Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
ADDICTIONS: February 25,2001
Who? Me? An addict?
Dr. Vijay Nagaswami
The writer is a Chennai-based psychiatrist and individual/marital psychotherapist.
"Grass. Pot. Chillums. Addas. Seedy bars. IMFL. Mainlining. Colombia. Hippies. Moral turpitude. Poor parenting. Detoxification."
G. Bharath Bhushan
These might possibly be your responses if I were doing a survey and asked you what you associate the word "addiction" with. Had I the temerity to ask you whether you have ever been addicted to anything, you would most likely, with equal measures of righteous indignation, sanctimony and hauteur, send me away with a flea in my ear. But then again, you might not, if you were Sheela or Rajan or Kumar. Or were acquainted with them, or somebody like them.
Sheela, a thirty something commercial artist, cannot do without sex, and that too with multiple partners. Initiated early in her adolescence by her best friend's married brother into the way of all flesh, she has lost count of the number of partners she has systematically run through, been married and divorced thrice, and despite feeling deep shame about her lifestyle, simply cannot go to bed alone except when she is hospitalised. She neither smokes nor drinks. Nor has she ever "done drugs".
Rajan, a successful businessman had, until two years ago, everything going for him. An attractive wife. Two smart children. A flat in a good locality. A fancy car. And the Presidency of his trade association. Today he has nothing: the credit card company has repossessed all his belongings, his humiliated wife has stormed out of the marriage, children in tow, and his business has been bought over by a gloating competitor. He smokes occasionally, gets nauseated by alcohol and has only taken prescription drugs. He plays the stock market passionately. Or used to.
Kumar, a 19-year-old high school dropout, the black sheep of his erudite family, has no friends - girls or boys, no savings - earned or inherited, and no career plans - short or long-term. Though blacklisted by his friends and disowned by his family, he does not seem to care. He has found himself a job with a dot com company that pays him subsistence wages to surf the Internet twelve hours a day, which is what he wanted to do in the first place. And which is what led to his excommunication. His only "vice": ten cups of coffee a day. No tobacco, no alcohol, no drugs.
If these stories have planted a seed of doubt in your mind about addiction, then now might be a good time to ask yourself whether you have ever felt compelled to pursue some activity beyond what you would ordinarily consider "normal limits". If your soul searching has been comprehensive, you are more likely than not, to conclude that you have at some time in your life, done something not too different from what Sheela, Rajan and Kumar have. Of course, maybe never to such dysfunctional proportions, for theirs are examples of extreme behaviour, but to a lesser extent, perhaps?
Most human beings pass through periods in their lives, when they feel compelled to engage in some apparently mindless activity that, for the time being, seems to provide some relief from the prevailing chaos in their lives. This could be something as simple as spending hours in front of the television set. Or going on uncontrollable buying sprees just to feel and smell the newness of the product. Or getting into a series of dead-end relationships. Or going on eating binges. Or playing computer games, uncaring of unattended work piling up. Or playing snooker every evening at the club regardless of the family's legitimate demand for more attention. In other words, binging on anything potentially destructive to the body or the soul. Fortunately for many of us, after a period of this compulsive indulgence, we pull ourselves back to the mainstream and get on with our lives, until the next compulsion hits us.
Not everybody is so fortunate. Some tend to become "addicted" on a more permanent basis to whatever they feel compelled to do. As a result, we have love junkies, sex junkies, relationship junkies, education junkies, pet junkies, food junkies, work junkies (workaholics), television junkies, shopping junkies and so on, the common features being an obsessive preoccupation with the activity they have chosen; difficulty in stopping the activity even if it comes in the way of their financial, social or emotional well-being; accompanying feelings of shame and self-disgust; and the experience of a sense of craving, irritability and restlessness when they are unable to engage in the activity - all classical "symptoms" of addiction. And through all this, they may never have smoked a cigarette, touched a drop of alcohol or come anywhere within sniffing distance of non-prescription drugs. And you believed that only chemicals induced addiction!
These "social addictions", have been less extensively researched than "substance abuse", largely because they rarely find active mention in any diagnosable system, but are increasingly being recognised as distressing enough public health hazards to merit further study. The typical bio-psycho-social illness model does not seem to fit easily here. There are no distinctive genetic patterns, no apparent correlation with the activity of endorphins (endogenous morphine-like substances present in the human brain, believed to be related to drug abuse), and the data available is more anecdotal than organised. However, that they exist, and in large numbers at that, is unquestionable. You just have to look around you to appreciate this, and at your own self to understand why it happens.
It would be most convenient to place the blame at the doorstep of phenomena like degradation of basic human values, the break-up of the joint family and social stress to explain away these social addictions, just as the very availability of drugs, poor parenting and character flaws have been at various times held responsible for drug addiction. But if truth be told, and hopefully we will not mind the truth being told every now and again, the reasons that each of us is a potential addict, tend to run deeper. If endorphins are to be held responsible for social addictions, where were they all these years? Why have they made a sudden uninvited appearance? How come our parents' generation did not manifest them? Fair questions, in the answering of which, we need to go beyond the illness model of addiction behaviour and examine a more fundamental reality of human existence - unconditional fear.
From the moment we are born and until we die, we periodically experience a fear that has its origins in the process of birth itself when we were thrust out of the security of the water-based environment we were created in (the mother's amniotic fluid) to the "reality" of the air-based environment we have spent all our conscious lives in (even today we think of reality as "harsh"). And we spend the rest of our lives trying to keep this fear at bay. Every time the world around us becomes a little unpredictable, we respond by trying to "control" the accompanying fear, for it is not a pleasant emotion to feel. The more advanced the society, the more prevalent the fear, for with growth and development, we tend to move into uncharted seas of whose existence our forefathers had no inkling of and therefore, could not adequately prepare us for.
Alongside the experience of unconditional fear, goes a feeling of alienation, where we feel at odds with the environment around us, and in an attempt to quell this, we tend to engage compulsively in activities that, at least for the moment, prevent the fear from overwhelming us. And when the storm passes, we brush this aside as a "bad patch", feel a little sheepish, a little ashamed, but never learn very much from it, since we do not allow ourselves the luxury of understanding what happened. We can do better.
All it takes to deal with the addict in us is to accept this unconditional fear as an intrinsic part of our lives, an inherent concomitant of our heightened sensitivity and an inevitable consequence of our growth and development. This can be facilitated only if we re-configure our relationships by dropping once and for all, this compulsive quest for independence and autonomy, by getting comfortable with being vulnerable, and enjoying the serenity engendered by mutual inter-dependence. Most of all, we should never attempt to suppress our fear, for it will inexorably manifest itself in other forms - compulsive behaviour, control games and eventually addictions. And we hardly want to substitute one addiction with another, do we? Just as the hippies of the 1960s and even 1970s, addicted to free love and mind expanding drugs, gave way to the yuppies of the 1980s and 1990s who substituted these with the pursuit of material wealth and economic suzerainty.
So, next time you come across somebody who is judgmental or sanctimonious about social addictions, try telling them the story of Aarti, comfortably, if not happily, married for 17 years, now vitiating the emotional well-being of her loyal husband and two adoring children, for she simply cannot give up her relationship with a 50-year-old married neighbour, whom she knows she does not love, who cannot offer her a commitment, and who cares for her far less than her husband does. All she can do is weep inconsolably on her addictive road to self-destruction. And if this is not convincing enough, remind him that he too, unless he has dealt with his fears, is an addict waiting to happen.
Collectors Anonymous Imagine, if you will, sitting in a room and experiencing an unparalleld feeling of tranquility, gazing with paternal tenderness at your extensive collection of Chinese miniatures. Or gold Thanjavur plates. Or Zwergnase dolls (whatever these are). Or out-of-circulation Walt Disney videos. Or fake Mona Lisas. Or... the list is endless, but you get my drift?
Tarun Chopra/ Fotomedia
Collectors collect a wide range of things, from the relatively common-place stamps and coins to obscure and exotic things that would astonish the non-collector. One can only marvel at the existence of organisations like the American Hatpin Society, Paperweight Collectors' Association, Painted Soda Bottle Collectors' Association or the International Society of Apple Parer Enthusiasts (if you don't believe me that such organisations exist, try surfing the Internet). All these exist to serve the need of collectors, who can get very technical about the items they collect. And not just this, they spend huge sums of money enhancing their collections. And when they do manage to aggressively outbid a fellow collector and acquire that much-yearned-for hatpin or toothpick, they experience a feeling of great inner peace. But when they are outbid, they experience great frustration, irritation and even agitation. And at least a few times a week, they must gaze upon their precious collection, to make them feel alive again.
Does this mean collectors are addicts, considering they appear to manifest all the classical symptoms of addiction? Some of them seem to feel so anyway, judging by some of the support groups they have formed: Collectors Anonymous. Doll Collectors Anonymous. Moocollectors Anonymous (devoted to cattle lovers). Whether these function along the same lines as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, I have no idea. But surely the choice of the word "anonymous" suggests something, doesn't it? A diatribe against the cruelty to animals perpetrated by "animal collectors" that appeared in the May-June 1994 issue of
Shelter Sense, published by The Humane Society of the United States, aggressively concludes that collectors are addicts. And they may well be right. Not your everyday numismatist or philatelist, who collects the objects of his affections more as a pastime or a hobby, but the hard core collector who needs his regular "fix". The mindset of a collector is best summed up in the following statement that appears on the web site of "The Card Collector's Company"
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