Inside the Criminal Mind

Understanding the dark side of human conduct

The Overuse and Misuse of the Word "Addiction"

The term is so overused that the meaning has been sucked out of it.

"Addiction" has been utilized to explain many phenomena. In fact, the term is so overused that the meaning has been sucked out of it. Anything that anyone likes too much he is in danger to developing an "addiction." There is the "chocoholic" or person who is addicted to chocolate. There is the 'jogaholic" or individual who is addicted to jogging. The "bibliomaniac" is addicted to reading. A person who pursues sex unrelentingly is a "sexaholic." There is a book on "approval addiction," a reference to people who will do anything to gain the approval to others. In the Fall 2006 issue of a University of Michigan publication, an article appears that is titled "Caffeine Confessions." The writer asks, "Is there an addiction problem on campus?" And there is, according to professionals, addiction to gambling, pornography, and video games. The list is endless.

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There is the implication that a person who suffers from addiction is in the grips of a force over which he or she is powerless. Many specialists in addiction maintain that the first step in "recovery" is to acknowledge such powerlessness. A synonym for "powerless" is "helpless." Of course, if a person is helpless, then he can do nothing about the particular problem he faces.

I suggest that we be more sparing in applying the word "addiction". There is a physiological dependence that some people develop as they continue to use certain substances. They experience what is termed a "tolerance effect" -- i.e., they seek more of the substance to get the same charge, voltage, or excitement that they derived by using less of it previously.

Is the "addict" as helpless as the media, some professionals, and addicts themselves profess? There are people who "kick the habit" on their own even to what have been termed "hard drugs" such as heroin and cocaine. If the supply runs low, if obtaining the substance is too risky, if use of the substance interferes with something they want badly enough, they cease their use - i.e., go "cold turkey." By sheer force of will, they abstain. An article in the "Harvard Mental Health Letter" published more than a decade ago (December, 1999) noted that most people who become "addicted" to cocaine "succeed in breaking the habit." The article notes that experts no longer even agree about the addictive nature of crack cocaine.

"Addiction" is far more psychological than it is physiological in most cases. A man who had not used a mind-altering substance during two years of incarceration resumed cocaine use after 18 months of abstinence while living in the community. He commented that he returned to the drug because, "I like it too much." It was not simply the drug he "craved" but, rather, it was the people, the places, the risks, the "thrill of the deal" all of which preceded even putting the drug into his body. Then there was the effect of the drug itself. When he asked me as his counselor, "What do you have that compares with cocaine?" he was inquiring whether what society calls a responsible life could compare with the high voltage excitement of the world of cocaine use. He found that going to work, pinching pennies, paying bills, and living within the restraints of responsible living did not compare with cocaine and all that it involves. He made a series of choices to return to his "addiction" that was not just to a substance but to an entire way of life.

Stanton Samenow, Ph.D.,is a clinical psychologist practicing in Alexandria, Virginia and author of Inside the Criminal Mind.

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