When Is an Addiction Not an Addiction?

That depends on your choice of addiction.

Posted Mar 26, 2020

Join me, if you will, on a mental journey. The trip allows us to view the moment identical triplets turn 21, make life-altering decisions, and then experience the consequences of their choices over the balance of their lives.

The first triplet celebrates his birthday with a group of friends by going to Las Vegas. It is the individual's first visit to a casino and he becomes instantly drawn to the action and excitement of gambling. Suddenly, everything else seems to pale in comparison to the draw of the casino. It is only at the tables where this young man feels totally alive and validated. He commits himself to a lifetime of gambling, ignoring family and friends as he courts lady luck.

The second triplet celebrates his birthday by participating in a 3-mile "fun run" for charity. It is his first experience with that type of physical exercise, and he feels a sense of elation as he completes the activity. Over the next few years, he finds himself devoting increasing time to running—graduating from "fun runs" to full-scale marathons and then 50- and even 100-mile endurance contests. He loves the high he gets from the races. He feels alive and validated. He commits himself to a lifetime of long-distance running, ignoring family and friends as he strides ever further on the trails and roadways across the country.

The third triplet celebrates his birthday by touring a science museum where he becomes fascinated with an exhibit on medical advances in cancer research. He has an epiphany: he can find a cure for cancer. From that day forward he commits his time and energy to prepare for a career in medicine. Once graduated from med school, he joins a research laboratory seeking that elusive cure for the disease he has vowed to vanquish. It is in this environment where he feels truly happy and fulfilled. He commits himself to a life of 18-hour days conducting cancer research, ignoring friends and family in the process.

Which brings us to this question: Were any of these three individuals suffering from an addiction? Well, in a psychological sense: yes! Normally, addiction is a term reserved to describe a behavior that overtakes a person's life, a kind of psychological Kudzu that overwhelms everything, exerting an undue and stifling impact on a person's range of behaviors. The addict lives for his addiction and, in many cases, what starts as a behavior of interest becomes an all-consuming way of life.

In the case of our identical triplets, each of them became fixated on a specific behavior that came to dominate their everyday life. One became addicted to gambling, another to running and a third to his work in the medical laboratory.

But is this the way a typical person in our society would describe the behavior of these men? Would each of them be assessed as an addicted person? I strongly doubt it. This is because I believe the average citizen uses a separate criterion to assess when an addiction is not an addiction. This criterion comes into play when the behavior in question (gambling, running, cancer research) is judged not by its impact on the person experiencing it but rather by its impact on society.

From this vantage point, the first of the triplets would definitely be seen as an addict, as gambling is still viewed by many as immoral and most as an activity producing nothing of value. The second triplet would be judged less harshly, as exercise—even excessively undertaken—does not share the same stigma and lack of worth attributed to gambling. The third triplet, on the other hand, would probably be excused—even extolled—for his excessive focus on finding a cure for cancer, even though his behavior qualifies as addictive by the very nature of its dominance in his life. Some individuals might be willing to label him a "workaholic." ... but the social stigma of being an addict would be absent.

"When is addiction not an addiction?" Sometimes the answer lies not with how the person behaves but, rather, what society thinks of that behavior.