That word – addiction – seems to be accumulating more categories and sub-categories these days. 20 years ago (or more), it meant a chemical dependence on a substance, and was limited to drugs (particularly opioids), and alcohol. The dependence was deemed so powerful that the medical world considered addicts close to hopeless.
This was the social and medical atmosphere when Alcoholics Anonymous was founded. It was begun in the hope that alcoholics could help one another. This turned into a kind of movement, inspiring others dependent on drugs, then on cigarettes, food, and relationships to develop similar support groups.
It was during this time that ‘addiction’ took on a broader meaning. Today, we understand it to mean (from Webster): a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence.
Many of us have experienced this, or something similar to this, even if we don’t consider ourselves addicts: the need for comfort food, computer games, porn, nail biting, shopping … the list is probably endless, when we need a distraction, feel nervous or anxious or overwhelmed. These kinds of external and often mindless activities give us a momentary comfort. They don’t, however, dissolve the problem, but merely temporarily mask it.
In the October edition of Psychology Today, a doctor talks about his battle with Opiods. He had been in a serious accident, and ended up having to take opiods to relieve his debilitating pain, discovering after taking this drug for a number of months that his body was addicted to them. His story includes the lack of understanding and support in the medical community on how to deal successfully with this. He eventually found a way to stop this dependency. I applaud him for this accomplishment, but throughout the article, I found it more interesting how he differentiated himself from other addicts: that he was dependent purely physically, and not mentally, emotionally or spiritually.
I, personally, don’t believe we can make such a distinction. I don’t believe we know enough on how these different systems in our body interact with each other to do so. I do know that there is a physical component in every addiction, and that it’s our dependence on something external to ourselves that is at least as destructive (for an excellent discussion on this, see the video link in my newsletter).
In my line of work, dependencies on external substances, activities, and relationships come up constantly. When we are in pain, we tend to reach for the quickest path to some relief, and that is likely going to be something physical. The harder thing is to discover what inside us needs support and development.
External support is wonderful, and sometimes necessary. Long term relief from the ultimate pain of addiction needs more than that if we want to move toward a more permanent change for the better.
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Maryanne Nicholls is a Registered Psychotherapist. To find out more, gain access to her weekly newsletter, meditations and programmes, sign up at www.thejoyofliving.co .