Concept of the Month -- December 2006

The Overuse and Misuse of the Word "Addiction"

"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 they are considered "addicted" to. 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 now a new book on "approval addiction," a reference to people who will do anything to gain the approval to others. Now, 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?"

There is also the implication that a person who suffers from addiction is in the grips of something over which he or she is powerless.

I suggest that we be more sparing in applying the word "addiction". There is a physiological dependence that some people develop on certain substances. The evidence is that they develop what is termed a "tolerance effect" -- i.e., they seek more of the substance to get the same charge/voltage/excitement that they got using less of it previously. Heroin addiction is a classic example.

Is the "addict" as helpless as the media suggests? There are people who "kick the habit" on their own even to substances 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 stop, go "cold turkey" or whatever other terminology one may use. Some people do need help to overcome dependence on certain substances.

The dependence ("addiction") is far more psychological than it is physiological in most cases. A man who had not used a mind-altering substance in two years (he was locked up) returned to cocaine. As he put it, "I like it too much." It was not simply the drug -- the attraction was the people, the places, the risks, the "thrill of the deal" all of which preceded even putting the drug into his body that he "craved." 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 asking me whether what society calls a responsible life could compare with the high voltage excitement of the world of cocaine use. He decided that going to work, pinching pennies, paying bills, and living within the restraints of responsible living could not compare with cocaine and all that it involves. He made a series of choices to return to his "addiction."

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