Addiction As Particularized Process, Not Isolated Condition

In The Addiction Experience, Stanton Peele writes:

Addiction is not caused by a drug or its chemical properties. Addiction has to do with the effect a drug produces for a given person in given circumstances—a welcomed effect which relieves anxiety and which (paradoxically) decreases capability so that those things in life which cause anxiety grow more severe. We are addicted to the experience the drug creates for us.

Addiction is clearly a process rather than a condition….it cannot be viewed as an all-or-nothing state of being, one that is unambiguously present or absent….Addiction is an extension of ordinary behavior—a pathological habit, dependence, or compulsion. Just how pathological or addictive that behavior is depends on its impact on a person’s life.

We cannot say that a given drug is addictive, because addiction is not a peculiar characteristic of drugs. It is…a characteristic of the involvement that a person forms with a drug….addiction is not limited to drugs….any activity that can absorb a person in such a way as to detract from the ability to carry through other involvements is….addictive. [As cited in ‘Seven Things We Must Understand About Addiction to Undo the Mistakes of the Past 40 Years‘]

Addiction is the name given to a complex set of behaviors understood as pathological in context. The relevant context is the overall economy of the patient/user/agent’s life: what are their goals and ends in life? What is their scale of values? Does the behavior in question threaten these? These questions answered, the characterization can begin.

Put this way, addiction is not, for instance, an isolated, abstract, relationship between a ‘user’ and a drug; put the drug and the user together, and it pops into view. Rather, it is highly particularized. This user, when using this drug, in this circumstances and environment, given his or her expressed desires, ends, and values, is engaging in addictive behavior because those same desires, ends, and values have been compromised by these behaviors. The user does not have ‘an addictive personality’; the drug is not ‘addictive’. Change the circumstances and environment, you might obtain a different set of behaviors; freely–this is crucial–change your desires, ends, and values in such a way that these new ones are not compromised, and that same set of behaviors is not ‘addictive.’

As Peele notes, many activities and substances can be addictive–as the notions of ‘workaholic’ and ‘sex addict’ and the increasingly frantic calls to ‘unplug, disconnect, and get off the grid’ seem to confirm. Certainly the rise of social-media-blocking programs–the modern version of the addict locking himself into a room to prevent another visit to the dealer down the street–is ample confirmation that we find our world-denying relationships to social media pathological in at least one dimension. Perhaps our modern culture’s greatest sleight of hand in this regard has been to relegate the partaking of recreational drugs to the bin of addictive behavior while valorizing other forms of addiction–like working eighty-hour weeks.

In the meantime, we can continue to congratulate ourselves for having made ‘addictive’ drugs illegal and for locking up their users, all the while blithely ignoring circumstance and context. Pathology should be unsurprising.

One comment on “Addiction As Particularized Process, Not Isolated Condition

  1. patricksodonnell says:

    Samir, Thanks for this provocative piece, as it overlaps with thoughts and concerns I’ve had on the subject and have rather clumsily articulated by way of borrowing from others (Herbert Fingarette, for one). Please see this post, as it represents my initial and feeble explorations:

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