Addiction is such a heavy topic, with so many stereotypes, judgments, blame, and shame attached to it. Truth is, many people are addicted to one thing or another: alcohol, coffee, drugs, cigs, sex, gambling, internet, drama, video games, psychotherapy, shopping - you name it. Many of them live fairly functional lives, and would be insulted if someone categorized them as addicts. Addiction only becomes a problem when you spend more time/money on it than you're comfortable with, neglecting/sacrificing other areas of your life; when the habit in question becomes a bigger part of your life than you'd like it to be - or when it starts hurting other people. It can be an unpleasant topic to think about, if the price you're paying for your habit isn't really worth it for you. However, avoiding the problem rarely resolves it, while looking into it might turn out to be helpful, especially if you're in fact fine with the costs of your habit and it's just the peer pressure that's making you feel like you need to change something.
First of all, it's you and you only, who gets to decide if your habit is a problem or not. Societal norms/expectations/attitudes fluctuate rather widely, over time and across the globe. A little over a century ago society had an issue with masturbation; people were getting locked up in mental asylums, some even committed suicide over their inability to quit "this sinful addiction" which they weren't even comfortable naming - and now we teach our children that it's healthy, and even have public masturbate-a-thons to raise awareness and money. Only 70 years ago smoking was totally OK, even desirable, and my teenage dad kept pushing his mom to start smoking, because having a cool mom would raise his social status; grandma honestly tried, but failed, to his great disappointment. And now we talk of cancer, nobody smokes in movies, and cigs cost more than caviar, by weight. Alcohol is yo-yoing between legal and illegal, now pot's status is changing too. You see that societal attitudes change, so deciding if your habit is a problem or not is entirely up to you, as long as you take responsibility for your choice and pay the bills.
So, is it a problem?
Here are three questions that can be hard to consider if you're an addict. Just read them though; nobody will catch you at your thoughts and force you to do anything about them right now:
How much time do you spend on your habit?
After work, sleep, and transit, we have about 50 hours a week left for personal lives. That's quality time with family/friends, watching Netflix, taking a walk in a park, browsing the net, shopping, waiting in line at your dentist's, and folding your laundry. Time isn't unlimited, so your habit eats away at these activities. I'm personally cool spending 20min a day on savouring my morning coffee while browsing the news, but I'd reconsider if it took more than an hour, including the time spent buying it, preparing it, and thinking about it. Life is short, I don't want to spend it obsessing with some brown beverage, of all things.
How much money do you spend on it?
Money isn't unlimited either, unfortunately. When addictions are involved, the "I can't afford it" argument rarely comes up: people find the money one way or another (including committing crimes, worst case scenario). However, you can look at it backwards: consider how much money you have already spent on your habit, and imagine what would it be like if you could get it back. Would you spend it on the same thing again, or would you rather spend it differently? The last pack of cigs I bought cost me $12.50. It's not much, but I have this 11yo friend next door who has never been on a Ferris wheel because her mom works two jobs, no time for entertainment. If I had these $12.50 back, I'd take the kid on a ride instead; that pack of cigs was pretty uneventful, I don't remember deriving much joy from it.
How much does your happiness depend on it?
This one is two-fold. First, consider the long-term happiness. Looking back at your life so far, how satisfied are you with it? And how big of a part does your habit play in this satisfaction (or lack of it)? Would your level of satisfaction with your life be drastically different or pretty much the same, if the habit wasn't there? And second, consider the short-term, day-to-day happiness. How much of your daily joys and sorrows are centered around your habit? What's the biggest source of your happiness in daily life? The biggest stressor? Are you comfortable with the answers?
There's a lot in common between abuse and addictions. Thoughts and feelings that people have about both are strikingly similar: powerlessness, hopelessness, avoidance, secrecy, shame, to name a few. Perhaps the most prominent trait of both is total chaos and unpredictability, resulting in a life of instant gratification only, where long term gain over short term pain is rarely considered. Saving $100 means losing it, because it won't be there tomorrow (your abusive mom will steal it or you yourself won't have the willpower to not spend it on your habit: heroin or the 60th pair of shoes, doesn't matter). Asking a girl out means setting yourself up for humiliating apologies, lies, and excuses - whether dad will give you a black eye or you'll spontaneously get too drunk to drive - abuse or addiction, outcome is the same, cancelled date. These daily disappointments, failures, lost hopes, and frustrations over apparent impossibility to achieve anything at all, no matter how trivial - add up to the overall feeling that your life is broken beyond repair, nothing you could do about it would make any difference, that you're worthless, weak, hopelessly damaged, that your life is not worth bothering with, that artificial high and escapism are your only option because you don't deserve real happiness, and even that there might be no tomorrow, so who cares about consequences.
Carl Anderson, PhD, developmental psychobiologist at Harvard Medical School, uses MRI in combination with objective behavioral assessments to study brain development. He found that stress in childhood (sexual and physical abuse in particular) affects the blood flow and function of a key brain region related to substance abuse, the cerebellar vermis. This part of the brain affects coordination of emotional behavior and is very sensitive to stress hormones. It also may help regulate dopamine, a neurotransmitter critically involved in addiction, and is strongly affected by alcohol, cocaine, and other drugs. "Damage to this area of the brain may cause an individual to be particularly irritable, and to seek external means, such as drugs or alcohol, to quell this irritability," said Dr. Anderson.
According to The Child Welfare League of America, children are three times more likely to be abused and more than four times more likely to be neglected if their parents have a substance abuse problem. Addiction doesn't turn people into monsters of course, but the feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness, and shame (whether they come from addiction, past abuse, or both) affect their priorities and impulse control. So when they need to choose between a dentist for their kid and a case of liquor for themselves - they choose the latter, because liquor is an urgent craving and an instant pleasure, while the dentist is neither. Ten years later the picture will look quite different: that case of liquor will be long forgotten, their kid will be stuck with a credit card debt for crowns and implants (and weekly therapy to address her bitterness about their parenting), and they'll be so depressed by the impact their addiction had on her life that they'll be drowning the thought in even more liquor, and the snowball will keep on rolling. That's the problem with addiction and abuse: both prevent one from thinking that far ahead, and from taking charge of the situation and stopping the pattern that clearly isn't working.
Anton Makarenko, last century Ukrainian educator who worked with troubled teens (many of whom had histories of abuse, addiction, or both), placed great emphasis on the outlook on the future that his teens had. According to him, a weak person thinks one day ahead, of something easy to accomplish (e.g. going to movies tomorrow) - while a strong person dreams years ahead, of something hard to get (e.g. getting Master's degree). A crude person thinks of himself, the joy he plans is his personal selfish joy (e.g. a new car) - while a beautiful person's joy is shared with many other people (e.g. planting trees in the neighborhood). Makarenko felt that the job of a parent/teacher/counselor is to improve this outlook, to broaden the child's horizons, to move the focus from immediate gratification of selfish urges to harder to achieve goals that include family, social circle, society at large. He also said that abuse damages any outlook, weak or strong, crude or beautiful, because it destroys the very belief in the future. Physical abuse makes the child feel that nothing is possible in this hostile unpredictable world. Sexual abuse makes the child feel that nothing is possible for such an unworthy person as himself. Any abuse robs him of sense of power, and what positive outlook can there be if you can't influence your own future. And that in this case, the goal is to rebuild that outlook, starting from weak and crude forms, and eventually progressing to strong and beautiful ones.
Changing your core beliefs about what the world is like, whether your life is ruined beyond repair or something good can still come out of it, and whether you can (and want to) make it happen or are completely powerless - takes time and effort. However, you've read this far, which could be the hardest step. If you want to work on your addiction and/or abuse aftermath - help is available. Therapy can help with sorting through guilt, anger, hope, and despair, with figuring out which changes you want to make and how to go about it practically, and learning to cope with the stress of it without slipping back into the habit. Support groups can help with shame (because you see for yourself that you aren't alone in this), and with staying on track when you feel like you're about to slip. And the rest of the world helps with finding new sources of happiness, real ones, instead of surrogates. It's a cliche, but you're much more than your addiction, and finding the courage and determination to be who you want to be rather than who you thought you were - is something many people work on, throughout their lives. Those are probably the best people out there.
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