We have many compulsions, and not all of them have negative consequences for us. Breathing is one. Some people have compulsions to count things. I had a friend once who loved to count the number of a certain brand of automobile he would see in one day. Sometimes I joined with him in the counting as well and we would compare notes. For this to be labeled an addiction, it would have to be demonstrated that the counting had a negative impact on his quality of life. Even then, it might be a judgment call as to what is negative and what is not. This behavior might appear odd to some, but only because they cannot appreciate the joy of counting things. So, compulsive behavior alone is not an addiction.
Addiction always involves beliefs and behaviors. Addictive behavior may have biological consequences for some people, but biology does not cause addiction. Even if it could be proven that someone had a biological predisposition to engage in certain kinds of behavior, the behavior is still a choice.
The physical and psychological states produced by drugs and alcohol are no more powerful than other feelings, desires, and compulsions that people have. For example, falling in love, gambling, hobbies, working, and accumulating possessions can be just as intense, irrational, and self-destructive for some people as any drug habit. Love is such a strong emotion that it can have many of the characteristics of a mental disorder. Because of love, people may lose touch with reality, imagine things, become physically ill, depressed, or even violent. In extreme cases, people take their own lives because of their feelings of love. Yet, no one would suggest that people do not really have a choice in the matter, or that biology, brain waves, or genes force people to behave in certain ways when they are in love. Just as some people refuse to act responsibly when they fall in love, others refuse to act responsibly when they consume drugs, alcohol, or gamble.
A compulsion to gamble, watch television, or count cars does not create a physical dependency, but it may create a psychological dependency. Psychological dependence is when we believe that we must do something to think, feel, or function normally. People develop a physical dependence on drugs when the tissues of the body require the presence of the drug to function normally.
Some people continue to increase the amount of the drugs they consume because they have become dissatisfied with the intensity of their drug experience. Tolerance develops when more and more of the drug is required to produce the same effect. It is possible to develop both a physical and a psychological dependence on the chemical substances in drugs, and both physical and psychological dependence can be overcome when people believe it is in their own best interest to do so. People do not go berserk, crazy, or die simply because they deprive themselves of some enjoyable behavior; instead, they long for it like others who desire things they cannot have.
There is a school of thought that divides the definition of addiction to positive and negative components with the goal of steering people toward positive addictions. However, this tends to confuse people about the real nature of addiction. The crucial issue regarding any behavior is the extent to which the negative consequences degrade the quality of one’s life, which means that even positive behaviors can have negative consequences if taken to an extreme. For example, a husband and father who works hard at his job is doing a good thing and being responsible; however, if his devotion to work destroys his health or causes him to neglect his family, then it can have negative consequences. It is not the work that is the problem, but an excessive devotion to work that brings harm to oneself and others.
To illustrate, my self-employed son finds it difficult to take off from work and relax with his family because of his compulsion to work, but the reason he feels anxious when not working is because he is the sole support of his wife and children. Now, this would not make any difference to some men, but my son values his family so much that it causes him to feel uncomfortable when he is not providing for their financial needs. On the other hand, he makes a point to take off occasionally to spend time with his family. So it becomes a matter of judgment for him as to when he says “No” to his compulsion to work and “Yes” to his compulsion to take off from work to be with his family. There can be negative consequences to both working too much and to taking off too much and it is a matter of judgment as to how this is balanced.
In contrast, the life of a drug addict is completely out of balance and this is why the addict’s behavior is so harmful to himself and others. The key to bringing balance to one’s life is values. In my son’s case, he values both work and leisure. He is continually challenged with the choice of deciding how much to take off from work without getting his life out of balance. His solution is to balance both work and leisure by delegating an appropriate time for each. His goal is to reduce the negative consequences of both working and leisure as much as possible while at the same time enjoying the benefits of both.
How is it possible to bring the right values and balance to people’s lives? We cannot force people to adopt our values and bring balance to their lives, which is why I am opposed to forced intervention treatment programs. Your intentions may be good, but change should be voluntary. Your job as a relative, friend, minister, or counselor is to help people discover for themselves what is in their own best interest and to be supportive when change is attempted. Here is where faith and religion can be of help. People who are actively involved in their religion can find the values, support, and direction necessary to overcome their addictions.
In the city where I live, the unemployment rate is one of the lowest in the nation, yet I often see able-bodied young men standing on the street holding up signs that say something like: “Will work for food.” Most of the time they are not really interested in working, they just want you to give them some money. Some are willing to work to earn just enough to buy some food or drugs, but they do not want a steady job because this would require them to give up their free lifestyle. Right now, they value their drug use and freedom more than they value the benefits that come with a regular job. At this point in their lives, they feel that the negative consequences of holding a job and being responsible are greater than the negative consequences of being free and using drugs. Just because the judgment they make may not be one that you would make does not mean that you have the right to impose your values on them.
We should allow people the freedom to make their own choices regarding their lives and not force intervention on those who are not interested, but neither should we feel obligated to assist them in their current lifestyle. I never respond to able bodied men who hold up signs asking for gifts because this would be enabling them in their irresponsibility. They have a right not to work and to use drugs, but I have the right not to support them in their addictions.
J B Myers