|By British Artist Louis Wain, 1860-1939, via Wikimedia Commons|
Whenever I hear things like "Jane's a shopping addict! Joey's addicted to sugar! They just can't stop!" I get a twinge of irritation and pain.
That twinge isn't because I think Jane and Joey can stop after all -- that what they need is "just need a little willpower." And it's not because I think compulsive spending and eating are small problems. Au contraire.
No, what gets under my skin is the implication that somehow that model of addiction is only applicable to truly pathological patterns of desire and satisfaction. As if somehow the rest of life were full of some other kind of desire-satisfaction pattern, and somehow once you got yourself into an "addiction" -- well, then you're screwed. Whatever it is you have to give it up.
The problem with this, it seems to me, is that lots and lots of desire-satisfaction behaviors are like the addiction desire-satisfaction behaviors. At least they're like addictive desire-satisfaction behaviors in the sense that we ourselves take the steps that increase our desires.
One of the things that make addictive behaviors so addictive is that the activity itself increases the desire for the activity. Smoking is addictive because smoking makes you want to smoke. If you smoke quite a bit, and you haven't had a cigarette, your desire to smoke becomes crazy. And one sad truth about crazy desires is that satisfying them feels fucking awesome.
People like to talk about desires as if they just come from nowhere, or as if they can be meaningfully divided into the ones that are "yours" and the ones that come from "outside you." FWIW, I don't know about you, but it took me about ten minutes with the philosophical literature on self-hood to come to the conclusion that this You/Not You thing is itself pretty suspect (I tried to talk about it here).
But passons. What I'm interested in here is the way, in practice, we don't treat our desires this way. Instead, we go out of our way to stoke our desires -- to create the conditions under which they'll be cravings. Because when you satisfy a craving -- that's when you feel sooo good. Satisfying some normal desire is nothing as compared to satisfying a craving.
If you've ever smoked, you know this. The feeling of smoking is good. But the feeling of smoking when you're addicted is amazing. The desire is so much more intense, the pleasure has to be better.
But it's not just addictive things that lead to this desire-intensification-satisfaction pattern. We seek it out all the time. Pep rallies, appetizers, a stroll through the mall. Habit forming TV shows. What are these if not ways of increasing your desire for something? Or just look at pornography. What is the point of pornography if not to give you the feeling of sexual desire? OK, sure, you might look at pornography because you're already wildly turned on and you want to somehow ramp it up to 11. But lots of times people look at pornography because it increase the desire itself.
This means that when our behaviors aren't addictive enough already -- when the behavior itself doesn't already ramp up the desire to do it again, we're taking steps ourselves to ramp up the desire to do it again. It's like we're trying to make things addictive.
If that's right, life isn't so much a matter of getting rid of your addictions as it is a matter of lifelong management of them. Sure, some desires, like those for smoking or drugs or whatever, you might want to get rid of entirely. But that's because they're bad for you, not because they're addictive. Everything else, you just have to manage. Nobody tells you this, because everyone's so busy telling you to free yourself from your addictions. That's one reason why, as I explained before, desire management has become a lost art.
The moral of the story: The metaphor for a healthy life is not freeing yourself from addictive patterns of behavior. The addictive personality is the human personality. The trick is to addict yourself to the right sorts of things.