26 Jan 2017

The Myth of Addiction

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Image of addiction from anti-marijuana propaganda film “Reefer Madness” (1939).

Peter Hitchens has published, in First Things, an excellent essay attacking the notion of addiction, the preternatural ability of certain morally disreputable substances to offer temptations so powerful as to overwhelm completely the free will of any normal human being. The late Thomas Szasz was attacking the same generally accepted delusion decades ago.

The chief difficulty with the word “addiction” is the idea that it describes a power greater than the will. If it exists in the way we use it and in the way our legal and medical systems assume it exists, then free will has been abolished. I know there are people who think and argue this is so. But this is not one of those things that can be demonstrated by falsifiable experiment. In the end, the idea that humans do not really have free will is a contentious opinion, not an objective fact.

So to use the word “addiction” is to embrace one side in one of those ancient unresolved debates that cannot be settled this side of the grave. To decline to use it, by contrast, is to accept that all kinds of influences, inheritances, and misfortunes may well operate on us, and propel us towards mistaken, foolish, wrong, and dangerous actions or habits. It is to leave open the question whether we can resist these forces. I am convinced that declining the word “addiction” is both the only honest thing to do, and the only kind and wise thing to do, when we are faced with fellow creatures struggling with harmful habits and desires. It is all very well to relieve someone of the responsibility for such actions, by telling him his body is to blame. But what is that solace worth if he takes it as permission to carry on as before? Once or twice I have managed to explain to a few of my critics that this is what I am saying. But generally they are too furious, or astonished by my sheer nerve, to listen.

So let us approach it another way. The English language belongs to no state or government. It is not ruled by academies or even defined by dictionaries, however good. It operates on a sort of linguistic version of common law, by usage and precedent. And the expression “addiction” is very widely and variously used. There are people who claim, seriously, to be “addicted” to sex or to gambling.

It is now impolite to refer to habitual drunkards. They are “alcoholics,” supposedly suffering from a complaint that is not their fault. The curious variable ambiguity of Alcoholics Anonymous on this point has added to the confusion. AA, to begin with, asked its adherents to admit they had no control over themselves, as a preliminary to giving that power to God. Somehow I suspect that God plays less of a part in modern AA doctrine, but the idea of powerlessness remains. Members of the organization quietly moved from calling alcoholism an “illness” or a “malady” to describing it as a “disease,” round about the time that the medical profession began to do the same thing.

We are ceaselessly told that cigarettes are “addictive.” Most powerfully, most of us believe that the abusers of the illegal drug heroin are “addicted” to it. Once again, the public, the government, and the legal and medical systems are more or less ordered to believe that users of these things are involuntary sufferers. A British celebrity and alleged comedian, Russell Brand, wrote recently, “The mentality and behaviour of drug addicts and alcoholics is wholly irrational until you understand that they are completely powerless [my emphasis] over their addiction and, unless they have structured help, they have no hope.”

Brand is a former heroin abuser who has by now rather famously given up the drug. But how can that be, if what he says about addiction is true? The phrase “wholly irrational” simply cannot withstand the facts of Brand’s own life. It will have to be replaced by something much less emphatic—let us say, “partly irrational.” The same thing happens to the phrase “completely powerless.” Neither the adverb nor the adjective can survive. Nor can the word “addiction” itself, which is visibly evaporating. We have to say “they struggle over their compulsion.”

Or you might turn to this definition of addiction from the American Society of Addiction Medicine:

    Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

This definition prompted one writer at Alternet, an influential pro-addiction website, to say:

    If you think addiction is all about booze, drugs, sex, gambling, food and other irresistible vices, think again. And if you believe that a person has a choice whether or not to indulge in an addictive behavior, get over it. . . . Fundamental impairment in the experience of pleasure literally compels the addict to chase the chemical highs produced by substances like drugs and alcohol and obsessive behaviors like sex, food and gambling.

In other words, conscious choice plays little or no role in the actual state of addiction; as a result, a person cannot choose not to be addicted. The most an addict can do is choose not to use the substance or engage in the behavior that reinforces the entire self-destructive reward-circuitry loop. So even if the supposed “addict” ceases (as many do) to be “addicted” in practice to the addictive substance or activity, he remains “addicted” in some spiritual, subjective way, which cannot actually be seen in his behavior.

The defender of the concept of “addiction,” confronted with evidence that many “addicts” cease to be “addicted,” will say that of course he didn’t mean to suggest the phenomenon was wholly irresistible and could not be mastered by will. Oh no, he will say, reasonable people quite understand that it is not like that at all. In any normal argument, this would be the end of the matter. Anyone who confesses to using a word in one sense when it suits him, and in a wholly contradictory sense when it also suits him, has expelled himself from the company of all reasonable people and admitted that he respects neither truth nor logic.

A must-read.

In reality, everything pleasurable is “addictive” in the sense that one naturally desires to repeat the experience. The notion that certain unholy pleasures are so powerful that they must inevitably come to dominate those foolish enough to dare to encounter them is really just an imaginatively compelling literary narrative that has been widely accepted as factual.

4 Feedbacks on "The Myth of Addiction"


The problem is an addictive personality. I have noticed that a lot of the teens/young adults who become addicted are also bi-polar. I’m not sure if the bi-polar doesn’t just make them more willing to try addictive drugs or make the drugs more addictive. I have known alcoholics who were functional. Drink every night all night and work everyday all day. I don’t know how they did it. I had a friend who was an alcoholic and he and our wives would go out and he would always order a double. Drink it down and excuse himself and go to the bar and get another. Come back and order another double, drink it down and excuse himself repeat all night long. He could not stop himself. I have watched people, friends, family members, try to stop an alcoholic from having another. Invariably it started a fight or hollering match. They would punch their own mother if it came to that to get to another drink. If that isn’t an addiction I would sure like to know what is.

I had a childhood friend that was an addict. When we were young it was cigarettes. He would come to my house and search the ashtrays for old butts to smoke. One day there were none so he rolled his own from a tea bag. Later it was alcohol and every drug known to man. He passed away 20 years ago.

If you really want to know how bad an addiction can be ask a woman drug addict what she has done to get drugs. While listening imagine it’s your daughter. Two of my daughters in law were drug addicts. One is in jail we bring her kids to see here four times a year. When she is straight and sober she is smart, happy and reasonable. While high she has been a witness to murder, shot at her husband left her kids (babies) alone for over a day to get drugs. She jokes that she learned Spanish on her back. I fear for her when she is released in 6 months.


I do not know how addiction really works. I do not know what it takes to overcome an addiction, nor do I completely understand the relationship between addiction and free will.

I do however, know that no addiction manifests until after the first drink is taken, the first cigarette is smoked, the first drug is ingested.

Hammond Aikes

” The notion that certain unholy pleasures are so powerful that they must inevitably come to dominate those foolish enough to dare to encounter them is really just an imaginatively compelling literary narrative…”

So William Burroughs was lying about that whole Junk thing?
Nothing in this life being pure, not even the heroin, there are always the personal attributes of the user acting as a major aggravating factor in “addiction” tragedies and other Misery Theatre productions.
However, I was always willing to give the actual heroin addict some credit for the intensely violent physical reaction to opiate withdrawal—as if it were the kind of special experience that tends to strip off layers of affectation quite rapidly.
This isn’t so???
Have I been conned???


Everybody it seems cops out. This really sounds like an attempt to avoid the fact that the conscious self rides upon a largely unconscious foundation. While there is no question that people have taken advantage of this fact to avoid responsibility, this doesn’t change the basic facts.


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