatment, you know, rehab. It’s a disease. You’ve got to go to rehab to get the treatment.
Person B – “I heard Janet’s still in denial and everyone at home is fit -to -be -tied about what to do. I saw “Intervention” last night. That’s what she needs. Just get in the limo and go. I bet she won’t go.”
Person A – “I’m glad no one in my family has ‘it’. Jeez, the genes you’re born with sure can wreck your life.”
Aren’t you glad your office is just ahead?
As a culture, the above dialogue is still pretty much what we hear, believe to be true and perpetuate. In other words, addiction is a ‘disease’ and as such requires a medical intervention – ‘treatment’ at a medical ‘rehabilitation’ centre. I hope to broaden your knowledge base considerably so the next time you hear a conversation like the one above, you will be able to intervene with some sorely needed facts about the causes of addiction.
What Causes Addiction?
Addiction results from a complex interaction of physical, emotional, social, and environmental influences. The combination of factors is different for everyone. It’s important to stress that addiction is never the result of a single factor, say, biology, alone. As the factors at play in an individual’s life vary, so does the level of risk. In other words, the conditions which combined in one person’s life and later resulted in addictive acting out are, undoubtedly, different from the factors that will put someone else at risk.
What Are These Individual Factors that Interact?
- Genetic vulnerability plays a small role. Biology can never, by itself, explain addiction. It’s worth repeating, addiction is complex and multifaceted. If addiction was present in the family of origin, do the siblings begin drinking because of their genes or because they were raised in a hard-drinking household and simply believed their lifestyle reflected normal family life? If one child in this family remained abstinent for life, to what do we attribute this? It becomes the “nature versus nurture” debate, or, if you like, the “Which came first the chicken or the egg?” debate.
- One’s emotional well-being, social factors, and past learning experiences all play a significant role. Social learning is considered a very important factor in addiction. It includes patterns of use in the family of origin, peer pressure in adolescence and advertising or media influences. Think about emotional well-being for a moment. Doesn’t it make sense that the more mature, resilient, socially connected and capable you are, the less vulnerable to addictive acting out you will be.
- Personal characteristics: The qualities that make you the person you are – interact with the people, events and day to day stresses of your life. Perhaps at one time having a drink, gambling or shopping made you feel more positive, less anxious and fearful, more in control. If having that drink also contributed to increased feelings of confidence, attractiveness, assertiveness and vitality, it’s entirely possible that enjoying the experience predisposed you to repeating it at the next opportunity. We can all relate to the idea of repeating what we have previously enjoyed or found to be positive in our lives.
- Increasing involvement, (More using it/doing it). Perhaps you began to experience a need to stay involved with the substance or activity for longer periods of time. Perhaps you found yourself reaching out for your substance or activity in a greater number of stressful or social situations. Before long you arrived at a feeling of not being able to tear yourself away regardless of your responsibilities. You began looking forward to it and searching for more opportunities when you could justify it.
- Addiction occurs: The substance or activity becomes your habitual response in almost every situation. Negative consequences begin to accumulate in your life.
The behaviour that once seemed to support you through many of life’s experiences begins to turn against you. Without it, you experience craving. Unpleasant consequences begin in accumulate in your life.
What Are the Distinguishing Features of Addiction?
People frequently argue about who is addicted and who might just have a problem. How can you tell for sure?
Quick Answer: You can’t. This is one of the consequences of the disease or medical model. If you have a problem, you don’t have “it”- the disease. It has become a black/white, you’ve got it or you don’t issue. If you have “it” then treatment at rehab and lifelong abstinence is your only option. You will have “it” for the rest of your life. Problems, as we understand the common usage of the word, can be solved. This is one of the reasons people so fear the label of being “addicted.”
Just before we go over the distinguishing features of addiction, I feel it’s important to note that the greatest amount of damage to life, limb, productivity and personal contentment in our society is caused by those who “just have a problem”. Sometimes we get so caught up in absolutes, in black/white issues, we don’t see the forest for the trees. It’s not the label, it’s the behaviour and the negatives adding up in someone’s life that we need to pay attention to.
Several of these features will be present with addiction. Remember, we are individuals. People have different features of the disorder.
The urge, the craving, the overwhelming need, to engage in the behaviour whether it be using alcohol, drugs, gambling or any other excessive behaviour.
Preoccupation, Obsession or Fixation:
The individual can’t stop thinking about the behaviour. It battles with thoughts that reflect his or her better intentions, but eventually the urge to engage in the behaviour rules the day.
Despite every intention to stop or cut down, the behaviour happens over and over again.
The individual has experienced many negative consequences when engaging in the behaviour. Employer threats, family quarrels or breakdown, legal and financial hardships, tremendously embarrassing or endangering situations to self and others, all fail to bring about lasting change.
The “This time will be different” refrain leads the individual into yet another repetition of the same old pattern.
“Just one or at the most two” is heard over and over again. An individual may be able to control the behaviour in certain high demand situations like having dinner with the employer, but he or she can’t guarantee it 100% of the time. Usually it’s a no-win situation.
If you’re measuring your own behaviour by the above list of telling behaviours, make sure you’re being scrupulously honest with yourself. This is the time to stop rationalizing, minimizing and denying your behaviour. What others are telling you is true.