Addiction and its paradoxes. Another cheerful mini-essay.

Addiction is cruel.

It deprives the sufferer of personal agency – the ability to dictate the outcomes in life – and ultimately destroys an initial aim that caused the addiction in the first place: social acceptance.

Drugs and alcohol are not the only dependences on our psychological landscape. Body image, financial success, and community recognition drive myriad addicting behaviours. Just as surely as a taste for whisky can be ruinous, so too can other lifestyle decisions prove destructive.

There are two nasty, related paradoxes involved here.

The first is that decisions become a personal tyranny. The initial choice to drink to be freed from the commonplace – to be unique – soon becomes an irresistible force driving the addict toward utter conventionality. The desire for autonomy becomes a psychological prison.

The deeply buried desire to forfeit personal agency, the second paradox, is more pernicious.

It is my view that many addicts, while thinking they want to steer their own course, actually act out of fear – fear of making independent decisions and living with the consequences, good or bad. Why is this?

Advertising and its handmaiden, peer pressure, are perhaps two reasons. Deep insecurity is another.

Contrary to the libertarian view that all choices are made independent of outside sways, I believe firmly that the course many addicts take is dictated by the dread of failing to conform to media images of self.

All addictions involve high-risk activities.

Gambling. Substance abuse. Taking financial gambles. Sex. Living the double life. These are all addicting behaviours with deep roots.

Gambling has probably destroyed more lives and families than almost any other addiction. What begins as a mere lark, a chance to make a little dough without having to do anything other than to risk a little dough, becomes for many a complex compulsion.

This addiction becomes driven by a hunger for social acceptance brought about by riches, and then deteriorates into unreality – that the “House always wins” rule of gambling is somehow uniquely suspended. This trip into self-delusion has a predictable and unfortunate end. The journey back inevitably involves terrible personal cost and loss.

Addiction to social risk is a variation on this theme, and leading the “double life” is the leading exemplar. In this case, I believe both paradoxes of addiction I suggested above apply: Choice becomes tyranny; and fear of self-determination becomes a prime engine of ultimate despair.

Think about athlete in his prime, a golfer perhaps, (Tiger Woods?), with everything going for him. Great income, family, social standing. Yet it’s not enough.

So this addict begins to lead a double life through secrecy, infidelity, and with association with dangerous and marginal people.

Until the “House” finally wins and calls in its marks, the addict believes he retains his power to chose and ignores a more deeply buried belief that he is afraid of making those choices.

But the House always wins, and in the end the addict faces the fact that his choices have wrong-footed him, and that he was deeply insecure about making those decisions in the first place.

This is not “adrenaline addiction,” as some have suggested. It is far more complex.

Theories of addiction abound, and the above is just my own.



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