The nuances of addiction

Updates | Dec 13, 2019

My grandson is totally addicted. He’s a two-and-a-half-year-old excavator addict. He sits on my shoulders at construction sites. He can sit there for hours. He doesn’t get hungry. He doesn’t get cold. He just sits there and watches the excavators. After a while, the guy driving the excavator just feels these two little eyes burning into him.

He’s addicted to excavators.

This is just normal and perfectly healthy. Kids do this just by way of growing up. Kids go through phases of childish addiction to dinosaurs or excavators, or dollies.

There’s such a thing as addiction. It’s a totally normal process, but the reason we’re talking about it right now in this psychological context is that sometimes it goes off the rails to the point where it may even become fatal. The way I understand it is that addiction is part of our adaptive toolkit. It’s like anger, for example. It’s part of our adaptive toolkit, and it’s no big deal. If you and I get angry at each other, we’ll be OK tomorrow. Sometimes, though, people go off the rails and become terrifyingly, dangerously angry. Addiction’s like that.

Is there such a thing as addiction in the sense that there’s a fatal, irreversible disease which strikes people and is caused by demon drugs? Of course not. That doesn’t exist. I love the Oxford English Dictionary. If you look up addiction, they tell you how Shakespeare used the word, and how the philosopher David Hume used it. Addiction is the fact that human beings get really centred on something to the point where other things are excluded, and their lives become very, very focused. For example, people fall in love. Is that addiction? Yeah, by the dictionary definition it is, but it doesn’t mean they have a disease or they’re going to go mad and kill each other out of jealousy. There is such a thing as seriously dangerous love addiction. But everyday addictions are just part of life.

Think about falling in love. That’s an important transitional moment in human life. Think about Max and his excavator addiction. What happens when you gut-check and you think, ‘Well, what do I know how to do? I’m too old for excavators, and nobody loves me. What can I get addicted to? I can get addicted to the social media, or I can get addicted to pornography, or I can get addicted to gambling machines.’ But it’s not going to work. That’s when it goes wrong. It’s when all you’ve got, it’s not enough. What can you do? You just keep trying. You haven’t got an alternative.

That’s the people I work with as a psychologist. I’ve been working with gambling addicts, slot-machine addicts. These guys, they’ve got so little going for them. They have these love affairs with the slot machine. They zone out, and they become part of a man-machine system, and they’re working away. They’ve got nothing. They’ve got no alternative. That’s when I think addiction becomes dangerous, and I think it is dangerous now at this stage of history for us, because you’ve got so many people who don’t really have adequate lives, and they’re grabbing onto the best addiction they can find, and they’re working it for all it’s worth, but it’s not working.

On the other hand, we’ve got people who are still falling in love with each other, children falling in love with excavators, or whatever it is, and people like you writing books. In that sense, addiction is still essential. We can’t do without it.

– Bruce K Alexander is a psychologist and professor emeritus from Vancouver.

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