Am I addicted ? When is a problem an addiction?
Before I start my little article here, I want to say that I respect that more than one understanding of addiction and recovery exists; I hold a pluralistic perspective when it comes to the subject. I do, with my best intentions, do what I can to respect these diverse understandings. I do not claim to hold an ultimate truth; I write here from my own personal and professional experience: experience that has included working with, treating and sharing with incredible individuals who have turned their lives around, sometimes before addiction really got a hold sometimes not. My experience also, sadly, includes working with, treating and sharing with people who never moved to a solid recovery. Some are sadly no longer with us as a result of addiction.
What gave me the motivation to write this article is a question that I often get asked. Not maybe using these exact words, it can be something like ‘I think I may be addicted to (Drugs /Drink/Internet/Porn/Shopping/Food/Gambling … chose one … or several), but I’m not sure. How would I know?’ Unfortunately there is often no short answer and depending upon where you look for your answer you may arrive at different conclusions. If you Google ‘what is addiction?‘ you will end up with many diverse definitions and understandings, and depending upon how authentic and connected your level of awareness of your problem or addiction is (which if it is addiction, it’s both!) or level of denial, you might find one that fits with your perceived experience. The danger is, of course, if you are truly addicted and are experiencing the often accompanied deep level of denial you will settle for a website that denies addiction even exists. As you can imagine this might speak to the part of you that wants to keep going with the addiction. A claim that disputes widely held understandings of addiction may well concur with your own denial and keep you going along the long road (sometimes short) of loss, because that’s what addiction, in my experience, leads to: loss of connection, hope, money, dignity, self, love and for some, life.
So how do you know if your problem is “just a problem” or an addiction? I guess a simple and extremely reductionist answer is: try stopping (and here’s the crucial bit) and STAY STOPPED. Most addicts can stop for a length of time, but the truth of addiction is they can’t stay stopped. Here we are presented with another issue, that of choice. Many a real addict will say ‘yes I stopped and I started again, because I chose to’ … REALLY! Did YOU choose or did your addicted self choose? I refer to my previous mention of denial. Here we see it in the form of “I can control this; it doesn’t control me I choose to live this life”, another path to the road of loss. Denial has been mentioned in this piece on more than one occasion. It is frequently a symptom of addiction; it’s a denial that the problem has crossed a line and if in some sort of recovery, relapse occurs, it is often denial related: a denial of how bad it was before: a denial of loss of personal control; a denial of the loss of personal choice; a denial of what needs to be done to stay in recovery; and often a denial of the person’s true values and personality.
So, in short , what’s the answer? “Am I addicted or do I just have a problem?” My unsophisticated, yet caring, answer is … you probably won’t know. You will need help to investigate and find out, in the form of another human being because, left alone with an online test or website, if you are addicted your denial might well run riot. So if you really want to know, seek help from people with good recovery (Alcoholics Anonymous or other 12 Step fellowship) or a professional, your GP might be a good place to start. Addiction really takes hold in isolation, so that act of reaching out to another is, in itself, is a step towards recovery.
At the end of the day, if you’re asking yourself the question, maybe you and the people that love you deserve an informed answer. I truly hope you find your answer and act on it. Recovery happens, and when it dose it is truly a re-connection with self and others.
Andrew is a therapist and counsellor working both private practice and for one of the UK’s leading providers of action recovery services.