She Bets Her Life

A writer and former compulsive gambler reflects on women and addiction.

Mending 6: What if your kid's an addict; you're an addict; we're all addicts - and it began at conception?

"When Society Becomes an Addict", in Anne Wilson Schaeff's words

Call me extreme.  It wouldn't be the first time.  If extremism serves sharing information that may help even a few understand addiction and why it is not an issue of morality, self-control or divine intervention, I'm happy to be an extremist.

I read the newspaper at night, in a futile effort to unwind before attempting to go to sleep.  The headline jumped out at me:  No cell phone, no Facebook?  It's a tough test for students:    http://www.startribune.com/entertainment/tv/87598062.html  Jenna Ross writes that most students who agree to go off wired communication for days or weeks find the experience unsettling, if not actively uncomfortable.  She quotes Emma Casey, "'I had 225 missed e-mails.  It made me very anxious.'"  Still, Sherry Turkle, director of the Initiative on Technology and Self at MIT, says that "'Breaking the circuit, for me, is not about breaking an addiction.'".  Really?

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Turkle may be partly right.  Or she may be all wrong.  To begin at the beginning, I googled a few dozen definitions of addiction.  They all boiled down to variations of this (from Medicine.net)  "A chronic relapsing condition characterized by compulsive drug-seeking and abuse and by long-lasting chemical changes in the brain. Addiction is the same irrespective of whether the drug is alcohol, amphetaminescocaineheroinmarijuana, or nicotine. Every addictive substance induces pleasant states or relieves distress. Continued use of the addictive substance induces adaptive changes in the brain that lead to tolerance, physical dependence, uncontrollable craving and, all too often,relapse. Dependence is at such a point that stopping is very difficult and causes severe physical and mental reactions from withdrawal. The risk of addiction is in part inherited."

The DSM: IV provides clear behavioral markers for an individual trapped in addiction: 

  • "LARGE AMOUNTS OVER A LONG PERIOD
  • UNSUCCESSFUL EFFORTS TO CUT DOWN
  • TIME SPENT IN OBTAINING THE SUBSTANCE REPLACES SOCIAL, OCCUPATIONAL OR RECREATIONAL ACTIVITIES  (my emphasis)
  • CONTINUED USE DESPITE ADVERSE CONSEQUENCES

Contemporary research show that dopamine comes into play not just with substance addictions, but with video gambling; on-line gaming; computer games; and compulsive internet use.  According to Dr. Hilarie Cash, who has treated over 300  cases {of internet fantasy gaming addiction} since 1995, "the neurochemistry of all addiction really comes down to dopamine, and activity on the Internet really stimulates the dumping of dopamine on the brain," which results in "the euphoria that holds an addiction in place."  (http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/ReadMe/article.php%3Fid=125.html

I encountered Dr. David Comings’s work with genetics and gambling addiction as I researched She Bets Her Life: a true story of gambling addiction.  Comings wrote about a genetic inability in some people to fully utilize dopamine, the neurotransmitter implicated in a vast array of human phenomena.  The genetic basis for that inherited inability was found in a significant percentage of gambling addicts.  Comings also demonstrated the same genetic trait in addicted smokers.  Some, if not most of us, may be hard-wired for addiction.  Bring on the booze, the drugs, the inter-net, the slot machine, sugar, tobacco; the illusion of control over others and we're hooked.

I once owned an old crazy quilt.  It was stitched from asymmetrical pieces of satin, velvet and brocade salvaged from the dress-up clothes of a pioneer family.  The makers had embroidered many of the patches with wildflowers. The crazy quilt was more beautiful to me than any geometric quilt I have ever seen.  I offer today's post as a crazy quilt.  If studying it helps even a few readers to understand the degree that we are at the mercy of our chemistry - though much less so once we begin to learn, accept and begin to make choices - I'm grateful.  And if this collection of patches allows the reader to make their own connections - about their child, themselves and the degree that we are exposed every day in our ordinary lives to phenomena more powerful than heroin or tweak, I am grateful for my own clumsy walk on the path of addiction and recovery.  

Mary Sojourner, M.A., is the author of She Bets Her Life: A True Story of Gambling Addiction (Seal Press/ April 2010) and Going Through Ghosts (U.Nevada Press, 2010).

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