This is the first in a two part series of blogs looking at addiction – what it is, why it happens, and what we can do about it. In this first piece, I’m going to examine the reasons you may be suffering from an addiction, why people with addictions behave as they do, and how to tell if you are actually addicted to a substance or an activity. In the second installment, we’ll look at practical ways to free yourself from your addiction, regardless of its nature, or its cause.
A lot of clients come through my doors seeking help for stress-related conditions. One of the main ways people tend to deal with stress is to distract themselves, and a great way of doing this is to engage in an activity that makes us feel better, however temporary or fleeting this feeling might be. For some people, smoking makes them feel better. For others, it may be gambling, alcohol, shopping, or even working a lot. They share in common the same goal of numbing your feelings. Initially, they may produce pleasurable feelings, or some kind of euphoric “high”. And indeed there’s nothing wrong with treating yourself to a smart new suit for a wedding, going out to celebrate with some friends, or burning the candle at both ends to ensure that you finish a vital project. Intense, stimulating activity is the stuff of life and what makes us feel good about being human.
There are two ways in which an activity can metamorphose into an addiction. The first is relatively obvious. A traumatic event occurs – maybe a divorce, a redundancy, a bereavement or another dramatic change in your circumstances. The feelings you experience are intense and very painful, and you seek to manage these by doing something that makes you feel, if not good, then at least a bit better. By the end of a bottle of wine or a large bar of Dairy Milk, you have numbed some of the original pain. Of course, this may quickly be replaced by feelings of shame, regret or self-loathing, but as far as your unconscious is concerned, you’ve succeeded in distancing yourself from that original pain. And of course, as soon as the other, negative feelings begin to dominate, you now have a shortcut (via the bottle, the packet of cigarettes, the credit card) to escape from them as well.
The other way addiction can take hold of your life is more insidious, and less obvious. You may not have experienced a particular “bad event”, but circumstances conspired to take you down an addictive path nonetheless. Maybe you had a series of late meetings and discovered that, by getting home way after the kids were in bed, you avoided the arguments of bathtime and a frazzled spouse. Suddenly, working hard becomes much more attractive as you don’t have to engage in difficult feelings and situations. Or maybe you joined the gym to tone up and feel fitter, but now you can’t think straight until you’ve run 10 k every morning, and marathon training is taking up all your weekends. Some people would struggle to recognise something that starts off with good intentions (working hard, being eating healthily) as an addiction, as the word has very shameful, almost “dirty” connotations. But if you can’t feel good unless you engage in a particular activity and the thought of going without it is genuinely devastating, then you’re probably addicted to it in some way. Whether or not you decide it is serious enough for you to change that behaviour and do something about it is up to you.
Here’s a very general checklist that you can use with any behaviour to judge whether or not it may have slipped into an addiction. Please note that I am not a medical doctor, so please do not treat this as a clinical assessment tool.
- What is the activity I am engaging in?
- What effect does engaging in this activity have on me? How do I feel when I do it?
- When do I start doing it? Do I do it as a result of a particular feeling or event?
- Is my behaviour affecting anyone else?
- How do I feel about the idea of going without this activity/substance?
- Is this activity costing me any money?
- What is it that makes me think I may be addicted?
- Has anyone ever remarked about my behaviour in relation to this activity/substance?
- Do I feel ready and willing to do something about it?
The reasons behind adopting addictive behaviours can be very complex – and while some may have their roots in childhood, others can be triggered by a relatively recent life event. But the first step to untangling an addiction is always awareness of the problem, and if you have completed the questionnaire above and come to the conclusion that you are addicted to something, you may be feeling a whole variety of conflicting feelings. But I hope that relief counts among them, as now you have admitted to yourself that you are indeed addicted to something, then you have it in your power to do something about it. Exactly what that something is, we’ll examine in part two of this blog series.