The American Psychological Association defines addiction as, “…a condition in which the body must have a drug to avoid physical and psychological withdrawal symptoms. Addiction’s first stage is dependence, during which the search for a drug dominates an individual’s life. An addict eventually develops tolerance, which forces the person to consume larger and larger doses of the drug to get the same effect.” (Apa.org)
However, addictions—long thought to be solely drug related (an uncontrollable habit of using drugs or alcohol in large amounts)—are manifesting themselves in behavioral areas as well. For example, some are addicted to gambling, pornography, and even ordinary activities such as exercise or eating. However, what classifies these and other behaviors as addictions is when people who do these things finds them pleasurable in some way. There is some controversy about which of the “behavioral” addictions constitute scientifically validated “true” addictions, with both professionals and the public failing to reach an agreement. More time research is needed to clarify this issue.
Although the exact symptoms vary from one addiction to another, there are two aspects that all addictions have in common. First, the addictive behavior is counter-productive to the individual. So, instead of helping the person adapt to things or overcome problems, the addiction tends to undermine these abilities. About.com states, “For example, a gambler might wish he had more money –- yet gambling is more likely to drain his financial resources. A heavy drinker might want to cheer herself up –- yet alcohol use contributes to the development of her depression. A sex addict may crave intimacy –- yet the focus on sexual acts may prevent real closeness from developing.”
Next, the behavior is unrelenting. An addict will continue to engage in addictive behavior, despite it causing negative consequences. Thus, an occasional weekend of self-indulgence is not defined as an addiction, although it may cause different kinds of problems. Addiction involves more frequent engagement in the behavior.
Many people don’t feel like they struggle with addictions because they enjoy the behaviors they participate in and their lives seem normal and high functioning. This can be deceiving. Often people’s addictions become ingrained in their lifestyle, to the point where they never or rarely feel withdrawal symptoms. Or they may not recognize their withdrawal symptoms for what they are, putting them down to aging or working too hard, for example. People can go for years without realizing how dependent they are on their addiction.
People with illicit addictions may enjoy the secretive nature of their behavior. This is also an addictive characteristic: secrecy. They may blame society for its narrow-mindedness, choosing to see themselves as free-willed and independent individuals. In reality, addictions tend to limit people’s individuality and freedom as they become more restricted in their behaviors. Imprisonment for engaging in an illegal addiction restricts their freedom even more.
When people are fighting an addiction, their enjoyment often becomes very focused on carrying out the addictive behavior and relieving withdrawal, rather than experiencing the full range of life that forms the person’s full potential for happiness. At some point, the addicted person may realize that life has passed them by, and that they have missed out on enjoying so many other things besides than addiction. This often happens when people become aware, begin seeking help, and overcome their addiction.
About.com also indicates that some people who enjoy their addiction don’t feel like it is a problem if it is not harming anyone. What the addict doesn’t realize, however, is the negative impact of their addiction not only on themselves, but also on those in their life.
They may be in denial about the negative aspects of their addiction, choosing to ignore the effects on their health, life patterns and relationships. Or they may blame outside circumstances or other people in their lives for their difficulties.
Sometimes, it’s hard to recognize the harm caused by addiction when the addiction is the person’s main way of coping with the other problems they have. Sometimes other problems are directly related to an addiction; for example, health problems, and sometimes they are indirectly related to the addiction, for example, relationship problems. Some people who get addicted to substances or activities are very aware of their addictions, and even the harms caused by the addiction, but keep doing the addictive behavior anyway. This can be because they don’t feel they can cope without the addiction, because they are avoiding dealing with some other issue that the addiction distracts them from (such as being abused as a child), or because they do not know how to enjoy life any other way.
Often, the harm and negative effects of addiction come to light when the addicted person goes through a crisis. This can happen when the addictive substance or behavior is taken away completely and the person goes into withdrawal and cannot cope. Or, it can occur as a consequence of the addiction, such as a serious illness, a partner leaving, or loss of a job.