Understanding Addiction and Dependency Part IV

Unwanted habits Vs. full scale and or chronic addiction

In Part I of this series we began by exploring the impact of influence and control in taking back our lives, when we find ourselves trapped in a pattern of unwanted habit. Then, in Part II we discussed the different symptoms that occur when breaking a dependency and or an addiction.  Finally, in part III we broke down the destructive role of shame as a cycle, and the alternative benefit of healthy productive guilt as expressed through regret. The next and critical aspect we will discuss is looking to lay out a more clear differentiation between compulsive patterns we as people fall into, and full scale addiction.

To begin, we can break down this issue by simply asking whether the particular challenge an individual is struggling with has progressed to become inherently pathological [1], or is just troubling, but inherently normative [2]. To be clear; the main point here is that just because an unwanted compulsion causes high levels of frustration and even distress, that doesn’t make the habit an addiction. Therefore to begin identifying whether an issue is an addiction or not, we simply look for the presence of pathology.

The real challenge that comes up is that differentiating between what is normative and what is pathological is not always so simple [3]. Often, there is a fine line between a bad habit and an addiction (in its least aggressive form). The differences tend to be somewhat subjective to the individual  (how they experience the urges to engage, and how they process the effects after). Yet, we will try to provide some detail to help the reader gain insight.

Evaluating whether something meets the standard of a dependency and or addiction is most often possible by identifying the following;

  1. the degree and ease with which a person can moderate and manage the behavior in a specific area (how hard it is for them to “control”)
  2. the degree of remorse and regret a person feels about engaging in the behavior, and
  3. the extent of unwanted preoccupation a person has with the behavior in their life (how much they think about it).

When individuals progress from a bad habit to an addiction and or dependency they display struggle in these areas. They struggle to moderate the behavior, they experience a qualitative amount of remorse and regret about engaging the behavior,  and they become preoccupied and self identified with the behavior.  This is not an exact science but genereally speaking the degree and presence of intensity of these three variables correlates to the extent and degree of dependency and or addiction. [4]

Yet, even with these criteria we still need more clarity about the distinction between someone who is addicted/dependent and someone who is an “addict”. There is a considerable yet subtle distinction between someone whose dependency on a “something” has developed into an addiction, (qualified by withdrawal) and someone who is an “addict”, (a person who is physiologically predisposed to  imbalanced and or maladaptive attachments to behaviors, processes and or substances). Individuals who are addicts encounter normative experiences of impulse and compulsion much differently than others, and their experience of being addicted, is different then that of a non “addict” who becomes addicted. In short, not everyone who is addicted is an addict, and not all addicts that act out are addicted to that specific behavior. [5]

Therefore, in the process of addressing addiction/dependency, it is crucial to be cautious before labeling or ruling out any specific “self” diagnosis. While these classifications, in most situations, are critical for attaining freedom, people that are successful at gaining mastery over addictions or dependencies often allow themselves time before they come to a total conclusion of how to classify themselves. This clarity often emerges from an extended period of trial and error, as well as guided reflection on their experience. Though there are situations where the symptoms are so obvious that they make the classification of addiction or lack thereof overwhelmingly obvious, more often than not, this is not the case. While one might choose to identify themselves as an addict at the very beginning of their journey toward recovery, choosing to view their struggles through that lens, it is important to remember that identifying the level or form of  addiction can shift and change over time. [6] Nearly anyone who is struggling in an area of addiction/dependency (especially one that is inherently compulsive [7]), experiences what addiction feels like. Therefore, in most cases, the operative approach is to engage in a solution oriented and experimental process that is less absolutely defined. Often, this, is best done with a therapist, mentor or both. It is a process that requires an openness to the nature of the attachments, whether they are normative but distressing, dependent, or addictive, or even whether the individual is actually “an addict”. The main thing is to not have a pre-established insistence of the outcome and classification. There must be an acceptance that a pathological (diagnosable) level of challenge may be at play.

(Note: It is useful at this point to make some comments about why in general classification of addiction is valuable, but to make clear it is not operative to addressing addiction/dependency issues, at least initially, it is presented as a side note.)

The distinction between how one classifies themselves and their challenge has the most impact once a person moves on with their lives. After progress is made, and an individual gains a measure of mastery over an area of struggle, it will be important to understand the extent of their previous attachment. For someone whose challenge to master and moderate unwanted compulsions was fully normative, they benefit from remaining vigilant about placing themselves in “dangerous” situations vis a vis their behavior.  While avoiding “triggers” is not the operative solution to unwanted compulsion and dependency, it is common sense. If possible, places and situations that are uncomfortable and may open the door for unwanted behaviors should be avoided.  Creating generalized boundaries is good and sensible.

Yet, for someone who has experienced an addiction level attachment, the level of vigilance is of much greater need. Once a specific maladaptive neurological pathway has been formed (i.e. once somebody is an addict or was addicted), it is always easier for them to fall back to the addiction. In addition, individuals who are “addicts” have a tendency to seek out unbalanced attachments, and are therefore more susceptible to falling back into unwanted patterns. This warrants an extra measure of vigilance and common sense boundaries. Lastly, individuals that are addicts are more susceptible to cross addiction, so care needs to be taken to avoid transfering their addiction from one unwanted dependency to  another.

Another significance of the classification of a person’s challenge is how they encounter distress due to failure. In this, both the distinction of whether a person’s challenge is at a normative level or at a dependent or addicted level qualifies a gentle approach to failure. In the case of a fully normative struggle, it is important when facing failures for a person to remind themselves that they aren’t horrible or terrible or even that different from others. That this struggle is part and parcel of the human experience and that their distress is a symbol of their spiritual aspirations to live up to an ideal of living life that is holy and elevated. This reminds us to be more gentle with ourselves and to remain positive and aspirational instead of dysfunctionally critical and disempowering.

The above applies to an individual who is dependent and or addicted, however it is important to note that their struggle is psychologically and or pathologically caused. This makes giving in to impulse the most natural response for them . It is critical therefore to remember that missteps are part of any process, especially when fighting against the grain of what comes natural.

Lastly, it is important to note that this attitude of patience with oneself is not meant to justify societal misbehavior and does not speak to actions that are inherently abusive to others. If we are to be successful as individuals gaining mastery over challenges, and as a society at rooting out evil, we must make a distinction between a person who is misbehaving within themselves, and someone whose dysfunction  effects others, particularly the disadvantaged and weak, and most especially children. We cannot allow our compassionate acknowledgment of the pathological roots of behavior to blur the line between the maladaptive and the evil. Many people who perpetuate evil acts of abuse are also addicted, and have experienced abuse themselves.  We can have compassion for that, and even facilitate treatment, but we cannot justify or make light of heinous behavior and crimes. Societal standards of maintaining the safety of the weak must be maintained and those who are struggling must know that there is a line over which they cannot pass without punishment or forced segregation. This is a complex topic that must be evaluated carefully and cannot be ignored. Far too often, we as a community have allowed false compassion to overshadow our responsibility to protect those who are most in need.)

[1] Pathological is defined as something involving, caused by, or of the nature of a physical or mental disease. What this means in this context is that the compulsivity of the behavior pattern is itself a psychological/physiological illness, not just a bad habit.

[2] Labeling something normative means that it is perfectly within the frame of normal for a person (i.e. of that age, gender and or circumstance) to behave or misbehave in that manner. When we describe a behavior or habit pattern as normative it doesn’t mean that the behavior is reasonable or acceptable. In a case where a behavior is normative but unwanted or inappropriate, it means that behaving that way may be acting out and a bad habit, but it does not in and of itself define the individual as ill, bad or unhealthy in any way.

[3] This is particularly true when it comes to those addictions that are classified as process addiction.

[4] One of the challenges that emerges when exploring these variable specifically as they emerge in the lives of adolescents; as relates most compulsive behavior, and in young adult, and even adult, males who struggle with erotic behavior, is that these three variables often exist even without any real addiction. (This is true even more so in a religious upbringing and community where there are limits on certain types of “normative” behavior.)

For these reasons, in these situations it is often incredibly difficult to separate between someone who is experiencing the early stages of addiction and someone who is just treading through the normative challenges of being an adolescent or  being a young adult (or adult) male. In these situations it is critically important to get guidance and input from an experienced individual, most often a mental health professional specializing in the behavior, and age group/gender, at hand.

[5] These individuals may just be acting out their addiction in an area of life that is compulsive by nature, due to its effectiveness and pleasure

[6] It is important to note that this perspective runs perfectly in line with the 12 step outlook and process. In those programs individuals often engage the supports of the steps and the culture of meetings right away but then at some later point take time to reflect with the guidance of a sponsor, whether they need to stay. This process is better known as the first step of the 12 steps!

[7] like many process addictions

About the Author
Menachem Poznanski, LCSW is director of The Living Room, a clubhouse for Jewish young adults in recovery from Alcoholism and Addiction. Menachem is co-author of Stepping out of the Abyss: A Jewish guide to the 12 steps (Mosaica, 2017) and the editor of both Consciously and The Light Revealed, two social media initiatives focused on the messages of Jewish recovery and spirituality. Menachem resides in Cedarhurst, NY with his wife Naomi and their children, Zoe and Tani.