Addiction Myths

Internet addiction.

Video game addiction. Social media addiction.

Do these addictions actually exist? And if they do, are they true addictions … or just bad habits?

I've had massive struggles with video games and sugar since I was a boy. So I thought I knew all about addictions.

I was wrong.

Living a simple life and doing mindfulness exercises have helped me. But they aren't magic.

And to the woman spending five hours on Facebook every day? To the man seething with anger when his marathon Halo session is stopped prematurely?

Gratitude rituals and minimalism philosophy aren't enough to shock their obsessed brain back into good health.

But there's something that helped me with my demons and could help you, too. My demons are still lurking – waiting to squeeze through a crack in my fortified walls when I feel weak – but mostly they just sit around being really bored.

In this two-part series on addiction, I share the revelation that changed everything. My goal is to give you a tool to make your demons give up in frustration and say, “I'm outta here!”

But First, Darkness before the Light

Doughnuts. Cookies. Dairy Queen Blizzards. The list goes on and on.

I've been addicted to sugary junk for almost thirty years. I came to the addiction conclusion after events like:

  1. Eating a giant cheesecake on my bar mitzvah in four hours.
  2. Excusing myself every fifteen minutes to get another ice cream sandwich at a friend's house.
  3. Sneaking out of my house, driving to a convenience store, filling up a bag that looked like Halloween exploded inside it, and then inhaling everything almost immediately.

If these actions don't scream “sugar addiction,” then what would you call my craziness?

Now for another list.

Final Fantasy. Gemstone III. World of Warcraft.

I was addicted to video games for twenty years … or so I thought.

The depths of my madness are right here, so I won't rehash it all. The short version is that:

  1. I smashed my own Super Mario World cartridge in a rage because, in my twisted head, my brother was playing my Super Nintendo too much.
  2. I once binged on video games for ten hours straight. No standing up. No food. No bathroom breaks. The only reason I stopped was because the pain in my arm was too intense to continue.
  3. World of Warcraft demolished my sleep cycles, work productivity, and close relationships for five years.

Sugar and video games turn me into a monster. I hide my consumption. I become socially isolated. And I get all kinds of irrational and cranky in pursuit of my “fix.”

Since my personal renaissance began in April 2010, I've done a lot of research to understand my compulsive urges. But when I read acclaimed psychiatrist Lance Dodes' The Heart of Addiction, it blew my mind and completely changed my perspective.

Ready to have your mind blown too?

What Is a “True” Addiction?

Infographics like this one seem serious and reputable.

Addiction Myths

But are they doing more harm than good? Here's what Lance Dodes has to say:

Virtually every addictive act is preceded by a feeling of helplessness or powerlessness. Addictive behavior functions to repair this underlying feeling of helplessness. It is able to do this because taking an addictive action (or even deciding to take this action) creates a sense of being empowered, or regaining control – over one's emotional experience and one's life. Of course, addictive behavior is actually out of control at the same time that it serves a deeper purpose of regaining control.

Think about the anger you feel when you're helpless. The pulsing vein in your forehead. You can't believe this is happening again.

How about the anger you'd feel in this scenario?

It's 3:00 a.m. Your infant son is crying hysterically. You've already tried twice – unsuccessfully – to get the damn kid to go back to sleep, and you've had it! This same situation has played out each night for weeks and your sleep-deprived brain is malfunctioning.

Which option seems most appealing to you?

  1. Crack open a beer to take the edge off your frazzled destroyed nerves.
  2. Meditate with deep breathing, detach from expectations, and accept your powerlessness to quiet the kid.
  3. Put him in his crib and browse Facebook to numb your ears to his primal screams.
  4. Place the kid safely in your basement play pen and go a convenience store for an obscene amount of sugary junk.

Rationally, I'd choose option two. Realistically? I chose option four a few times.

But I didn't just randomly wake up at 3:00 a.m., decide I didn't need more sleep, and drive to snag enough crap to triple my blood glucose level.

There was a trigger. I felt helpless. And I spiraled out of control in an attempt to regain some control.

If you had an “Internet addiction,” you might have Facebooked up a storm. Or checked your email. Or watched some porn.

Articles from reputable places make us believe we need Facebook rehab. They say we're slaves to the smartphone.

But Dodes explains the problem better.

Addictions are displacements of the action you'd like to take, but can't. For example, punching someone in the face or writing a blistering, reputation-shattering note.

Addictions as displaced actions also explains why people can shift so easily from one to another. For instance, one man Dodes saw for compulsive gambling told him that he was a drug addict in his teens, quit drugs and became an alcoholic in his twenties, and then quit alcohol right before he took up gambling.

Dodes writes:

If it were not that people usually give each addiction its own name, it would be perfectly reasonable to say that he had the same addiction … ‘New' addictions don't mean you have a new problem to deal with. They usually mean that the original problem is still with you.

This revelation is how I know that nobody is addicted to the “Internet,” video games, or sugar.

Internet addiction in particular is mislabeling at its worst.

How silly to say, “You're addicted to a system of local and global networks consisting of billions of private, public, academic, commercial, and government technologies. You need to stop!”

So what's really happening here? And why is conventional wisdom so likely to be mistaken or outright false?

I'll answer these questions and explain when your “addiction” isn't really an addiction in part two of this series.

P.S. More people need to understand addiction much better. Share this article right now on Facebook, Twitter, G+, or email and help others know what you now know.

Photo Credit: Winnie the Pooh, Are You Addicted to Social Media Infographic