I have come to believe that addictions are possibly some kind of virus or infection. I have written about addictions before. And every time I have, I have received a number of fairly angry comments from people who have been the victims of addicts in one way or the other. Of course, I have been the victim of addiction also. My parents were both alcoholics. It isn’t easy to be the child of an alcoholic, or the child of any other type of addict. There isn’t much sympathy for addicts. Hell, I have my own anger to resolve.
Beyond being the child of addicts, however, I am an addict myself. That is, I tend to have addictive behaviors. So I’ve seen that addictive world from both sides. I understand the anger of those who are victims of addicts, but I also understand that addicts are victims as well. There seems to be very little sympathy for people addicted to substances or behaviors.
The most common belief is that addicts are simply weak people. They could kick their habit, whatever it is, if they just had a little more will power. However, study after study has shown that addictions are far more complicated than that. The reason people are addicted is that there is some sort of pleasure gained by the behavior or substance to which they are addicted. When people attempt to quit an addiction, they are, in essence, choosing pain over pleasure. This is why so few people ever conquer their addictions. Studies indicate that there are only two ways in which an addict will give up an addiction and that is if there is a stronger fear of the consequences, and the consequences seem immediate. In other words, after a close call, like an overdose, or a heart attack, or after someone we love threatens to leave us. Then we get good and scared. And then, maybe, the addictive behavior can be stopped. But that’s a big maybe.
I have wrestled with a food addiction my entire life, and as a result, have wrestled with a weight problem. I have gained and lost hundreds of pounds over my lifetime. And while my observations are purely anecdotal, they do give me some insight into my own addiction.
For one thing, like most other people with addictions, I have tried to kick mine many times. That is, when I have been fat, I have recognized the fact, and tried to diet. In many cases, I dieted strictly for up to a month with no results whatsoever. I would limit my calorie intake and weigh myself daily and lose not even one pound over the course of a month. Even exercise didn’t seem to help. Then being discouraged at the lack of success, I would fall back into old patterns. It’s hard to keep doing something when there is no payoff.
And then, one day, I would decide to diet, and the pounds would just fall off. I wouldn’t even have to be that strict with my diet. I wouldn’t even have to exercise. It was as if I had just had the addiction lifted from me. I simply didn’t want to overeat.
The same thing happened with my addiction to tobacco. I had started smoking just after high school. I smoked about a pack a day for ten years. I had tried to quit many times, but had failed. Then one day, I just quit smoking. I simply didn’t want to smoke. And to be honest, it was a piece of cake. I didn’t suffer one bit. I just didn’t smoke, and I didn’t want to smoke either.
So what is the secret? Why is it that sometimes attempts to quit an addiction work, and sometimes they don’t? Is it all psychological? I’m not so sure. Paying attention to my most recent battle with fat, I noticed the same phenomenon. I simply stopped eating fattening foods and I started losing weight. After losing about a hundred pounds, I started to want to exercise again. When I was fat, I didn’t want to exercise. It wasn’t that I wanted to and couldn’t because of the weight. I really just had no desire to exercise. Then, one day, I did feel the desire to make my body move-for no apparent reason.
I noticed a similar experience with depression. Back in 1979, after I seriously hurt my back, lost my job, lost my marriage, lost my home, I felt depressed, surprisingly enough. I spend a good two years in a total funk. Then, one day, I wasn’t. The world just seemed more hopeful for no particular reason. And then I started to turn my life around. I went back to school. I rebuilt my life. I wasn’t ready before. Get me straight here. I didn’t overcome depression. The depression was just simply gone one day. It was as if a cloud was lifted off of me.
Now perhaps these deliverances from depression and addiction were miracles. Maybe God stepped in and simply healed me. I won’t say that I didn’t pray for that to happen. But if that was the case, God sure took His/Her time about it. Maybe there was something I needed to learn. But if that’s the case, I don’t know that I learned anything because I have been fat many times and depressed many times. So if I was supposed to learn something, God failed. Maybe God decided, “Hell, this isn’t working. Time to try something else.” I don’t know. I tend to believe that miracles happen every day. We just don’t notice them.
But I have noticed that my depression and addictions have passed very much like an illness. When you have the flu, you feel miserable. You feel awful for a time, and then one moment, you suddenly realize that you feel okay. Yes, you’ve been feeling better and better as your body fought the infection or virus. But there is one moment when you suddenly realize the illness is gone. This, by the way, usually happens whether or not you take any medicine or not. It just often takes longer without the medicine.
So perhaps addictions and depressions (or some of them, anyway) are the result of some kind of hitherto undiscovered virus or infection. Perhaps people catch something-something that causes the addictive behavior or depression. Hell, perhaps depression is nothing more than an addiction to feeling sad. I have also noted that when I am depressed, it is as though I am looking for reasons to feel sad or anxious. Perhaps addictions are nothing more than a physiological malady. I know that some depressions, clinical depressions, are caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Perhaps addictions are also.
I do know that we do not judge people for having the flu. We don’t look down on people who have a cold for being sick. We would certainly never suggest that a person with the flu just get up and act as if everything were okay-well, I guess our employers would-but sane people wouldn’t. But this is precisely what most people seem to believe about addictions. Just be strong. Get up, boy. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. It seems to me logical that people might be more able to overcome addictions and depressions if we treat them like people who are ill, and not like people who have a character flaws.
Having been fat and thin, I can tell you that there is a difference in the way people treat you. It always amazes me that there are people who want nothing to do with me when I’m fat, but lose a bunch of weight, and suddenly I’m a nice guy again. There are many people who have had not one kind word for me when I’ve been fat. Once I’ve lost weight, suddenly they can be nice to me again. And while it’s not a very Christian attitude, I must confess that deep down I feel like saying, “Hey, Fuck you!” to those people. They didn’t like me when I was fat. Well, I’m the same person now I was then. Either love me for who I am, or don’t. But don’t make your love conditional.
I am beginning to believe that most folks just have no control over their addictions or depressions. They don’t control becoming addicted. They don’t control being addicted. And, most importantly, they don’t really have control over beating the addiction. It all just happens. Yeah, there are some people who don’t seem to particularly beat their addictions. But wanting to beat an addiction and being able to beat an addiction are two different things. And for every person who beats an addiction, there are hundreds, even thousands, who don’t. And I’m not sure at this point if beating that addiction has anything at all to do with will power. I am starting to believe that the addiction simply passes for some folks for some reason. At least that’s the way it seems to work for me.
So I’m not saying that addictions are okay. I’m just saying that we have to stop seeing those who are addicted as simply being weak willed people. I am more convinced each day that what we need is more compassion and understanding. And if addiction and depression are just some kind of physiological disease, all the rehab and twelve step programs in the world won’t make one bit of difference. And certainly people who make use of rehab and twelve step programs are probably better off than people who don’t, just as people who use Nyquil are probably better off than people who don’t-at least at functioning in the world. But the Nyquil won’t cure the cold or flu. That has to get better on its own. And I suspect addictions work the same way.