There are many cultural critics from different disciplines who complain about how people expand the language of addiction to describe everything: sex addiction, gambling addiction, eating addictions, etc. The rationale is that by labeling forms of bad behavior, you are somehow excusing them. I strongly disagree. I think if anything we are too limited in our thoughts about addiction, and that we should view more things through the prism of addiction, and that doing so does not excuse the bad behavior of the addict.
I believe the only thing an object really needs to have the potential to become addictive is to be a mood-changer. The definition of a mood-changer is pretty obvious and contained right there in the name. A mood-changer is any object that brings about a change in mood. All addictions involve being hooked on mood-changers. The An addictive mood-changer tends to bring about a change in moods that is perceived by the user to be a positive change, even if it’s a change in mood that the average person would not view as positive. This means that although addictive mood-changers usually are chosen to bring about mood changes that most of society would deem as positive, like giddiness or omnipotence, this isn’t always the case. Some people may strongly enjoy moods that most people would view negatively, such as humiliation, self-pity, or numbness, making that person’s mood-changers of choice things that humiliate, depress, or anesthetize him. A person’s private logic often runs contrary to society’s public logic.
Enjoyment of mood-changers alone isn’t proof of an addiction. Everyone uses and enjoys mood-changers. What matters is a person’s ongoing relationship to a specific mood-changer. For a relationship to a mood-changer to be considered addictive, three elements need to be present:
- Compulsion. The use of the mood-changer has to be compulsive. We’re going to go deeper into what constitutes compulsive behavior in a later post, but for now we’ll just define it as something one feels driven to do, even in situations where the person is intellectually aware that he’s engaging in behavior that is risky and self-destructive to a degree far out of proportion to any potential benefits derived. He is often willing to defy common sense and long-term logic in order to indulge in the behavior. There is a lack of control involved in compulsion, a feeling of powerlessness to say no in the face of your desire.
- Tolerance. The more you use the mood-changer, the more you get mentally and physically accustomed to the mood-changer. You lose sensitivity to it, the doses that used to excite you now bore you and have little effect, and you require bigger doses to achieve the same mood-changing effect as before.
- Withdrawal.As tolerance continues to increase, you reach a tipping point where you go from needing the mood-changer to feel above-average or superhuman to needing it just to avoid feeling shitty. You can see this with coffee addicts who can’t even feel like a human being until that first cup of coffee. This is what withdrawal is; when you don’t have access to the mood-changer, you feel subhuman and terrible. In life, you feel as if you’re constantly oscillating between feeling superhuman or subhuman, with your various mood-changers being the relevant trigger.
As long as you are using a mood-changer, and your relationship to that mood-changer has these three elements, you have an addiction. It doesn’t matter what areas of your brain are being lit up when an fMRI is scanning you; if you’re compulsively using something as a mood-changer, you need bigger amounts of that thing than you used to to get the same effects as before, and you feel shitty when you don’t have that thing, than you have an addiction to that thing, plain and simple.