There are many resources about addiction, but in my opinion, nothing is more definitive than the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous as a starting point.
The analysis and description of alcoholism, when translated into my own sex addiction, is absolutely spot on. Modern science and therapy have just about caught on with studies and new knowledge of the brain (e.g. dopamine effects is a popular theme at this time).
It’s pretty amazing to find that after all the research is done and verified, papers are written and published, and all the new protocols disseminated to relevant professionals, the contents are pretty identical to what group of drunks manage to agree and write on nearly a hundred years ago with nothing more than their own desperation, experience and, dare I say it, divine intervention to guide them.
If you really want to understand addiction, read the Big Book.
In the meantime, it might be worth highlighting a few main ideas here just to get started. Again, this is purely my understanding of things, from my own experiences, rather than any authoritative source. But if it rings true for anyone reading this, then I hope this helps you understand things a bit better, and speeds you along your recovery.
1. Addiction is physical. Even the behavioural ones like gambling and sex. For alcohol and drugs, the physical nature of addiction is fairly obvious and well understood. For behavioural addictions, in practical terms, it is more or less the same.
When I look at porn willingly and deliberately, it kicks off a physical, chemical reaction in my brain that shuts down the higher functions in favour of a life-and-death response.
It is a completely mismatched, abnormal reaction to something that causes more problems than the thing it was reacting to, to begin with.
Think peanut allergy (abnormal reaction to peanuts), diabetes (abnormal reaction to sugar), or epilepsy (abnormal reaction to flashing lights). In all these, it is the body’s abnormal reaction to a common, everyday stimulus that defines the person as having a disease. In the Big Book, Dr Silkworth calls this the “physical allergy” (to alcohol), and I think he meant it literally.
Regardless of the mechanism of this allergy, one of my first sponsors described the result of this as, “Once I start, I cannot stop.” Any more than someone allergic to peanuts can stop his throat swelling up after eating a peanut, an untreated diabetic can stop his sugars going up after a dessert, or an epileptic can stop a fit once it’s begun.
2. Addiction is repetitive. Obvious enough, but it needs to be mentioned. If someone is allergic to peanuts, why would they eat them? Or take the risk of consuming contaminated food? Why would a diabetic eat sugar? Why would an epileptic go to a nightclub which specializes in strobe-light effects?
There seems to be absolutely no sense to it, and truth be told, there isn’t.
Step 2 of the Twelve Steps states that we “came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity”, implying that we are insane, to begin with, and for me – this is where the insanity is.
Not so much in what happens after one an addictive cascade has begun, but in the events that led up to it.
No one can fault what an epileptic does as he is fitting, nor someone in anaphylaxis. But the incomprehensible aspect is how did the person get into the situation, to begin with, especially if he knows what will happen.
In the Big Book, this is described as the “mental twist”, where there is complete denial about what happened the last time, is going to happen again. The result is the addict takes that first drink, genuinely thinking and believing that it won’t be so bad this time.
Of course, external circumstances can be a strong push – stress, fear, resentments, etc, but as any addict will tell you, joy, hope, success, elation can just as equally bring on the urge to start.
Or boredom, stability, security too.
In other words, because anything can be the surface reason to take that first drink, therefore nothing (external) is the absolute cause of it. It just is.
Regardless of the mechanism of this, or underlying reasons, this is a fact that must be accepted, or else any attempts at recovery will be severely undermined at best.
Or to put it another way, if this were not the case, and – having learned my lesson from the last time, I never do it again because of the consequences… then I am, by definition, not an addict.
As my sponsor coined it, following the initial phrase of “Once I start, I cannot stop,” he went on to add this description, “Once I’m stopped, I cannot avoid starting again”. If you add these two conditions together, it paints a bleak picture indeed.
It gets worse.
3. Addiction escalates. Perhaps most obviously in drug addiction, where someone who once got high with small doses of heroin develops tolerance and needs every increasing doses to get the same high.
The same is apparently true for behavioural addiction.
At least for sex addiction.
Regardless of the starting point, (and often it is mild, even mainstream content,) very soon this becomes insufficient and the addict has to seek out more.
More material, more extreme content, more risky behaviours until the acting out reaches legal, health, and even physical limits. And still, the addict cannot get high without resorting to even more insane measures.
Or, to put it another, what if this were not the case?
What if there is bad, even harmful behaviour that crosses moral and legal boundaries, but it doesn’t escalate?
To take an extreme example – a drug abuser is given unlimited access to drugs with no external consequences. After a few weeks of adjustment to amounts to suit his desires, he settles on a large dose of heroin every day that physically knocks him for four hours a day, and functionally for another eight.
Left unchecked, that’s half his life gone, just like that, not to mention the health effects of consuming drugs.
But it stops there and goes no further. In the time he has left (per day), he has no cravings, no urge to get more, is satisfied after his daily hit, and is content to wait for the next dose tomorrow. You could make a case that perhaps this is something to accept, rather than fight, and make the best of it.
Sadly, this is not the case for addiction. What characterizes addiction is not the amount consumed, nor even the impact of the activity, but the endless sense of needing more no matter how much has already been taken. The above person who loses half his life to heroin has a drug problem. But someone with drug addiction will not stop until all his life is consumed, and then some.
If the first two points allude to the first part of this AA saying, “One drink is too many…” then this point alludes to the conclusion of the saying, which is, “…and a thousand – not enough.”
At this stage, things are usually very bleak.
4. Addiction destroys. Again, another very obvious point. But perhaps worth mentioning as a contrast to having a healthy passion for something.
If the above three points are not bad enough, this last is what makes it the most urgent. I don’t need to go into detail here, there are numerous examples out there, and perhaps near to home, or perhaps even in yourself, dear reader.
The need to get a fix drives out all other concerns.
Therefore, care for self, care for others goes out the window and people get hurt by neglect at best, direct attack at worst. It destroys relationships (with self, others, even God, if you believe in one), it destroys hope, it destroys the mind, and eventually, it destroys the body.
Contrast this with the artist who works through the night and compromises his day job. Or the musician who skips meals to complete his piece. Or the charity worker who pushes herself with long hours at the cost of her health. Or the inventor who takes great risks to prove something can work. Or even the Apostles who did absolutely insane things by worldly standards gave up everything for a cause, and almost to a man, were willing to die for it.
On the surface, the behaviours are similar – a dedicated pursuit of something at great personal cost, sometimes even at the cost of others. Pull away a writer from his work when he’s in full flow, or thwart a composer on his way to the recording studio with his head bursting with new music, interrupt a sex addict in the middle of a porn binge… and in all cases, you’re probably going to get a cold response at best, or more likely, a grizzly bear prematurely woken from hibernation experience.
So what’s the difference?
There are obvious things like -the activity in question is creative, wholesome, arguable beneficial for mankind etc, as opposed to looking at porn or using sex workers.
But… workaholism is a real problem and a real addiction in the literal sense. Perhaps selfless sacrificial charity work can be a manifestation of co-dependency? What is the difference? If one can be addicted to “good” things, how do we tell addiction and passion apart?
In one word: Satisfaction.
When the artist finishes his work. He breathes a sigh of relief, he looks at what he has done and there is a sense of fulfilment. A musician finishes a recording, there is a sense of achievement.
But even more, there is a sense of “enough”. Even if it was a bad job in the end, and the conclusion might be to ditch everything and start afresh, “enough is enough”. Ideally, the job is done. But sometimes it might be – no it hasn’t been done… still, it is time to call it quits. Even so, there is a satisfaction to – if not a job well done itself, then at least to the sense of progress that one is cutting one’s losses and moving on.
I mean, when I finish this very page I am writing now, I will have a sense of satisfaction, and will have no urge to do more immediately after.
In addiction, upon completion of Acting Out, whatever that may be, the sense of satisfaction lasts for a very short time – sometimes measured in seconds in my case – before the urgent tugging begins again that says: Go get more.
The double-cross of addiction comes when even that fleeting sense of satisfaction can no longer be achieved, the high cannot be reached at all, never mind for too short a time, but we are still whipped and compelled to go on in the state of slavery that addiction is. Utter betrayal where even the pleasure it once brought is denied us, but we still have to go on.
In conclusion, addiction is not a pretty sight indeed. Nor is it well understood at all, even by addicts themselves. Sometimes, especially by addicts. Which leads to all sorts of energetic, well-intended, but soul-sapping, misguided, and ultimately futile attempts to stop. Which leads to disappointment, shame, and despair. Which leads to more acting out.
There is a Solution.
There is even a chapter in the Big Book of AA entitled There is a Solution, and I urge you the read it now. Preferably the whole book, for context, but if not, then just this chapter. It articulates things much better than I ever could, so I commend it to you above anything you’d find here.