Mary H is a sex addict. Her partner at work and longtime friend Glen B is an alcoholic. They’ve just met me– a recovered love addict. Glen goes to AA, but claims, because there are no other meetings in his hometown, that a meth addict, a cocaine addict and a gambling addict also attend.
He told me that no one takes the gambler, who sits quietly in a corner with his styrofoam cup and listens, seriously in these meetings. There’s this underlying sense of We’re worse off than you’ll ever be, buddy.
And I suppose therein lies the brunt of Who’s Got the Worst Addiction mentality and why we classify to begin with.
Well, we classify addictions like any other social group– by interest. The sewing group in my town is a far cry from the gardening club, the choral singers and for that matter, the needlepoint ladies who meet in the church basement after service on Sundays. It’s natural to want to classify “what” you’re addicted to by interest. But that’s as far as it should go.
And yet it doesn’t.
At a screening for the new Love Addict documentary, an artumentary by Danish filmmaker PERNILLE ROSE GRØNKJÆR I overheard, “Alcohol and drug addiction do so much more damage than the lesser addictions. ” An hour later, a guy says to me, “You really can’t compare apples to oranges. To compare heroin addiction to cigarette smoking or gambling is ridiculous.”
The argument of “physical” substance addiction (heroin, alcohol) no longer seems to hold more weight than the “process” or behavioral addictions (sex, gambling, watching TV all day) simply because there’s a substance involved. We now know that our behaviors–repetitive, addictive ones– can cause chemical changes in our body akin to ingesting a substance that drives us to want more and take another hit. A recent piece on addiction in The New Statesman called, Addiction, The Key to All Mythologies states, “In a process addiction – to sex, for example – a person may well be addicted to the biochemicals she shoots up in the privacy of her own body.”
Nonetheless, I felt like a pariah, like I had no right attending a recovery festival. It was as if he was implying that love addiction is a joke compared to what most had been through in that room. And maybe he’s right. My “bottom” was mild compared to many . And yet, I can only speak for myself. Some love addicts jump off bridges, driven by obsessive jealousy for someone they are addicted to. How much “less” of an addiction is that?
Isn’t suffering relative? Haven’t we all been through the eye of the needle?
The Addictive Personality
My father was replete with every addiction imaginable. He was an alcoholic, a Rx drug addict, a sex addict, a gambling addict, a workaholic, a shopaholic (when he had money), and a chronic liar, which I believe should be classified as one among the many varieties of addictions simply because he could not stop doing it–even when he knew I knew he was lying. Strangely, he only identified with the alcoholism. In retrospect, that was the least of his problems. I say this because, when he was sober from alcohol, faithfully attending 12-Step fellowship, he was either popping so many pain-relievers or gambling all our money away that there was no clear delineation of better behavior after removing the substance. Tolerating his irresponsible, reckless behavior was a challenge to us all the same. At one point, he lost his mother’s house on one hand of poker. He made bad choices drunk or sober.
In the early 80′s there was a study done by lan R. Lang, a psychology professor at Florida State University. He determined that all addicts–from drug to alcohol to chronic TV watchers– had several “personality factors” in common:
- Impulsive behavior, difficulty in delaying gratification, an antisocial personality and a disposition toward sensation seeking.
- A high value on nonconformity combined with a weak commitment to the goals for achievement valued by the society.
- A sense of social alienation and a general tolerance for deviance.
- A sense of heightened stress. This may help explain why adolescence and other stressful transition periods are often associated with the most severe drug and alcohol problems.
With these in-common personality traits, we can begin to define the addictive personality. And yet, within the real world of recovery, there still exists an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) competition among addicts as to who has the baddest addiction, who caused the most pain to himself or others and who has suffered the most.
When I would go to my dad’s AA meetings back in the day, I remember the members within the group all struggling to outdo each each others’ stories. Stories of throwing broken beer bottles in an empty parking lot, were quickly topped by stories of someone throwing a beer bottle at someone’s head. People who told stories of cheating on spouses while under the influence always got a lot of reverence. But there were also those who told stories of beating up a friend, stealing money, abandoning children, driving into trees or others on the road, passing out at the Thanksgiving dinner table and robbing a bank (this latter feat was my father’s claim to fame, and the one which set him as the Alpha male of the group).
I remember too, as a teen, joining my mother in her 12-Step group: Al-anon. While my father, who seemed to be causing all the trouble, was over on his pulpit, dramatizing the pain he had induced within our family, getting lots of support and pats on the back (and even a few laughs at some of the “funny” antics he had caused), my mother was in her group, crying the entire time, along with everyone else. Her meetings had no sense of rivalry for who suffered the most. We all just suffered; we all just felt pain. It was collective hopelessness.
Picking and choosing between the two groups, I naturally gravitated toward my father’s group in AA. They were having more fun. And I loved the stories that played out like Hollywood movies. It was evident that these people were bad asses. And I loved it. And the more dramatic the story, the more evil the doing, the more pain inflicted on others and the more under the influence the person was, the higher their rank among their peers.
The Extreme Side of Addiction
But let’s get back to the gambler in the corner with his styrofoam cup, who’s also trying to tame the beast that is his pathology. Who’s to say his addiction is a “lesser” addiction when he has brought his entire family to live in a cozy cardboard box on the streets of Philadelphia? Sure, the alcoholic is pickling his liver, and the heroin addict is now schizophrenic and the crack addict is dead from an overdose. But the gambler has brought himself down to the grittiest, most impoverished facet of life–abject poverty–and he brought everyone in his family down with him.
Addiction is suicide, homicide or a combination of both. No matter what the addiction. And how’s this for bad ass:
- Romeo and Juliet committed a double suicide for their obsessive love of each other.
- In contemporary culture, a talented singer named Amy Winehouse killed herself with drugs because of her love addiction to then boyfriend Reg Traviss, who “dumped” her a year before.
- Crimes of passion, “passion murder” and suicide are all degrees of love addiction–albeit extreme ones.
- AIDS, unwanted pregnancy, lifelong sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution, imprisonment, and death are all possible consequences of sex addiction.
- Unemployment, bankruptcy, forced home sales and imprisonment can all be consequences of gambling or shopping addiction.
- Diabetes, heart disease, amputation, invasive surgery, health issues, lack of mobility, morbid obesity can all be the end result of a food addiction.
I could go on. But I won’t. My point is this: the deeper rooted issue is not to what we are addicted, but rather, to not being able to manage our impulsivity, not having healthier values, our tolerance for deviance, and our sense of heightened stress. It’s not about the bottle, or the drugs or the lover or the money. It’s about our internal addictive personality and how to tackle the enemy within.
I can tell you that Psychology Today has a list of the seven hardest addictions to quit and love, cocaine, cigarette smoking and eating potato chips all made the list.
Here’s a quick story for you. Before I realized I was a love addict, I was a smoker. I smoked one to two packs of cigarettes a day (OK, I’ll give you that cigarette smoking is a lesser addiction, unless you’ve seen the graphic images of its ultimate consequence). Sick of being a hypocrite and trying to exercise while smoking, and simply because I knew it was bad for me, I was desperate to quit. I joined the online group quitnet.com and basically brainwashed myself for a few weeks, sitting in front of my computer screen, talking to other quitters who helped me learn not just how to stop smoking, but why I needed to. It was not, as I previously thought, because smoking was bad for me. That would be too easy. That’s the argument that makes so many of us rationalize smoking. We can tell ourselves, “Well, it’s not like we’re smoking crack or something. Because that’s really bad.” No, instead, it was because I was too good for it. What a concept! That I was worth more than the junk I was putting into myself– no matter what it is, I am better than that. My body is a temple. And upon learning these core values, I started to respect who I was and what I put into myself and what I allowed the world to do to me. But here’s the clincher. When I learned this lesson, I quickly applied it to every other addiction in my life, namely, my love addiction. And that’s when it all made sense.
It doesn’t matter what you’re addicted to. Once you recognize your own personal worth, you immediately stop identifying with the addiction of choice and start to see ALL obsessive, addictive behavior as toxic and irrational. Because now what you’re doing, is simply protecting the gift that is you, against any kind of harm.
Competition within the world of addicts or recovering addicts, for that matter therefore makes no evolutionary sense. Does it really make a huge difference in the big scheme of things how you kill yourself, whether slowly or quickly, whether by pills, slitting your wrist, drowning, gun shot to the head or jumping off a bridge? Dead is dead. Life is wasted all the same. And does it really matter, in the big scheme of the things, the degree to which you choose to wreck your life or the lives of others? Are we really basing what is ultimately our own level of stupidity or naiveté on the laws of gravity? That the harder something drops the higher up it bounces back?
When my father was 57 he walked into the ER with stomach issues. Six days later he was dead. The drama, emotion and intensity of those last days were extreme. At the time, his death was a mystery. We scrambled, looking for clues as to how he could be here one day and the next, gone. We wondered if he was murdered, we looked into any enemies he had. We interrogated the doctors. Were they guilty of malpractice? Was it suicide? The questions haunted us.
In the end, there wasn’t much of a story. In fact, it was the unHollywood, unglamorous story that befalls some addicts. A year before, he had been diagnosed with a mild form of leukemia that, as the doc put it, “If you’re in good shape, you could live with this for 10 to 20 years…” My father wasn’t in good shape. In the last year of his life he was drinking more heavily than ever, popping Oxycotin like candy and even crushing it and swallowing it. His liver was so damaged from his drug and alcohol use, that when they went to treat him with chemo for the leukemia his liver was unable to flush out the poison and he went septic. Within days, every organ shut down and we were left with having to pull the proverbial plug.
For the longest time, I couldn’t help but wonder if all that drama was part of his ego-driven need for attention. One last posthumous craving to be able to say, “I told you I was the baddest.” And he was. But it didn’t really matter much in the end.