Is everyone "addicted" to something?

Dictionary definitions of addiction include:
"Compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (heroin, nicotine, alcohol, etc.) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal". "Persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful".
   Addict: (n) "One who is addicted to a substance."
   Addict: (v) "To devote or surrender oneself to something habitually or obsessively."

Colloquial use of the words addict and addiction have progressed in recent years to include many things not inherently harmful and not characterized by any withdrawal other than the feeling of loss. For example, some Steamboaters may say they are addicted to skiing. There may actually be some truth to this; look at the person (usually with a history of addiction to a substance, perhaps in early or marginal recovery from substance abuse) compulsively skiing to the detriment of his marriage or family commitments, or even work; he may "devote or surrender himself obsessively to skiing." He may be doing something harmful to his marriage or job, but when the season is over, he does not have physiological withdrawal. He may feel loss, but more likely will find another process to participate in "habitually or obsessively."

This behavior is compulsive, but it is not the same as addiction to a mind altering substance. The danger here, to continue with this example, is in substituting skiing for alcohol, heroin, prescription pills, or speed. Certainly physical exercise is good for everyone, and can be helpful to the addict who is discontinuing the use of a mind altering substance; but if the addict simply begins to use skiing compulsively and does not embrace the work and process of recovery, he is likely to return to substance use and abuse when the season is over. He will find skiing only goes so far in helping deal with the underlying pain, anger, and other feelings he has been covering up with substances and now with obsessive skiing.

The point is that the addict is the problem; the skiing, even the substance, is not really the problem. A non-addict can have an intense interest in something, perhaps reading or art, or some form of exercise. This passion does not become destructive. The non-addict (I hesitate to say "normal person" as everyone's idea of what constitutes normal is different) does not switch from intense and passionate reading, writing, painting, or skiing to abuse of alcohol or pills when he stops reading, writing, painting, or skiing. Non-addicts can have an intense interest or passion for something; this is not addiction; it is intense interest or passion for something that enhances their lives and is not destructive; they are not addicts; they are passionate and intense people or people with intense and passionate interests.

The real issue here is that addicts are different from other people. If you ever have the opportunity to listen to an addict (even one in recovery for many years) try to explain to a non-addict (spouse, therapist, friend or family) how he thinks or feels, and see the puzzled look on the non-addict's face, then watch two addicts talking to each other, nodding their heads and finishing each others sentences, you will see the difference.

Again, the danger for the addict is in substituting something for the drug instead of working on recovery; it does not usually last and it does not provide for resolution of past issues and progression to a clean, sober, and responsible life.

So, to answer the question, "is everyone addicted to something?" No, some people are addicts and they are susceptible to becoming addicted to any substance or process they use. Other people, perhaps 85% to 90% of the population, are not addicts; they can safely have intense interests and not risk destructive and harmful addictions or physiological withdrawal symptoms.

Dr. Obrecht is an M.D. addiction medicine specialist, the only one on the western slope of Colorado. She is a Fellow of the American Society of Addiction Medicine. Her office is in Steamboat Springs and she does consultations and referrals to anywhere in the country.


 

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