Addiction Beat

Why we have it all wrong

Who Is The Addict? Part 3

This article addresses a tough question: what causes addiction?

This is the third in a series of articles that began on the Huffington Post UK (July 1 and 4, 2013). I opted to take this discussion to a different forum – one with a more specialized readership. So far, I have addressed semantics, and how addicts differ from normal people whom I dub “earthlings.”

   This article addresses the toughest question of all: what causes addiction? I do offer a hint at the end of the last article: “Products of broken homes, children of rape, the wretched, the forgotten – we represent what we carry: every mistake, every injustice, and every horror conceivable.”

   There is some truth to this generalization, though not all addicts come from such dire circumstances. The latter will increase the odds, but no amount of degradation can offer a guarantee. Addiction is not something we can fabricate on purpose in any one case, though it’s true that if you degrade an entire people (e.g., Native North Americans) you will create high addiction rates.

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   So social justice (and the lack of it) must be a consideration, even if it can’t explain everything. Hitler himself was inspired by the North American Native experience, so he encouraged hard drinking among the Poles in the hopes of killing them off.

   But if social injustice can’t explain everything, are we to deal with genetics, learned behaviors, or both? Yes, though again neither of these explanations is exhaustive. It is unlikely that anyone is doomed to addiction because of genetics alone, and “learned behavior” can entail confusion. Some say addiction is a learned behavior, with the assumption that it can be unlearned. But “unlearning” doesn’t always work. First, the brain is better at learning than at “unlearning” (try unlearning the English language). Second, and in line with the topic of this article, even if we grant that it had to be a learned behavior at first, current behavior might no longer be a function of learning. People can find other reasons to keep it up, so learning might no longer be causal despite its value as an etiological descriptor.

   Trauma is another predictor, and many believe that all addictions can be traced back to trauma. I doubt it. Such sweeping statements are impossible to prove, leaving it all in the realm of opinion.

   As an addiction researcher, I remain guardedly agnostic in this sphere: I know of no single formula that would do justice to every case. Perhaps the most important lesson is that there are as many reasons for becoming addicted as there are people who are addicted.

   Either way, solutions are more important than theories.

   To my mind, the best preventative measures involve broader assaults on social injustice. Whether you work to give Native people a decent break, or whether you struggle to curtail child molestation, your efforts are likely to reduce the number of future addicts out there.

   The best solutions for those already addicted? Nonjudgmental initiatives that do not insist on abstinence only – all or nothing approaches have simply proven themselves to fail.

   I apologize to any reader who was hoping for a final answer to “Who is the Addict?” Sorry, but it’s a difficult issue, the study of which remains a work in progress. Think of it as an age-old issue: why do well-meaning people often succumb to temptation? See? When we moderns struggle with issues pertaining to what we have come to call “addiction,” we are trying to unravel one of the toughest and most tragic dilemmas to haunt the human condition.

 

Peter Ferentzy, Ph.D., is a research scientist with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto.

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