It's January 3rd, which means we're three days in to our family's annual tradition of Sugar-Free January. Which, if you've been following this blog for longer than a year, you know really means "Dessert-Free" January, since it's not really our aim to root out every last grain of sugar in salad dressings or ketchup or crackers. Dessert-free. Farewell for thirty-one days to the cookies, candies, cakes, pastries, and other treats we overindulged in, in December.
I've been thinking about addictions lately, having just come off a family trip where all the teenagers stared at their phones any second we weren't eating or playing a board game. Addictions come in all shapes and sizes, not just in the shape of alcohol or illicit drugs. In fact, I've picked up this book, but haven't yet started reading:
Do I need a book to tell me people get addicted to phones and video games and social media? Not really. But I'll see what he has to say.
Whatever your personal addiction--sugar, technology, shopping, diet, exercise, harmful substances, porn--you may be encouraged by a book I did already read, which argues that addiction is not a chronic disease. Contrary to the argument currently in the ascendant, addictions aren't forever.
Author Lewis makes the amazing claim that, "most addicts and alcoholics do recover, and that a majority of those—up to three-quarters, depending on where you get your statistics—recover without any treatment" (8%--Kindle copy, so, sorry, no page numbers!). He also draws little distinction between addictions to harmful substances and other addictions:
Behavioural addictions assume the same characteristics, the same trajectory, and often the same outcomes as substance addictions. Gambling, sex addiction, porn preoccupations, eating disorders, and even excessive Internet use have entered the spotlight next to drugs and booze... (11%)
Why do we become addicted in the first place? Not through disease, but rather through our brain plasticity. That is, our addictions are a result of the brain naturally adjusting to the feedback cycle it's faced with and trying to streamline for greatest efficiency, as it does with all habits. And habits formed with an emotion tied to them are all the more powerful. Not many people get emotional about brushing their teeth, but we sure might enjoy the rush of pleasure from that first bite of cheesecake or that first (or third or fifth) drink that settles our anxiety.
And, granted, some addictions are easier to train away than others. Sugar really isn't such a tough one, other than a few days of craving throughout the month.
But in every addiction, Lewis finds a deeply-engrained habit, made up of three parts: (1) the mental habit; (2) the feeling habit, in which desire is involved; and (3) the behavioral habit--that groove you lay down in your brain--that becomes more and more compulsive. Take sugar, for example. The mental habit is that I like to have something sweet after lunch sometimes and always after dinner. The feeling habit is that I get all anticipatory about which yummy treat I'm going to indulge in. The behavioral habit is I do it just about every single day, unless it's January, so I wear a deep, deep groove in my brain. Having dessert becomes automatic. So, in January, I have to make a mental choice to remind myself that it's January, season of deprivation. I have to transfer my desire to savoring a cup of tea, maybe a little more mindfully. I have to replace the dessert behavior with a Satsuma.
But for deeper-seated, more damaging addictions, Lewis argues that there's often more going on. We might have anxiety or past trauma or impulsivity. There might have been a perfect storm of character traits, combined with a thrilling "sudden romance with feel-good chemicals" that resulted in compulsive behavior. We might need help examining what goes into our addiction and reconnecting the thinking train to it. Especially since, "whether the addiction is to alcohol, meth, coke, tobacco, or heroin, grey matter volume in some prefrontal areas has been thought to decrease by as much as 20 percent" (46%). That is, the more we've given into our substance addiction, the less mental wherewithal we have to combat it. Happily, even a few months of abstinence reverses the brain decline.
If you're struggling with a deep-seated addiction, maybe 2018 is the year you decide you want to get your life back! Read some books about it. Make an appointment with a counselor. One woman in the book, jailed for drugs, took advantage of her prison time (and being forced to go cold-turkey) to read books on mindfulness and addiction, so that she could sort her way out of it. It's not bad, to learn addiction isn't an incurable disease. It's actually hopeful.
Happy New Year.