Am I an Addict? Warning Signs Revealed

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The popular press is full of new and exciting “addictions.” Everything from the Internet, to food, to NASCAR. If someone likes doing it, and others think they are wasting too much time (or money) on the activity, out comes the addiction label. So how can you tell a hobby or a passion from an addiction?

Addiction Requires an Addict

The first myth to bust here is that substances or activities are addictive. When we say heroin is habit forming, we mean that people who use it regularly will become physically dependant on the drug. That’s just biology. But, surprisingly, some people can try the most addictive substances and walk away. This is true for all the biggies: heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and others. Nicotine is usually ranked at the top or nearly so, and most people who try smoking won’t take up the habit.

What matters more than the substance is the person using it. Addiction needs an addict to happen – our own genetic, cultural and psychological wiring is what drives addiction. And this explains why so many odd behaviors can be called addictive. For someone unable to stop, it doesn’t much matter what the behavior is. And it doesn’t matter that the majority aren’t obsessed with the Internet or video games or whatever – all that matters is how the addict feels. If they get the same cravings and withdrawal, the addiction terminology applies.

Please note the difference here between physical addiction and psychological. If someone suffers from a shopping addiction, they aren’t going to have seizures if forced to stop. They might become depressed and impulsively crave the behavior, but they aren’t physically addicted. The distinction is why we sometimes find it easier to apply the addict label to drugs, but not other unwanted behaviors. An alcoholic, deprived of their drug, will undergo withdrawal, and it can be fatal. The drama of withdrawal makes alcoholism a clear addiction. However, once the physical withdrawal is complete, they still have to face the same challenges any addict faces when trying to kick a habit.

The addiction is addict based, not behavior or substance based. Keep this in mind, this focus on the person instead of the deed, when you read the following lists.

Addiction Warning Signs

Everywhere “drug” appears below, “behavior” can be substituted.

  1. Taking the drug more often or in larger amounts than intended.
  2. Unsuccessful attempts to quit; persistent desire, craving.
  3. Excessive time spent in drug seeking.
  4. Feeling intoxicated at inappropriate times, or feeling withdrawal symptoms from a drug at such times.
  5. Giving up other things for it.
  6. Continued use, despite knowledge of harm to oneself and others.
  7. Marked tolerance in which the amount needed to satisfy increases at first before leveling off.
  8. Taking the drug to relieve or avoid withdrawal.

That list is from a 1994 New York Times article on the addictive nature of tobacco.

DSM criteria

Compare that with the criteria for an addiction to a substance (again, substitute behavior to get the broader definition) from the DSM-IV;
Three or more of the following must occur any time in the same 12-month period:

1. Tolerance, as defined by either of the following:
(a) A need for markedly increased amounts of the substance to achieve intoxication or the desired effect -- or -- (b) Markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of the substance.

2. Withdrawal, as manifested by either of the following:
(a) The characteristic withdrawal syndrome for the substance – or -- (b) The same (or closely related) substance is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

3. The substance is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended.

4. There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use.

5. A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain the substance (such as visiting multiple doctors or driving long distances), use the substance (for example, chain-smoking), or recover from its effects.

6. Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of substance use.

7. The substance use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by the substance (for example, current cocaine use despite recognition of cocaine-induced depression or continued drinking despite recognition that an ulcer was made worse by alcohol consumption).

What Addicts Say

All the official warning signs are well and good, but it helps to hear what addicts themselves say about the experience.

“I tried. I can’t stop.”

“It’s ruining my life.”

“The worse it got, the more I did it. There’s always the same answer for the bad feelings that come when I try to stop – go back and do more.”

“I’m not me when I do/take this, and I’m not me when I don’t.”

“My life has become a way to keep using. At first, I was only happy when doing it and then I wasn’t. The only thing using did then was make me slightly less unhappy.”

“Sometimes I think I’m in charge. That’s a lie I tell myself. I am a slave.”

You can take an online test to see if the warning signs apply to you.

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