Fiddling with the State of Being

I grew up in a home where alcohol ingestion was done compulsively. I discovered as a child that the drinking compulsion is an equal opportunity phenomenon – both my Mom and Dad were serious imbibers. I also learned that my parents and their friends formed an alcohol-conscious community where successful parties were granted the status of “great” by the quantity imbibed and the consequent sexualization of intimacies.

My parents were trained in drinking by the Canadian Forces during WW2 when service men and women had their pleasures subsidized by the government. I am reminded of this each and every November 11th and sometimes I stop to tell the “poppy people” why I am not buying their red and black lapel flowers while I stride righteously into the liquor store.

Over the years I have had lots of addicts of various sorts in my practice. I prefer to call them “obsessive fiddlers with states of being” – it sounds less prejudicial than “addicts” though that is what some of them are. These fine folk and friends have been compulsed by all sorts of obsessions: being happy, being right, being perfect, being taken care of, being in love, being admired, and the list goes on. (Perhaps making lists is a compulsion too?) And then they act these ideas out with predictable behaviours: drinking and drugging are common but so is arguing and defending and mean-spirited criticism. I especially dislike it when addicts pretend the moral high ground (e.g. “You are a bad person and I am busy being good or right,” or “I wouldn’t drink if you didn’t criticize me so much.”).

I often hear of sexual addictions as well. These are usually requests for affirmation and attention where the behaviours involve a moving computer image and a few square inches of genital flesh. What these folk want most often is some ordinary passion and some affection directed in their way. At least that is what heals them (mostly men) more than “Just Say No” mouse pads.

Now… I think that there are factors that may increase risk of some kind of addiction. Here are a few for you to consider and I am thinking especially of online compulsions:

♦  Fear of relationships can lead to online compulsions. I mean real relationships not surface social contacts. And a consequential lack of other interests and social isolation – this can lead to compulsive behaviour.
♦  Pre-existing abuse or addiction can easily transfer: for example, online gambling or gaming, cybersex, or online shopping.
♦  Social anxiety or nervousness can make online interactions a very attractive alternative to face-to-face interaction and thus much more compelling.
♦  Low self-esteem, poor body image, or untreated sexual dysfunction can add to obsessions and compulsions.

What fixes this more than anything else is a little reality and a little thoughtfulness. Person-to-person honesty and care, also called empathy, works well. I have found that Cognitive Behavioural Therapy is really good in breaking the power of addictions and compulsions. I recommend people buy “Mind Over Mood: Change How You Feel by Changing the Way You Think” by Dennis Greenberger and Christine Padesky. It is best to work this through with a therapist and I have a copy in my office so that if you choose we can work through the harder parts together.

Endogenous Morphine – Internet and Life

Here is the story. He is a bright post-adolescent (but not yet adult) UBC student, top of his class in computer engineering, almost Aspergers in his focus on tasks and his inability to connect person-to-person. His Mac machines drive his life – they connect him with his gaming world, efficient sexual release (so that no time is wasted on relationships), and mostly, an alternate identity, far more thrilling than the blandness he experiences his life to be.

He really likes his Internet compulsion and, unlike obsessive-compulsive disorder, his online world relieves his anxiety rather than exacerbates it. He feels that life is not worth living without the rush of “Internet morphine.”

Hold it! Morphine? Sounds extreme and degrading. The word “endorphin” (the chemical rush that produces excitement and well-being) is an amalgam of “endogenous morphine.” Endogenous means internal, so endorphins produce inner happiness and contentment. People become habituated to experiences that produce the endorphin rush of “endogenous morphine.” It makes them happy.

A couple of thoughts about “addiction” and these endorphin stimulants.

First, any behaviour that has a positive payoff can be habituating. We hear of runner’s highs, retail therapy, day-trading rushes, gambling and sex addictions, kids spending days in front of video games…. When behaviour moves beyond desire to need, and beyond need to harm, it can be considered addictive.

Addiction is more than to chemicals (e.g. alcohol, nicotine, prescription drugs) but to whatever produces the inner chemical endorphin rush in the brain. Often, when people cannot find peace within themselves, they attach to behaviours that stimulate an endorphin fix. Then they need increasing repetitions to produce an ever-lessening fix, and the habituation cycle has begun.

Addiction looks like this:

• an unwillingness or seeming inability to stop a behavior in spite of harm to self or others
• a self-defeating thought system to support the compulsive behaviour
• a persistent pursuit of the behavior when it means neglecting valuable aspects of one’s life, or betraying one’s value system
• when “more and more” is needed to obtain an ever diminishing degree of satisfaction

So how is it that the Internet has become our cultural morphine and what’s the problem with that? A couple of ideas:

• the presence of immediate and anonymous gratification system that isolates the addict from family, faith and friendships
• a “mono-focus” that undermines a broader social contribution or participation
• a lack of resiliency in facing demands that are difficult or not pleasurable
• a deepening psychological attachment to an activity that dehumanizes self and others
• a ghost-like anonymity that undermines identity

Cyber-relationships, like cyber-sex, is an intense emotional attachment to para-humanity, not real people.

(I will make some more comments next time – this is getting way too long!)