Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
ADDICTIONS: February 25,2001
The road not to take
Addiction is the road not to take. It is a "No Entry" street, which if one is foolhardy enough to enter, becomes a nightmare. Turning back is theoretically possible, but as difficult as going up a down-escalator. Addiction, Passion, Obsession. Getting hooked. Each of these words is weighted down with its specific connotation.
It is difficult to assign these words into neat little boxes, with straight linear boundaries. Each word has an origin, a history of use, and an entry record in the jargon of a specific discipline. And yet each word assumes its own colour and texture and the characteristics of the marketplace in which its transactions have taken place. It would be a daunting task to track the travels of a word and watch the traffic rules it followed; to do that for the meaning of the word would be infinitely more complex. The linguistic marketplace has exchange, trading, even sleight of hand. Also, words change in meaning, when the context changes.
Let us consider the dictionary meanings of each of the words in the title. To begin with, the word addiction. At some time in the past, addiction, as a word could have been used in a good sense, a positive sense, as it meant to habituate, to attach closely or to devote. We no longer describe a faithful dog as "addicted to his master." In current usage, we tend to use the word "addict", in hushed tones, aware of both the social and medical baggage it carries.
The word passion originally meant suffering or agony, as of a martyr. The New Testament and classical religious music make the usage clear. Later, the word also carried the meaning of being acted upon (as opposed to action); it could denote a strong, intense emotion, or even just enthusiasm or fondness, as for music. As for the word obsession, it was originally the act of an evil spirit in possessing or ruling a person. Now it is generally used to mean an idea or feeling that completely occupies the mind. Used by people in the mental health profession, it is a disorder, best understood as uncontrollable persistence of a thought. And finally, let us consider the expression, getting hooked, a slang, even two decades ago, but like many words of its ilk, one that has crept quietly into more respectable usage. But addiction and obsession have a pathological connotation, and passion is linked in the minds of many, with lust. So we decide that the phrase "getting hooked" will more faithfully cover the wide range of instances and experiences brought together here.
Is it possible to trace a linear pathway from desire and enthusiasm to total preoccupation; from there to passion, moving on to obsession and finally to addiction? Are these not different stages of getting hooked? Is addiction a linear process leading from preoccupation, to a state of being obsessed and then to one of excessive behaviour that a person is unable or unwilling to stop? Possibly not. There is a qualitative difference between a person totally immersed in an activity, using the energy of that involvement for a creative upsurge and a person who has allowed the excessiveness to diminish his sense of self. All excesses are disturbing to perceive and difficult to acknowledge. Overdoing an inclination and infringing the codes of propriety could be seen in varied domains of life: not only in the consumption of alcohol, but also in shopping, watching TV or travel. Everyday activities, routine for most of us, could become, in an addictive use, an embarrassment for self and society. It is a common observation that the people with the kind of character we admire in literature, or adulate from a distance in real life, are precisely the kind we abhor as kinsfolk or neighbours. Some of us might enjoy the idea that the members of our family, especially the extended family, are a little colourful, so that there is a rich harvest of anecdotes to share with friends. However, one does not gossip about the people one loves and is close to: by very definition gossip is about the "others". Similarly, a magnificent obsession in a poet or painter we read about can enchant us and reveal unfamiliar realms of experience. But any demonstration of such behaviour in the close family circle is an embarrassment to be lived down. Mild eccentricity is generally acceptable, but families prefer average or commonplace behaviour. Possibly this is more true in societies that value conformity to time-tested norms.
This patterning in the proximal-distal axis is worth our attention. Let me elaborate. Characters in books, like Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary often display behaviour that we admire for daring and unconventionality. When we see the same traits in our neighbours, we reduce, perhaps unwittingly, both our admiration and tolerance. If a member of the family acts like those heroines, we shift to a state of embarrassment, if not intolerance and rejection. This leads to an axiom that I have formulated.
"Acceptance of behaviour that flouts social norms is inversely related to proximity." Here proximity refers to psychological nearness and involvement as well. In other words, the further away the person in relationship to one, the greater the willingness to consider "difficult" as acceptable. If we do not apply this axiom to a person hooked to shopping, for instance, we will find that we are amused when an acquaintance is an addicted shopper, mildly tolerant of a friend with the same condition and angry and annoyed with the syndrome in one's partner or offspring. This is an important axiom in dealing with the families of the addict. For the family, the excesses become cumulatively difficult to bear. The consequences of substance abuse are horrendous not only for the user, but also for the family. With eroding energy, depleting bank balances and increasing isolation from other social supports, the wife and children of an addict need some counselling as well, in addition to the de-addiction of the person. More than anything else, it is the obvious lack of self-control and the surrender of human dignity on the part of the addict, that is distressing.
Moderation, it is said, is the pearl of all virtues. It is an interesting thought that not only our vices, but even our virtues need to be moderate. Take for instance, the love of a mother for her child. Who would deny that it is one of the most tender emotions, extolled in verse and tale? The other side of the coin is filial devotion, or the sense of loyalty to one's parents. Sravan Kumar, the young man whose accidental death while serving his blind parents produced the pathos of total tragedy and became the sourcepoint for the writing of the "Ramayana", is held up as the role model in all our socialisation dialogues. But extend these virtues in time and importance. An example where more of something good is not better, necessarily. When this relationship becomes obsessive it is truly harmful. From TV serials, personal observation and the anecdotes that friends and students have shared with me, I have at least a dozen stories of possessive mothers, spinelessly "devoted" sons, and the resultant dysfunctionalities in all family relationships. What has been referred to as "the mother-in-law problem," is only the end product of a "mother-son problem." We must be one of the few contemporary cultures that is blissfully unaware of Sigmund Freud. (In Chennai, there is even a restaurant called "Oedipus". It does not insist that only mother-son couples must come!) From popular literature and from TV shows, we find that an adult son who is fed by his mother with her own hands, or one who insist that his mother must accompany the bridal couple for the honeymoon, is actually admired. The mother-son relationship is the most common of the obsessive relationships. Several other variations are found, including being obsessed with one's partner.
This morning, while on a walk, we came upon a man pushing a handcart and selling some special vegetables."Maangaa inji!", he called out. He was selling the ginger with the green mango flavour, the kind that is used for pickling. His words evoked the nostalgia for one's childhood tastes. Pausing a bit, we said, "It is not very good for health". He came back with a reply that too much of anything is bad, but small quantities of them, occasionally, should be acceptable to the system. And then he quoted Avvaiyar, the renowned poetess and song maker in Tamil, where she suggests moderation in all things. So there was traditional wisdom, available on the street, but forgotten in the mansions around.
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