Addictions regardless of what types they are, control a person’s life. They become the addict’s first and foremost priority to the extent that all other life responsibilities and concerns take second place. The behavior addict becomes so obsessed with the addiction, with thinking about and planning when they can next engage in the behavior, that they abandon their health and well-being of themselves or their family. A food addict for example may be so preoccupied with what she will eat, how many calories she is consuming, when and where to eat, what not to eat, that she has no time or mental energy left for actual living. The same principle of preoccupation can manifest itself with a gambling addict, who may spend all his waking hours thinking about his next gambling spree, planning when to go, what to play, how much to bet, what strategy to employ, where to borrow the money, and the cover story to tell his family or employer. It’s endless. Being an addict requires a person’s full-time attention, which the behavior addict gives, because when an addiction takes hold, nothing else matters.
In addition to thinking about the addiction, of course, there is the addictive activity itself, which takes priority over all else in the behavior addict’s life. Not only does the activity take precedence, it does so despite all the negative consequences. For example the gambler may go on a gambling spree when he is already in debt and at risk of losing his family home. The sex addict may find himself spending that time with a prostitute, when has health is already jeopardized because of a socially transmitted disease. Behavior addicts may be aware of the risks they put themselves or their family members in, yet they continue with the activity. They are not able to stop or control their destructive behavior because addiction has taken hold.
Everyone wants to feel good, but most of accept that we can’t feel good all the time. But that’s not the case with the addict, who has found a way to feel good on command. A characteristic of addicts is a low tolerance for stress, which is another way of saying a low tolerance for life and its inevitable upsets and disappointments. Once the addict has discovered the relief and the “high” that comes from engaging in a particular behavior, he is drawn to it again and again. As a result, the frequency and the duration of the addictive behavior increase with time as the person attempts to recapture the same high experienced early on. For example the bulimic who engages in overeating to then purge — to throw up — experiences a rush of endorphin. Not only has her body experienced a good sensation whilst eating, but the physical activity of binging also sends euphoric signals to the brain and makes her feel elated. The result is that what started as a once in a while activity increases in frequency.
The pattern is very similar to those affected by substance addiction. It’s well known that a person’s body becomes habituated to a drug like heroin. The addict builds up a tolerance, which means the user must increase the dose to experience the same feeling of euphoria. So it is with the activity that has become addictive. The compulsive buyer runs herself into debt purchasing ever more expensive items. The gambler wages more frequently and makes bigger bets. Like the drug addict, their systems have become dulled to the pleasure-giving activity. They have built up a tolerance, so they up the dosage. The insanity, of course, is that they are creating havoc in their lives, and yet they go on repeating the behavior.
As the behavior addict increases the frequency of his activity, he slowly loses control as to when, how long, or how much he will continue the behavior. For example, the gambler who intended to pop into the betting shop for just 10 minutes spends his whole afternoon there in the vain hope that the next bet will pay off. Or the shopping addict who intended to buy one pair of shoe ends up exiting the shop with a range of products she never intended to buy – and for which she has no need.
The obsessive quality of an addiction blinds the addict to his behavior and its consequences. The focus of the addict has become so narrow that he or she loses all perspective. They can’t see the world or themselves or what their addiction is doing to them and those around them. The fact that the addiction is creating more and more damage in their lives is beyond their comprehension. In short, they are obsessed; they are in denial. In 12 Step recovery programs, addiction is referred to as a form of insanity. Despite undeniable evidence that engaging in a particular addictive activity will bring down consequences on the person, the addict continues with the activity under the fantasy that this time it will be different. When it comes to their form of addiction, addicts suffering from obsession can seldom distinguish between the reality of life and their illusion of it. In general, they all suffer from denial of the existence of their problem and are under the belief that they can control or stop it – if they wanted to (which, at this point, they don’t).
The behavior addict creates their own world, one suited to pursuing their addiction. For instance, the anorexic genuinely believes she is overweight and that she needs to lose weight, despite the reality that she is emaciated. The sex addict believes that another evening spent at a brothel or in the pursuit of some sexual conquest is going to fill the void in his life. The codependent genuinely believes his role is to rescue others from their problems. Unconsciously, he fears addressing his own psychological and emotional problems, so he loses himself in the problems of others as a way to escape from his feelings. As with all addictions, this activity makes the codependent feel good, while giving the illusion of control.
Being out of control is an intolerable feeling for addicts, who live in a fear-based world. Being able to exert control through an addictive behavior offers reassurance, however brief or illusory. It is no coincidence that in 12 Step programs one hears it suggested to “let go and let God.” The point is that as humans we are all at the will of fate. Our ability to control others or the future or events is limited in the extreme. Better to come to grips with that truth. In fact, to admit our powerlessness is very liberating. But the addict must usually tread a long and pain-filled path to gain that insight.
Individuals with behavior addictions often have low self-esteem and suffer from anxiety. As a group, they have a particular need to control their environments, and feel anxious if unable to do so. It is also common for addicts to come from families where there was emotional or physical abuse, or where one or both parents suffered from addiction. If the parents were addicted, they were not in a position to give their children the love and attention that instill confidence and self-worth. As they grow up, these children may, like their parents, come to rely on a form of addiction to fill the void of low self-worth and to cope with life’s problems. They repeat the behavior they witnessed in their addicted parents. The child who sees his father go to the betting shop each time he quarrels with his mother might, as an adult, discover his own way of escaping the responsibilities of being in a relationship.
Learned behavior can be a path to self-destruction in the family where addiction has taken root. Even young children work out strategies to negotiate the troubled waters in their families. Over the long term, children brought up in dysfunctional households pick up a type of behavior as their survival mechanism, one they may carry into adulthood. Through repetition and prolonged use, this behavior leads to a form of behavior addiction.
The child raised in a dysfunctional family who learns that one way to avoid physical harm is to stay quiet and be a good girl – and never make demands and to always be alert to the needs of others — might continue to employ this survival strategy into adulthood. Such a person forfeits her rights and needs – both emotional and otherwise — in catering to others. It’s what she has learned. As her codependency continues, she may suffer from other psychological problems such as depression and chronic anxiety. Conversely, a child growing up in that same family might head in the opposite direction, becoming unruly – to gain attention or to express anger — and then grow up to become an irresponsible adult, someone unreliable in the extreme.
Whereas substance-based addiction may result in part from peer pressure or from an environment where drugs are prevalent, it is generally accepted that behavior addictions can be traced to childhood issues. It may sometimes be an obvious connection, such as a child who has been sexually abused turning to promiscuity as an adult – and never being able to maintain an intimate relationship. This sex addict has discovered sex as a tool for power and control, both of which she lacked as a child. A food addict perhaps grew up in a family where food was associated with love. As an adult, she uses food to muster control or to give or deny love to herself.
There are a range of psychological symptoms that surround the development of behavior addictions. The addiction is used to fill a void or address a fear or as a distraction. Most of those with behavior addictions suffer from a conditions ranging from depression to psychosis to PTSD and to anxiety disorders.
Persistence to continue
It is sometimes said in 12 Step programs that “you can’t scare an addict.” The point is not that addicts are fearless; in point of fact, they are full of nameless fears and anxieties. Rather, it’s that the addict will shrug off any suggestion that his disease is putting him in danger, is making his life and those around him unmanageable – or unbearable. Notable in behavior addiction is a persistence to continue the compulsive behavior despite consequences. Having taken root, the activity becomes an obsession that blots out reality. Operating within the fantasy that the disease constructs in his mind, the addict continues with the destructive activity, all the while telling himself that all is well – or at least that the addictive behavior is under control, is still a matter of choice.
Often the negative consequences of a behavior addiction first hit these around the addict. The painful irony of such a situation is that the family of the addict suffers without recourse to the relief that the addictive behavior offers the addict. Think of the alcoholic who causes his wife untold trouble. She suffers continually, while he is able to find relief – if only temporarily — in the bottle. The addict is in denial; he uses all sorts of mechanisms to minimize, justify, and rationalize his behavior and its consequences. The family, though, has no choice but to experience its impact.
It has been said that in a dysfunctional household, the craziest person sets the tone. That is certainly the case in families where a member has a behavior addiction. The problems such a person can create are devastating. The gambling addict may secretly mortgage the family home to continue with his gambling. This may sound insane – and it is – but to the gambler it is a perfectly logical strategy, whereby he is amassing capital to win back the money he previous lost. Like other addicts, he uses the flimsiest and most irrational pretexts to justify actions that by any normal measure are insane. The online games addict may miss work or school because of his addiction. He will get sacked or fail to make his grades to move on to next year, but will nevertheless stoutly refuse to connect these consequences with the addictive behavior. The sex addict will deny his promiscuity is damaging his reputation and that of his family. Even as it leads to divorce and the breaking up of his family, the sex addict will defend his behavior.
One thing about addicts, they are quick to point the finger, to deflect blame from themselves. The sex addict might claim that his wife caused him to stray, that she was cold and denied him. He will come up with all kinds of excuses, none of which implicate himself or his behavior.
Denial is perhaps the greatest barrier to an addict seeking help. If they don’t admit they have a problem, there is no way they are going to seek a solution. The insidious nature of the disease means that the denial grows in strength as the disease worsens. The heavier the consequences and the more undeniable the problems resulting from the addiction, the stronger is the addict’s denial of the situation.
Out of control. This phrase aptly describes the active addict. Though he may be the last to know it, the addict is powerlessness over his addiction and the unmanageability that it is causing. At the late stages of the disease, the addict has probably – in rare moments of clarity – had to admit that his addictive activity might be taking up too much time and energy. Not that the addict is ready or willing to admit anything like the full truth of his condition, that the disease is making his life intolerable. He may even believe that the addictive activity is the one thing keeping him sane! But, on occasion, the addict may resolve to scale back, to give the addictive activity a rest, so to speak, like the alcoholic who goes on the wagon now and again. The addict may even decide that he wants to give up the activity altogether, to completely stop. But what happens, though, is that the addict is dismayed to discover that he can’t stop for long, that he is compelled to resume the activity. His disease has reached a point where it has a mind of its own.
There is a saying in Alcoholics Anonymous: “First the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes the man.” The gambling addict may genuinely want to stop his destructive activity. He may repeatedly promise his family that he will keep away from the betting parlor. But he finds he can’t stop. He’s in the grip of a compulsion. He is suffering from addiction, and unable to keep his promises.
The ways in which behavior addictions can damage a person’s life and the lives of those close to the addict are long and sad. Lost jobs, broken families, soured relationships, ruined health, wrecked finances, the loneliness and isolation that come from engaging in a solitary and compulsive activity – these are examples of the damage that lie in the wake of behavior addictions. The compulsive activity has taken priority in the life of the addict, and all else falls to the wayside, all other considerations are dismissed. The addict resorts to behavior that will shame him in his clearer moments, as he recalls the lies he told his children when he failed to show up for them, or the memory of the money he stole from his wife’s purse. The despair experienced by the addict is real. The codependent who has never engaged in her own life may be driven to thoughts of suicide when contemplating the emptiness of her existence. Unhappiness is in store for all behavior addicts. They have been pursuing satisfaction in an activity that, in the end, brings only wreckage, disappointment, and despair.
-Information adapted from Hamrah.co with permission