How much is too much?
For a long, long time excess has been glamourised, encouraged even. As a species, the human race has functioned on greed. We all crave a bit more of something that feels good, for some it’s food, for some it’s sex, for others its alcohol, caffeine or drugs. So when does something that feels good, become something that is bad? When should we start to be concerned about an area of our life? And what are the signs of drug addiction? Alcoholism? Or even more difficult to spot - the signs of a behavioural addiction?
Addiction through the ages
Addiction may seem like a modern epidemic, owned by the experimenters of the fifties and sixties and taken to new heights (or should I say lows) by their children. In reality however, since the human race began it has sought pleasure and an escape from pain, and in seeking they experimented; used and abused many things to quell an insatiable appetite for more.
Substance experimentation is certainly nothing new: Although alcohol is one of the most used and abused substances now, brewing alcohol and using its powerful effects (for both good and bad) goes back thousands of years BC.
There are many other ancient drugs still very popular today, the native people of South America used to chew coca leaves, the same ones that we use today to make cocaine; Sumerians, Egyptians, the Chinese have used opium for millennia, and one of the earliest accounts of the use of cannabis comes from China, where they used to chew the seeds of the plants. A few substances have lost popularity over the years and a few new ones have come up.
The Stone Age men were thought to be very adventurous in experimenting with mushrooms and their properties of “altering the mind”. “Magic mushrooms” are still widely used today, and in ancient times many people lost their lives trying out lethally poisonous varieties.
The rule of excess
It’s not just mind-altering substances that have had men (and women) pushing the boundaries of excess; gambling and sex addictions have been around before money was even invented! As long as there has been wealth, possessions, goods and services, there has been prostitution, gambling and sex addiction.
The ancient Greeks for example were notoriously open about sex. Battles, empires and lives were lost over it, and they used very explicit images to decorate various ornaments-a very early form of pornography. Also the orgies and sex parties in ancient Rome are no secret to anyone, as well as the gambling, alcohol and substance abuse they indulged in.
It seems quite obvious that from the start of the human race to date, we have changed very little in terms of certain behaviours, in fact it seems very clear that we can get hooked to pretty much everything that will make us feel good and satisfied. So what is it that takes our lust for more or search for escape, into an addiction? Firstly, we must understand the difference, we must understand addiction.
What is addiction?
Each one of us will have something we use as a fix. A go-to when we want to get away from what frustrates us, to chill out, release tension or awaken our senses. This in itself should not pose a problem (depending on your fix of choice!), it is when we can not function properly in our daily lives with, or without the ‘fix’ that the problems start.
Some believe addiction to purely mean a physical dependency. This would mean one could only be addicted to substances that create physical and/or psychological change in your body, such as alcohol, drugs (both prescriptive and illicit), and other chemically effective substances such as caffeine and nicotine.
It is now however becoming much more widely accepted that psychological dependency can, and in fact should, be classified as addiction. This would then broaden the range of things one could be termed as ‘addicted’ to. Things such as work, sex, the gym, pornography, food or gambling to name but a few.
Addiction can be looked at in a different way, a more subjective, and in my opinion, a more rounded way. If we look at how a person functions in all aspects of their life we can start to see if there is any imbalance that creates physical, social or psychological difficulty. If so that person could be presenting signs of an addiction.
One other, and perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of addiction is being unable to stop using the ‘fix’ even if it is causing harm.
What causes addiction?
Substances can be addictive and when we talk about drugs like nicotine or heroine, these can very rapidly cause physical dependencies. Alcohol, caffeine and even sugar can create physical need in a user, however not everyone that has a drink (or a doughnut!) will become addicted. So apart from the physiological dependency some substances create, there are many other factors to addiction.
We have all heard about “addictive personalities”, but is this just an excuse? or is there any truth in this expression? Can somebody really be predisposed to become an addict?
The stressed, anxious, passive-aggressive, self-harming, immature and anti-social; these personalities have been identified as those more likely to become an addict. People who find it hard to cope with stress and have difficulty communicating these feelings, are often more likely to turn to a crutch, a ‘fix’ that helps them escape these feelings and gain temporary relief. It is often not very clear how an addiction starts or where it develops from.
The causes explored over the years are numerous, genetic disposition has often been sought as an answer but evidence is somewhat inconclusive. The list of social factors include early age experimentation and peer pressure, the environment we grow up in and the exposure we have to those substances and activities, as well as our self-esteem. Economical factors include education, opportunities, access to healthy activities and poverty.
Many start by experimenting, a drink, a cigarette, a one night stand, a trip to the races. Some (like Francesca- see page 48 ‘Beating the ravages of tranquillizer addiction’) can get addicted to a substance that was legitimately prescribed, and when it’s time to give it up the user can feel unable to cope without it anymore.
So how much is too much?
Not everyone that takes drugs, drinks alcohol or gambles is an addict, nor they are “destined” to become one. Taking illegal drugs out of this for a moment as any quantity of un-prescribed chemicals can be harmful. In many cases a little of what you like does actually do you some good.
Alcohol is widely accepted in our society, and can, in controlled quantity, be a healthy part of life (red wine for example has proven anti-oxidants). Shopping, junk food and sex can all be pleasurable parts of life, if they occupy their rightful place.
When exploring this we can’t talkin terms of quantity alone, there is no definitive unit of measurement that says ‘Cross this line and you are an addict’. It is not the amount of time, units or indeed quantity of something that defines an addiction, it is the effect it has upon the life of the individual. As soon as one area of your life preoccupies areas that it shouldn’t a problem exists, as soon as the problem is one you can not simply stop, or walk away from, it is an addiction.
Signs and symptoms
Addiction affects every individual in a different way; it all depends on the general health before the addiction, the substance or activity, the strength, the frequency, how it’s been administered and personal circumstances in general. If we are talking about drug and alcohol abuse the most common signs of an addict are the change in behaviour and physical appearance.
Personality trends include lack in respect for people and property, self-harming, increase in anger and irritability, loss of self-esteem, paranoia, loss of weight, lack of sleep, chills and shaking, addicts may feel a huge burden of guilt but this can do nothing to change their behaviour.
There are a lot of signs that sometimes are not so easy to spot or may not be present at all until it is too late. Drugs and alcohol can cause liver failure, stomach ulcer, tumours and cancer.
With psychological dependencies such as gambling you might find out that a member of your family has gambled away the savings, the car, the house. Sex addictions can manifest themselves in may ways, addiction to pornography, masturbation or actual sex itself, all have different signs, from excessive internet use, to the uncontrollable use of prostitutes, each addict will try and satisfy their craving in a different way, and each show varying signs.
One thing all addicts will have in common is the need for the ‘fix’ and this craving will preoccupy their thoughts and behaviours. Not only can the addiction be harmful in itself, but the behaviour of an addict can lead to secondary dangers, such as crime, irrational behaviour and losing focus on other areas of life.
Far from the glamourised images of rebellion or excess, the reality of addiction is putting ‘fix’ first and not being able to control its effects on your life, or the lives of those around you.
Help and self help
If you, or someone you know is suffering an addiction there is help available.
Depending on the addiction and the severity the course of action may be different. Substance abusers should always seek medical help before withdrawing. If in doubt speak to your GP. The following websites and numbers can offer further advice:
AA helpline: 0845 7697555
UK NA helpline: 0300 9991212
Gamcare helpline: 0845 600 133