Addiction in Society

Addiction—the thematic malady for our society—entails every type of psychological and societal problem

What Does Eliot Spitzer Tell Us about Addiction?

Spitzer shows addiction isn't what we believe it is.


That bastion of American capitalism, Forbes magazine (at its Web site) has published the expected article, "Gov. Eliot Spitzer's Addiction," by Dr. Patrick Bordeaux. I say expected, because whenever a public figure does something grossly wrong (think Patrick Kennedy, Mark Foley, Mel Gibson), the standard reaction is for them to claim they were addicted and to be bundled off to a treatment center.

As the author of Love and Addiction thirty years ago, where I introduced the general idea that addiction isn't limited to drugs, and specifically that human relationships can be addictive, I feel especially qualified to assess this question. I agree with Bordeaux that Spitzer's case bespeaks an addiction: an overwhelming involvement in which a person persists despite its negative consequences. But his case disproves everything Bordeaux - and most Americans - believe about addiction. Here are the top misconceptions about addiction.

Addictions are uncontrollable. If you have to get out of town each time you want to resort to your addiction, you are certainly controlling it. Spitzer - who had been hiring prostitutes for years - went to very elaborate lengths to disguise and secrete his addiction. We know this is true in every area of addiction - starting with the hordes of smokers who wait for breaks or to go out on their porches to smoke now that smoking has become non grata.

People cannot quit addictions without elaborate treatment. People quit addictions all the time. It is very possible that Spitzer quit his addiction the day he resigned. When I speak to addiction counselors, I begin by asking, "What's the toughest addition to quit?" This group of recovering addicts shouts out in unison, "Smoking!" I say, "How many people in this room have quit a smoking addiction?" Two-thirds of the audience raises their hands. "How many of you used therapy, a smoking patch, or a support group to quit?" Almost no one raises their hand. Note: a higher percentage of alcohol, cocaine, and heroin addicts quit than smokers.

Drugs cause changes in the brain's pleasure centers that addict people. Since most of us don't take heroin or cocaine, the National Institute on Drug Abuse tries to convince us that these drugs cause brain changes that lead to addiction. In fact, most people who use drugs (everyone already knows this about alcohol) don't become addicted. And most people who regularly have sex avoid addiction. Oh, you say, it's not sex with our partners, but sex with prostitutes, that causes addiction? If you have powerful narcotics in a dull hospital setting, you won't become addicted to them? As a matter of fact, the answer is yes.

Values are irrelevant to addiction. Suppose you had a terrific illicit sexual encounter, and the opportunity to throw over your life to pursue it further. Most of us - if it involved social disapproval, losing spouses we love, certainly being separated from our children and losing our livelihoods, would say - perhaps regretfully - no. I bet Spitzer decides to stay with his family rather than feed his addiction. That he previously made poor choices that endangered his family life - and lost his job - is a statement about his willingness to abide by his values.

As Dr. Bordeaux says, the Spitzer case is our chance to recognize the realities of addiction. Although he doesn't realize it, he has performed a valuable service by alerting Americans that all the hokum spread about drug addiction is just so much bull.

Stanton Peele, PhD, JD, is the author of Recover! He has been a pioneer in the addiction field since publication of Love and Addiction in 1975.

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