by Paul Hazelden


These are some notes for what may become at some point a longer article. But this will have to do for the time being.

We talk a lot these days about addiction. We put a lot of money into treating addiction, and a little into preventing addiction.

But maybe the word 'addiction' itself is unhelpful. The way the word is used fits into a black-and-white world, an all-or-nothing mindset.

  Helpful and Unhelpful Questions

It may be helpful to examine some of the questions people ask - and some they don't ask - in the light of this observation.

Unhelpful Questions

  Am I addicted?

It has been said that "the chains of addiction are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken."

But if we adopt an all-or-nothing approach, then this will be true by definition. The 'chains' will be too weak to be felt because until they are too strong to be broken, they are not addiction.

And, of course, if I am not addicted, then I am fine. There is no problem. This black-and-white thinking produces a false sense of security, because I will inevitably be fine - not addicted - until it is too late and I discover that I am addicted after all.

  When and why did I become addicted?

If addiction is a state, then there will be a date on which that state was entered. Whether or not the addict is conscious of this at the time. But, even if we can fix the precise date, it is not clear how this helps us.

Similarly, this way of thinking invites us to ask why that final line was crossed - what were the precise circumstances, pressures and reasons? But why is the last step in the long journey so important? Why not look in equal detail at all the previous steps?

  Am I recovered from my addiction?

Recovery is not a state you can reach, or a condition you can achieve. It is simply being in the position of not having lapsed since you last stopped. Are you still an addict? It is not a helpful question.

On the other hand, are you still struggling with temptation, and needing various kinds of support and discipline to keep clean? Yes.

We all struggle with temptation. We all need external support and internal discipline. But, for an addict/ex-addict, the details of the struggle and the support will often be significantly different, and the cost of failure is very much higher.

Helpful Questions

  How strong is my need?

A need is one thing, but my perception of it is something else. However strongly I feel a need, there is always something I can do to reduce the feeling and to distract myself. The question, and my focus, is then not on the addiction, but on what I can do to make my life better.

And asking the question should help me spot when an enjoyable activity starts to become more and more a felt need, and I am in danger of sinking into a dependancy. "Am I addicted?" will nto keep me out of addiction, but "How strong is my need?" may.

  How appropriate is my use?

Another useful warning can come from asking the question, "How appropriate is my use?"

Another View

I am not suggesting that the word 'addiction' should be banned. You can't banish a mindset by avoiding a word. But I do think we can redefine it in a more helpful way.

I suggest that we alter our basic understanding of addiction from a state or condition some people find themselves in, to a perspective from which we can analyse and describe many aspects of human life and activity.

Addiction: not a state but a perspective.

It is a perspective whch recognises the addictive possibilities in a great deal of human activity.

So, from the perspective of tax revenue, encouraging operators to build a significant number of super-casinos may be a good idea, since it will generate additional income for the state; but from the perspective of addiction, we need to be very careful that the human costs, and the consequential financial costs, do not make this income we can ill-afford to generate.

Defining addiction

One of the problems of studying addiction is the basic challenge of defining it. There are many definitions, and none of them actually work.

For example, we can say that addiction is something to do with a confusion between wants and needs.

To be a bit more precise, when a want is experienced as a need, then you have an addiction.

But this is not the whole story, since addiction can turn a want into a need. An alcoholic can get to the point where the body actually needs the alcohol.

And it is also the case that we find it hard to distinguish between wants and needs. In our head, we may be able to distinguish between needing food and wanting an ice-cream; but a want always feels like a need, whatever our head may tell us. Similarly, many people will say that they do not want to work, but they need to work in order to earn some money; but the fact is that they choose to work because they want the benefits they gain from working.

In any given context, we may choose to distinguish between wants and needs. But they are both simply means to an end; and if the end is sufficiently important, we call it a need rather than a want.

So we start off with a simple definition of addiction, but when we look at it in more detail, the definition crumbles. This happens, whichever definition of addiction we choose.

But the problem arises precisely because we are attempting a definition: we want to clearly distinguish between that which is an addiction and that which is not.

However, we can change the problem. If addiction is not a state whch can be defined, but is a perspective which can be explored, then the complications cease to be a problem.

The problem with this definition of addiction lies in distinguishing between a want and a need. A want experienced as a need is an addiction, but a need experienced as a need is not. It is the old black-or-white thinking. But we do not live in a world of black and white. If there is no clear-cut distinctiion between want and need, there is no clear distinction between addictive behaviour and other normal response to felt needs. It is part of a continuum, and it is a continuum we can understand because we all experience some part of it.



Copyright © 2009 Paul Hazelden was last updated 7 May 2009
You are welcome to print this page for your personal use or create a link to it, but if you would like to use any part of this page in any other way, please read the standard terms and then contact me.

Go to the top of this page
Home | Personal | Ministry | Writings | Web Site
Display this page with the navigation bar

I welcome your comments and feedback.
You can either send me a message or write in the guest book.
Page counter at 20:55 on 13 August 2022