What comes to mind with the word addiction? Alcohol, cigarettes, sex, sweets, fats, maybe even heroin or cocaine? Definitely not weed… no you can’t be addicted to that. It’s not physically addictive. “I can quit anytime I want,” they say… “I just don’t want to.” What about those who are addicted? These are the unlucky people that lack self-control. But who are these people? Them and they, right? What if addictions played a much larger role in all of our lives than we tend to think? For the sake of argument, I will be referring to addiction as the feeling of lack we experience with a thing. I’m going to suggest that addictions are all around us and will even go so far to say that most of our everyday actions are actually rooted in addiction.
To begin, lets go back to what someone might say in defense of not being addicted to a thing: “I can quit anytime I want, I just don’t want to.” Our previous thinking of addiction came from the mindset that addiction is something experienced by someone that has a physical limitation to quitting and would experience withdrawals if they quit. For instance, what a person with a heroin addiction would most likely experience if they quit shooting heroin. So the first part of their statement may be true. They might be able to quit any time they want. The trouble is, they don’t want to. Well, what controls the wanting within us? We would like to think we do, but this simply may not always be the case.
How can we explain a craving for a particular food? Consider that most of the cells that comprise our bodies are bacterial. One NIH study (http://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-human-microbiome-project-defines-normal-bacterial-makeup-body) found that bacterial cells outnumber human cells 10 to 1. Their small size accounts for why they only make up 1-3% of our bodily mass, but with cells its more about function than size. With so many more bacterial cells sending signals and competing for resources than human cells, might it be possible that they are the source of our wanting? Since bacteria thrive on sugar, this may be more true about our cravings for sweets. So when the craving for that Friday doughnut, coffee loaded with sugar or my personal favorite, Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream, can we really say that we intrinsically want it?
Maybe it’s just the bacteria in our bodies sending signals that they need more sugar and we’ve associated those signals with our own particular cravings. The more we satisfy these cravings the more populous those particular bacteria become, the more connections and associations are made in our brain and thus an addiction sets in. Maybe not so extreme an addiction as alcoholism, but an addiction nevertheless.
Another addiction I wanted to speak of is very prevalent, not only in today’s youth, but also in anyone with a Smartphone. There’s an addiction nowadays to wanting to be connected, 24/7, to everyone and everything, all the time. Generally speaking this is an exaggeration, but is it really that far from the truth? Think about what happens when working on anything and the Smartphone is nearby. With all the notifications, buzzes, rings and dings, how many times is there a distraction from the task at hand? When was the last time an hour went by without some interaction with the Smartphone? This “interaction” also includes thinking about the Smartphone or anything related to it. When our true attention is neither with our Smartphones nor with the task at hand, how can we really benefit or learn from what we’re doing?
These Smartphones are forever present in our lives, and if the bond between Smartphone and human has lasted between one month to a year, they may experience whats known as Phantom Vibration Syndrome or hypovibochondria — when a vibration from the phone is felt, but no message or alert was received. Researchers believe that before Smartphones, it may have been just an itch. Now, Smartphones have pervaded our lives to the point of literally rewiring our brains to think that itch is some notification (http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2013/09/30/226820044/phantom-phone-vibrations-so-common-they-ve-changed-our-brains). I won’t even go into my experiences of being freakily good at getting a sense that I received a message (or sensing a message is about to be received) on my phone sitting on the table even though all sounds and vibrations are turned off. Almost like my brain is somehow picking up the radio waves that are being sent to and from my phone. So do we consciously look to our Smartphone and say to ourselves, “I wonder what’s going on with social media right now, I want to check”? Or, is it more of an impulse or compulsion that we grab for our phones out of habit at this point to check our Facebook or Twitter? If the latter option seems more true, then can we not say that an addiction is present?
Lastly, I wanted to talk about probably the least anticipated addiction there is and one that I have had a substantial experience with. One probably that most people have never directly thought of as an addiction. It is more commonly thought of as “missing someone” or “being homesick”, but I will argue that it can be seen as a type of addiction. This addiction is the company we share with family and friends. Most of us rarely realize this addiction since, as humans, we make it a point to surround ourselves with family and friends as much as possible. Because of this, our brains are wired in a way to receive feedback from these friends and family. Since we are surrounded by people we are familiar with on an almost day-to-day basis, the experience of this addiction is rare.
What happens when everything and everyone has been completely removed from reality? At first, the experience is invigorating! Jumping from place to place, seeing new things and meeting new people. After a while, though, settling into this new world begins to reveal the lack of what is familiar and comfortable. The realization that all the people that are special in life becomes more and more evident to the brain. This is when the addiction becomes clear. We are addicted to the feelings we get from spending time with family and friends. When we’re missing this physical connection we experience a type of withdrawal (being homesick or “missing someone”) that can be related to addiction. I’ve experienced this feeling twice, once on my adventures to South America to study abroad for four and a half months and now teaching English in South Korea. The interesting part is that in both occasions the most intense “withdrawals” came at around three months. This, to me, suggests that after a given amount of time of the brain not receiving these physical affections from our loved ones, it realizes the lack and therefore, an addictive type craving that is experienced as being homesick.
A lot of my thoughts here are mere speculation, but it does seem evident that addictions are rooted in many decisions that we make. And I could have continued on about how many of the keystone habits that make up most of our actions can also be considered addictions. Or the reasons why we continue to buy the same products or brands of things even though there may be something better on sale or a newer product and get upset when the store has run out of that particular brand.
The point here is to demonstrate that much of what we do can be deemed out of our control because we are not aware of what we are doing. “Forgive him father for he knows not what he does.” When we can’t say which foot our sock goes on first, this is telling us something about our awareness. My goal here is to inspire others to identify what they’re addicted to and the habits they have in their lives. Once identification is achieved, start the scrambling process! If one is dexter-dominant, start brushing and eating on the sinister side of life. Take a different route to work every once in a while. And by all means, jump in a plane and settle a land completely foreign to the eyes. When we can start to realize the reasons we make certain choices and wake up to the fact that there are so many other factors that weigh in on our decisions, we can truly become masters of the moment.