Many people look at Addiction as an issue with drugs or alcohol. If you are a daily drinker, need to use upon waking to get your day going, or have been fired, divorced, or bankrupt because of substance use then you clearly have Addiction, right? Some people are willing to expand their understanding of Addiction to problem behaviours like gambling, food, or spending, as well as drugs and alcohol, but typically the same criteria apply. You have to be using regularly and experiencing severe consequences in order to qualify as having Addiction.
What about the rest of people? As a Psychologist, this understanding of Addiction never made sense to me as I saw people struggling who had not experienced these severe consequences, nor did some even have significant issues with drugs or alcohol. I also knew that people do not start off in severe Addiction, so where does it begin? And how does it progress?
As my professional practice and experience has evolved over the past decade, I now look at Addiction as the vulnerability of more. The pursuit of more, whether that be with success, money, power, prestige, possessions, food, thinness, muscularity, beauty, reward, validation, affection, orgasm, winning, escape, and potentially drugs or alcohol, any combination thereof, and beyond. In my experience, by the time drugs and alcohol are in the mix (if they even are at all) there have been a lot of other ways that the brain has been looking for a hit long before finding substances.
The most common starting point for young people is food and media. Looking for escape, relief, and/or reward in things that are readily available to children: sugar, salty junk food, and technology. Many people have heard parents complaining about how hard it is to get their child to move away from their screen, but how many of us view that as Addiction? Or even if we do, it’s somehow categorized as separate from the person struggling with alcohol use who is homeless, jobless, with no support.
What we are seeing with this compulsiveness with food and media is the early manifestation of Addiction, which is a primary, chronic medical issue that resides in the brain. The reward circuitry of the brain, to be more specific. This part of the brain influences many aspects of the self, including memory, motivation, feelings regulation, thinking, and behaviour.
Many people who present for counselling are struggling with Addiction but do not call it such because their issues with drugs and alcohol are minimal, or even non-existent. However, their feelings of internal chaos, feeling unique and different, isolation, compulsiveness, obsession, depression, anxiety, hyperactivity, and difficulty with feelings and relationships are common. These are all symptoms of Addiction. It is important to appreciate this because this will help you work with these experiences as symptoms, rather than part of the self. It will also help you appreciate the chronic, ebb and flow nature of your experience rather than feeling frustrated, shame, or disheartened when these symptoms re-appear or manifest in a different way.
Professional support can be one part of the recovery journey, including a proper assessment by someone who specializes in Addiction. Not the old-school stereotypical notion of Addiction described above, but someone who understands the nuances and reality of the vulnerability of more.
By Paige Abbott, Registered Psychologist