The first book I published, Scotched, had a theme of addiction running through it, in this case addiction to gambling and alcohol. There were also hints of ‘addiction’ to other things at the heart of life – power, money, status, keeping up appearances and keeping up the many masks we all wear.
My second book, The Big Wheel, is a collection of short stories which take a wider view of addiction. The things most people think of are portrayed – substance and severe behavioural addictions such as gambling – but the central motif is the image of a big wheel to which we are attached, forever cycling through limited repeating actions and habitual thinking.
It’s this less obvious conception of addiction I’d like to explore in this article. I’d like to blur the boundaries between substance/behavioural clinical addictions and what I see as everyday and ‘normal’ addictions – or extremely strong and difficult to break attachments.
There have been millions of words spilt around the subject so what follows is but a light grazing of the area. I’m not making dogmatic claims. There are plenty of these already. We’re all used to being told about social media addiction, television addiction, shopping addiction, pornography addiction, sex addiction, internet addiction, fitness addiction and so on. Learned academics have posed the question, Are We All Addicts Now? One book is titled The Globalisation of Addiction. Another, The Twittering Machine, presents what it calls a ‘horror story’ about how we are all being pulled into digital addiction by invisible powers beyond our understanding..(The last is an excellent book by the way which will truly shock you).
Please allow for some meandering and drifting here. While we are increasingly expectant of ‘bullet points’, short and simple explanations of complex issues, and an impatience with the slow, my hope is that you will catch at least some of my drift. It has been pointed out many times, by the way, that our attention spans are becoming increasingly brief, that we enjoy jumping from one novel thing to the next rather than attending in depth to one thing: this itself has been seen as an attribute of addiction – and one that the giant corporations that manage social media and its attendant marketing ploys fully exploit. Addiction, too, is a slippery thing and success in writing clearly and precisely about it inevitably hides its multi-faceted, almost ghostly nature.
One day John decided to become a hermit. He went to live in the hills, living on wild food and fresh water, sheltering in a den he made from tree branches and grass. His friends had tried to stop him leaving the city but when he’d gone they called him mad. They said he was a sad fool. Some said he was a loser, a weak man who couldn’t face reality.
John spent his time just very happy to be living. He only felt sad when he remembered his friends in the city who had lost touch with reality and were driven mad by frantic speed, machines and the crazy chasing after money. He pitied their addiction to this way of life.
Like John the hermit DIOGENES turned his back on the city values of ancient Greece. Unlike John he continued to live in the city, spending much of his time mocking and deriding the great figures of the time – including Plato and Alexander the Great – along with their ways of life. Reputed to have lived in a barrel, he owned only a blanket, and a staff and rucksack for times outside the city. He is the most famous Cynical philosopher. Unlike today’s very negative meaning of the word ‘cynic’, a Cynic despised all the trappings of civilization, instead living a simple life of Virtue which was taken as the highest good. Not surprisingly, Diogenes didn’t go down to well with many people! From the top to the bottom of society, most people couldn’t imagine life without its trappings.
What have John and Diogenes to do with addiction? Perhaps today as in ancient Greece we are slaves to our outer ‘trappings’? We’re all familiar with the phrase ‘wage slave’, or of the image of feeling caught on a hamster wheel. Our ‘trappings’, of course, vary enormously. As well as material goods, reputation, social status, power, most of us can see at least in part what it is like to be ‘trapped in a loveless marriage’, or to be trapped by a sense of futility as life becomes the same boring things repeating. Perhaps, too, we are trapped by rigid points of view, attitudes and values. Maybe there’s a feeling of being trapped by the overwhelming pressures to conform and be like everybody else. Are such ‘traps’ addictions? They’re certainly life-denying, can make our lives miserable, grey and narrow.
At a much more basic level, at the very meat of being human, evolutionary psychologists have suggested that our brains are ‘hardwired’ for addiction. For survival, all organisms need to attend to what is dangerous, what is needed (such as food), and – of course – sex which is essential to the species surviving. Attention is linked to intention. Following our attention to something we make an intention to act – to eat, to fight, to run away, to hide, to play dead, to have sex: these things are common to all animals. To attend means literally to lean towards. What we lean towards we call a tendency. In our everyday life our tendencies become habits, often the same as those around us in our community or general ways of behaving. We conform (and this conformity is different in different cultures). But every culture has a very wide range of sub-cultures in which we find our ‘tribes’, those with similar beliefs, values, interests and ways of acting. Indeed, so powerful are our attachments to these ‘tribes’, we can see them as addictions whose function is to give us security (another basic animal need), a sense of belonging, and a meaning to life. Tribes, of course, fight each other: witness the fury that erupts sometimes on social media. Tribal members may be suspicious of outsiders, alternative viewpoints, any challenge to their ‘world’. Tribes also have their leaders and followers, another aspect of all social animals, this hierarchy from alpha leaders down to the weakest and then the outcast and despised. Within a tribe we satisfy the essential animal need to be groomed, stroked, loved, recognized: for many, gathering ‘likes’ is one way people have this need satisfied.
But there are those who, to varying extents, don’t wish to conform. This is something that probably only humans can do among all the social animals. Our hermit discussed above would be an example. Teenage rebellion is more biological in that it brings into birth the new young generation in which individuals prepare for parenthood. Every generation has its rebels, especially found in artistic fields, in music, in lifestyles – usually along with contempt for the old. It should be noted, however, firstly that rebels usually adhere to a relatively small community of like-minded rebels, or a larger community such as ‘revolutionaries’; secondly, no matter how non-conformist individuals and their communities are, their fierce adherence to communities of rebellious beliefs, values, behaviours, ideals etc. can also be seen as addictions.
The special thing about animal biological bases of addiction in humans is that we ‘sublimate’ our animal brain (the structure of the older parts of our brain is identical to a lizard’s) through the ‘new’ brain represented by a thick outer cortex. Thus, we tend to use sarcasm to wound an ‘enemy’ rather than claw them to death. (We’ll see later, by the way, how sarcasm is a form of aggression motivated by anger, and how anger can be an addiction).
As humans we may forget that we are first and foremost animals. (You may disagree with this. Religions for instance claim that we have immortal soul-stuff which is the most important stuff in the universe, and that these souls are God’s children. If you think along these lines, you will probably agree that you are in some way addicted – in a good way – to centring your life around your faith and beliefs). The reason we forget that we are animals is that mostly we live in a symbolic universe. The symbol of a nation’s flag on a high pole is like the symbol of a totem pole, for instance. The most potent symbols though are like the water that fish aren’t aware of because it’s always there. Words. These words I write and you read, the millions of tweets sent every minute, our voices, everything. We are symbolic creatures.
As well as words, take the symbolism connected with how we act out primitive behaviours. The clothes we wear, the car we drive, the perfumes that adorn us, the jewellery we wear, the company we keep, the home and neighbourhood we live in, the opinions we express: all these and many other things speak of our social status, or enhance our sex appeal, our advertising ourselves in the frantic market of social survival at least, dominance at most.
Since records began our symbolic behaviours have been satirized and mocked. This is what Diogenes was up to. Jane Austen’s novels are comedies of manners, firing darts at our pretensions and absurdities. Yet all of us continue (even hermits) in selling a symbolic image of ourselves. At root, our ancient need to fawn to those ‘higher’ than us while looking down on those ‘beneath’ us is so firmly engrained we may call it an addiction (as well as a wonderful source of comedy!). We may instead be ‘addicted’ to attacking ‘them’ above us, ‘the system’, the ‘establishment’, such attacks being unfelt and ignored by their targets while we, in a way, may enjoy the heat of our righteous anger.
Let’s urgently acknowledge that whatever this discussion about addiction may be about, it is not intended to be negative or pessimistic. We are creatures endowed with powers of great creativity, wonder and love. If we are all addicts that is because we are all humans. It says no more than that we have frailties and powers. We are the source of much misery in the world but let’s celebrate our tendencies to work for each other, sacrifice, forgive, help the vulnerable, addict ourselves to compassion. As there aren’t many saints about, it is often very hard or impossible to be so celebratory about some humans and events around us. Or, it’s sometimes impossible for me. We’re not the perfect angels our grown-up fairy tales suggest and among our many flaws and vices is our tendency to be addicted to things which don’t promote our own wellbeing, other people’s wellbeing, the wellbeing of life on the planet or the wellbeing of the planet itself. On a brighter note, there are so many millions of examples of human addiction to the flourishing of these four essential types of wellbeing.
THE PLEASURE PRINCIPLE
Between us as biological animal and us as thinking animal is what Sigmund Freud called The Pleasure Principle. This simply put is that we have a strong tendency to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Seeking pleasure and avoiding pain makes for a good explanation of substance abuse. Someone whose life is miserable and painful will find not only immediate release from suffering but the bonus too of great pleasure if they take heroin. If they become addicted they then take more to avoid the pain of withdrawal. Alcohol is a harder drug than heroin despite its prevalence. A man in an unhappy marriage comes home after a frustrating day at work and has a large whisky to relax. Then another perhaps. And in the long run he may be spiralling down towards hiding bottles, drinking before breakfast to stop the shakes, his normal life and work deteriorating which makes him drink more. And he’s a doctor!
You may think gambling addiction is very different. It has some differences but what’s essential to it is the same as any addiction (without, of course, the immediate physical harms that go with ingesting toxic substances). The addicted gambler cannot stop. She wants to stop, she knows every reason in the world why she should stop, but she continues. What’s going on? After all, most people who bet or play slot machines don’t run into problems. There is, however, very strong evidence that digital gambling machines or online ‘games’ by their very design elicit large numbers of people into addiction, people who are particularly vulnerable for whatever reasons. The research, like much psychosocial research, has limitations. For one, there isn’t that much of it around. Secondly, the research usually looks at populations rather than individuals. One conclusion is that addiction to gambling correlates with adverse childhood experiences. But not always. Some people were quite heavy gamblers but only ran into severe difficulties when they used a new form such as a high-speed roulette slot machine; others have never gambled much or at all before quickly hooked: here, it has been pretty well demonstrated that new forms of electronic gambling machines are ‘designed for addiction’. For each individual, other factors may be present. For instance, people with bipolar disorder are much more likely to run into difficulties with both gambling and substance dependence. Brain scans of gamblers using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) show certain similar brain states between gambling and substances addiction – but this has to be interpreted carefully – for one, fMRI is a relatively crude imaging tool. There are some psychological theories of gambling addiction here and here– where the same principles apply to our addictions to digital devices, particularly social media.
THE PAIN PRINCIPLE
While it is certainly the case that we seek pleasure, that may not be the main driver of our lives. To live on sweets would be surely foolish. In our age we are constantly assailed by pressures to seek pleasure and ‘happiness’. Advertisements and consumer culture generally are constantly nudging us to buy our pleasure whether it be a new television channel, a car or cosmetics that will bring us the smiling allure of those images of perfect fashion models. We sometimes think we must have that one extra item, that next buy to complete our happiness. It’s not only luxury goods we yearn for. Never in history has there been such a preoccupation with miracle cures for our unhappy minds and bodies: pills, supplements, super-foods, diets, devices, self-help books, online courses, mindfulness advice, counselling, spiritual enlightenment. In fact, of course, the appeal of these things would be lost if we weren’t in some way deeply unhappy with the way we are. Yet, like addicts always looking for the next hit, we go on buying. And when we have bought, and things are put in the back of the cupboard, our hangover induces us to buy again.
We keep doing this despite all the evidence – not only from science but from our own experience – which shows that one of the surest ways to make yourself miserable or deepen existing misery is to hook onto the wheel of constantly chasing happiness.
The most contented people don’t search out happiness. They know that the word is related to ‘perhaps’ or ‘happenstance’, something that comes and goes, arises and is to be enjoyed when it does so but not clung to. Happiness for these people is part of life’s ‘weather’, blue skies along with the dark clouds of loss and suffering.
The ‘pain principle’ states that insofar as we have control of events it is far more realistic to try and soften or eliminate pain than to chase after the illusion of happiness. Of course, one thing that followers of this principal have to endure is the complaints of so many others that they are miserable or – that deadliest of put-downs – boring! Such complaints come notoriously from teenagers aimed against their parents and their parents’ generation. But it’s sad to see thirty- or forty-year-old teenagers.
Whichever ways we decide to go in life, and often we’re not aware we can make choices but are rather pulled unconsciously by our environments, we will act and think on the basis of deep-seated values; the more we act and think, the more deep seated these habits become. These deep-seated habits are addictions.
A HOLE IN THE SOUL
It’s folk wisdom that addiction to things is an attempt ‘to fill a hole in the soul’. Let’s just think of ‘a happy soul’ as one that is content, feels full of life, at ease with itself and the world, and equipped to face with strength whatever adversities may arise. It’s easy to understand why those many among us who are battered by misery for many reasons may turn to drugs (and the deadliest is alcohol) to both escape the suffering of life and to experience at least momentarily an experience that in some ways makes them happy souls. (This is to grossly simplify one level of explanation). It’s easier to understand why those afflicted by grinding poverty, boredom, poor relationships, no hope for a better life may be so characterized. But what of those who seem to ‘have it all’? Those with every material benefit, ‘happy family’, security, high status, and so on: why do many of them find themselves with a hole in their souls? (And indeed, it is true that there are people like the hermit who have very little but are joyous souls).
A THOUGHT EXPERIMENT
Here’s the deal. You can live for ever and ever – but completely alone.
You can spend the rest of your life on a beautiful desert isle with abundant food and water – but alone.
Which, if either, of these scenarios would you choose. If neither, why not?
Possibly, for some like the hermit such a situation would be bliss. But for most of us? What can’t we live without? Obviously, basics to live like food, but beyond that what makes life valuable or not? Most will say other people, especially loved ones. Though the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre has a phrase in his play No Exit, ‘Hell is other people’. Most of us can witness the fact that our relationships with those close to us can be mixed blessings! Unhappy families, unhealthy relationships are perhaps the prime source of much of our suffering. Yet even in deep misery, it seems we cannot do without the vital meaning our relationships give to our lives.
For better or worse, not everybody has the comfort – -or pains – of family and friends. There are so many even in our rich nations who are very lonely. Others are forcibly cut off. Prisoners, especially in solitary confinement like Terry Waite who endured four years of only his own company – accompanied sometimes with torture – after his kidnap in Beirut. His book Taken on Trust details how he kept going.
Similarly, Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist, endured and survived four years of Nazi concentration camps. His best-selling book, Man’s Search for Meaning, is an account of his time and his observation that those who withered quickly had no inner value to hold onto whatever the outward conditions; conversely, those who could maintain an inner basic meaning suffered less and were more resilient to the horrible camps and their cruelty. Frankl established a school of psychotherapy called Logotherapy based upon finding deep personal meaning for life.
As we’ve seen, for many, probably most, people meaning resides in relationships with other people. Even beyond our immediate circle we’re fascinated by stories, drama, gossip pages. Some people find meaning in religion or altruism or a simple ‘union’ with nature made possible by demoting the importance of the personal. Such simplicity was written about by Henry Thoreau who took himself to Walden Pond and built himself a cabin there. He was not a total recluse, visiting the town for supplies, welcoming visitors but most of his time he was alone. For him, “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” And “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify.” This was in the nineteenth century, long before our present age of lightspeed consumerism and the torrents of information that seem to be delivered every second of our waking lives.
It may well be that our addictions, distractions, anaesthetics are all that keep many of us from breakdown. Yet the hermit and Thoreau suggest another way of being. Waite and Frankl suggest that even apparently stripped of everything one thing can survive and that is the deepest personal meaning.
People who turn to alcohol or other drugs for relief may numb the sense of meaninglessness and the very real pains for a while. And there are many ‘high fliers’, many ‘successful’ people who ‘have it all’ who learn that ‘it all’ is unsatisfying, leaves them empty, devoid of any meaning to life. The epidemic rates of depression and anxiety may also be due in large part to the loss of meaning. Communities are fractured, religions moribund, families broken, employment precarious, and the world seems to accelerate faster every day in all directions into never-ending territories where we can never visit for they have moved on no sooner do we begin our desperate journeys to find and understand them, to make sense.
Perhaps our greatest loss in the 21st century is the future. We cannot imagine it, hold on to it, aim for it, work for it, envisage our children thriving in it. Without a future there can be no hope, and hopelessness is just another word for despair.
And yet. The seasons turn, babies are born, the blossoming of kindness, sacrifice and compassion continues. As people, not words on paper or abstractions, there is as much love among the ruins as ever. If we do feel somewhat gloomy – some of the time at least – then that is not cause for despair but for us to recognise each other’s fragility and sufferings and comfort each other. Let’s begin by trying to share the humanity of the struggling addict of the bottle or needle or roulette wheel with our own deeply human addictive states.
Congratulations on making it this far! I think we all deserve a rest.
Enough for now! I’ll meander onwards in Part 2 which I’ll link to here when it’s done. Then I’ll publish the whole piece as a pdf.