the definition of addiction

in the last few weeks, a radio interview and two articles have encouraged me to again look at the nature of addiction. one of them is a discussion we are having on this blog here about alcohol use and art, with contributions by danish composer skovgaard danielsen and zen practitioner and painter eden maxwell. another was an article by trisha gura about chocolate addiction. the radio interview was with dr. gabor mate, well known for his work in our inner city, vancouver’s downtown eastside, as well as on stress and ADD.

so let’s look at some definitions of addiction.

cynthia jane collins in her book the recovery spiral has an interesting definition:

if we habitually or compulsively – with or without awareness or intention – use any activity, substance or person[s] to move us away from our true selves, we are practicing addictive behaviours.

gerald g. may proposes that

addiction is any compulsive, habitual behaviour that limits the freedom of human desire.

ben furman and tapani ahola, two scandinavian therapists known the world over for their imaginative work with therapeutic conversations once playfully gave addictions a name: “the muluttaja”. it derives from fascist times in finland and personifies the idea of “oppression and tyranny.”

virginia satir, one of north america’s foremost “elder” in family therapy, and another of my favourite models for therapy, talks of addiction as a coping mechanism for a rule that says, “i can’t feel what i feel.”

aviel goodman of the minnesota institute of psychiatry, who writes quite a bit about sexual addictions says that

addiction designates a process whereby a behavior, that can function both to produce pleasure and to provide escape from internal discomfort, is employed in a pattern characterized by (1) recurrent failure to control the behaviour (powerlessness) and (2) continuation of the behaviour despite significant negative consequences (unmanageability).

finally, gabor mate, whose absolutely fantastic book, in the realm of hungry ghosts: close encounters with addiction has this to say:

in the english language, addiction has two overlapping but distinct meanings. in our day, it most commonly refers to

a dysfunctional dependence on drugs or on behaviours such as gambling or sex or eating.

surprisingly, that meaning is only about a hundred years old. for centuries before then … addiction referred simply to an activity that one was passionate about …

in the words of a consensus statement by addiction experts in 2001, addiction is a “chronic neurobiological disease … characterized by behaviours that include one or more of the following: impaired control over drug use, compulsive use, continued use despite harm, and craving” …

the issue is not the quantity or even the frequency but the impact …

he then gives his own definition:

addiction involves:
1. compulsive engagement with the behaviour, a preoccupation with it;
2. impaired control over the behaviour;
3. persistence or relapse despite evidence of harm; and
4. dissatisfaction, irritability or intense craving when the object – be it a drug, activity or other goal – is not immediately available.

he concludes his chapter, “what is addiction?” by saying

we need to avoid the trap of believing that addiction can be reduced to the action of brain chemicals or nerve circuits or any other kind of neurobiological, psychological or sociological data … addiction is a complex condition … we need to view it simultaneously from many different angles … to get anywhere near a complete picture we must keep shaking the kaleidoscope to see what other patterns emerge.

now my question to you – those of you who have experience with addiction, either personally, through friends or family, or professionally: what do you think of these definitions? do they define addiction? or do you have another definition that works better for you?

19 thoughts on “the definition of addiction

  1. Evan

    I like Virginia’s best. The normal presumed by most of the rest seems to be some standard of enlightenment we don’t have experience (always being conscious and rational and so on – fantasyland).

    My own, well two. 1.You can never get enough of that which doesn’t satisfy. 2. The way to get what everything else doesn’t give you (alleviating the pain).

    You can see why I think Virginia is on the money.

    Great topic Isabella.

    Evan’s last blog post..Three Benefits of Being Childlike

  2. marian

    these quotations completely define addiction for me. the impairment, the engagement, persistence, the escape…
    thank you for the focus..and this format for discussion!

  3. Eden Maxwell

    These are all well-thought definitions. One can be addicted to love, too. Of course, most think of drug abuse when it comes to addiction; and in this case, such addictions need to be decriminalized.

    Addiction is, of course, a severe form of attachment.

    Here’s an apt quote from my book, An Artist Empowered, that presents a relevant observation.

    In his 1973 documentary Painters Painting, filmmaker Emile de Antonio interviewed many of the figures, including Barnett Newmann, who, after the Second World War, had fueled the abstract expressionism movement in New York City. Barnett: “Yes, because many years ago at a conference in Woodstock that was held with a panel consisting of philosophers—esthetes, really, professors of philosophy, professors of esthetics—and artists, I declared that even if they were right, and even if they could build a system, an esthetic system that they could claim explained the activity, the creative activity, it would be of no value, because esthetics for the artist was as meaningful as ornithology must be for the birds.”

    Eden Maxwell’s last blog post..Veterans Remembered

  4. Traveler

    I think addiction has so many different facets that in the end, each specific person’s addiction is different. I think that there is some chemical contributors as well as emotional ones. I think that your family situation when you were growing up can contribute. But I don’t think that any of these or a million other contributors have to be present. Maybe it’s a negative coping mechanism that at times is exacerbated by a chemical imbalance?

    Traveler’s last blog post..Blog Share!

  5. Douglas Eby

    Writer Pearl Buck commented, “The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive.” A number of people with exceptional creative abilities have used drugs and alcohol – perhaps as self-medication to ease the pain of that sensitivity, or as a way to enhance thinking and creativity. Sometimes they risk addiction.

    So addiction may be seen as a strategy that has overcome our ability to control and use it for our benefit. More in my article Gifted, Talented, Addicted.

    Douglas Eby’s last blog post..Andrew Solomon on depression and hope

  6. isabella mori

    @traveler – yes, i think it’s important to remember that it’s very individual. there is no one animal called “addiction”. it’s more like a whole genus 🙂 (hope i got my biology straight here 🙂

    @douglas i think you just described my father.

  7. Barbara

    Hi Isabella,

    For me addiction always appears as tradeoff.

    My desire for productive, satisfaction of some sort or for that matter, anything postive. I then know it is addiction as I repeat the thoughts or actions after my own failure to see anything I believe to be good. Even if what is created could be construed as good.

    Maybe more simply put, just never enough.

  8. Andre Dotseth

    My roomate drinks and I’ve been in AA for years. I met him there. By doing nothing I perpetuate a problem. Addiction to other peoples intensity. I don’t have the ego strength or something. I just keep going to my meetings and enabling and I can’t afford it.

    Spending money trying to impress people I don’t even like…. I can’t identify with the fear or sabatoge. Its kind of like a love addiction. There is a payoff to an addiction no matter how self defeating. Trying to fit in… Acceptance and approval I’m not getting from my group.

    If I get a job it will be a good thing… the no control element… poor me… kick me. Comfort zone. I just keep doing it.

    These definitions were helpful.

  9. Therapy New York

    Andre Dotseth,
    Are you an alcoholic? I was asking because you said your roommate was an alcoholic and you met him in rehab. It seems like you are the enabler in relationships. I feel that you are spending money on others to fit in or get people to like you. You know that money can buy love. I think you need to concentrate on yourself.

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  11. furniture

    I have lost a couple of friends due to hard drug addictions. After support from friends and family did not work their lives continued to spiral down, until it landed them in jail. While one friend has recovered after a jail stint, the other is still using. I believe the only cure for addiction is one’s will to really just say ‘no’.

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