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teafaerie | Musings | Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

I have a friend who claims to be addicted to Facebook. She thought she could handle it when she first got started. She told herself that she could take it or leave it, that she would just poke around a bit on the weekends. Or maybe she would dip in when she had a little time to kill on the occasional quiet evening. Pretty soon she was only doing it on days that end with the letter “Y”. For hours. When she got in trouble at work, she started sneaking peeks at her updates on the iPhone. She misses out on live social engagements in order to stay home and farm her network. She says that she wants to take her involvement down a couple of notches, but she just doesn’t seem to be able to do it. She’s committed to limits and then fudged or outright broken them time and again. She thinks she might have to close her account to get a grip. So far, she hasn’t actually done it, though.

Into the Abyss by Spiffy SpaffySound familiar? I’ve been thinking a lot about behavioral attractors lately. What does it mean when I say that something is addictive, and what webwork of fine lines separate addiction, habituation, ritual, and obsession?

Human beings are creatures of habit. Even those of us who make a conscious effort to occasionally brush our teeth with the other hand and so forth repeat thousands of regular patterns all the time. It’s part of the way that our brains work. It makes evolutionary sense. Long before our distant ancestors had the ability to think things out and make rational decisions, we could still gather food and not get eaten by leopards most of the time because we build up a robust collection of little subroutines that would more or less run on automatic pilot. Neural pathways get established and become the road of least resistance from an electrical standpoint. And then there is our intelligence or will, whatever that means, which is sort of a meta-programming function that analyzes and acts on a different but interlocking level. The delicate balance between these two principles raises fascinating questions about the nature of self-determination and the meaning of free will. It also presents us with a number of conundrums, both as individuals and as a superculture struggling to seize the tiller of our collective destiny.

When most people think of addiction, they think of drugs. Naturally. Many drugs are obviously quite addictive, both physically and psychologically, and the distinction between the two can be confusingly blurry. The drugs that we are all most familiar with by virtue of their availability on every street corner: alcohol, tobacco, caffeine, and processed sugar, are well-known to be particularly pernicious. They all have the potential to catalyze a state of dependence when used with regularity, and can be quite toxic when consumed too frequently or in excessive amounts. Alcohol and tobacco alone are directly responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths each year. Also, everyone who watches television is steeped in the message that street drugs of any kind are almost preternaturally habituating. Any time we see an ingénue tentatively hit her first crack pipe in a movie, it’s a good bet that she’ll end up selling her body to get a fix before it’s over. Of course Hollywood exaggerates things just a little bit now and again. Nevertheless, most of us know someone who has struggled with drug addiction, legal or otherwise. There is no doubt that it is a very a serious problem, both at the individual level and at the global level insofar as the drug trade powers various unwholesome and dangerous machines. Addiction affects everyone on the planet, in some way or another. For a lot of us it hits very close to home.

There is some confusion, even among experts, about how to define “addiction” and what can be included in that category. A certain breed of purist would say it’s only addiction if drugs are involved. But, the dopamine boosts you get from a slot machine’s intermittent pay-off schedule could also be considered a drug effect: many popular substances work by artificially setting off or potentiating the happy juice you already make in your brain. So the border is blurry at best.

Some also limit the use of the term “addiction” to situations where physical dependence is involved; when the body’s chemistry has changed in response to the use of a drug so that refusing the call to indulge results in strongly noticeable withdrawal symptoms. But withdrawal because of physical dependence is really just a small part of what drives the human animal. My own personal definition of addiction stretches to include virtually any situation in which an individual can’t stop doing something when they really want to stop.

What do I mean when I say that a person can’t stop? This is part of where the slippery free will issue comes in. I never watched any of the Saw horror movies, because I take a lot of drugs and that sort of thing always rebounds on me in the worst way. But let’s just imagine that I somehow got hold of like a hundred junkies and rigged a bomb on each one of them so that if he or she ever touched heroin again it would go off, okay? I know I know, that’s terrible and it wouldn’t work and obviously I’d never do that in real life, but play along with this as an illustration. If you prefer, let’s say the bombs are fake but the junkies don’t know that. Whatever. My thesis is that a few of the poor devils would eventually hit a spoke on their cycle where they caved in and shot up anyway. That’s the percentage who really can’t help it. There are those who really can’t stop. But I bet that quite a few of them would find a way to resist, even though they are clinically addicted.

There’s a tension between different types of control systems going on, and in some cases the ego has the upper hand and in other cases maybe not so much. For numerous people it fluctuates depending on circumstance. I call it addiction when a person repeatedly forms a clear and committed resolve to stop doing something and they keep right on doing it anyway, or if they’re willing to pay an irrationally disproportionate price in order to continue their practice. For instance if a man won’t stop smoking in spite of his doctor’s increasingly strident advice and his own desire to quit, or a woman keeps on drinking even though it’s clear that the fallout is ruining her marriage. This suggests a dangerously dysfunctional ability to regulate key behavior patterns.

Maybe habituation is a better word to use for the psychological component. Psychological habituation is a subset of addiction, and the issue goes way beyond the topic of drugs. There are a number of syndromes that share a good percentage of the same phenomenology, both in their modes of expression and in their methods of treatment. People talk about sex addiction, or addiction to gambling, for example. I myself was a World of Warcraft widow for a while, and I was convinced, as only a woman scorned can be, that my partner had some kind of a clinical issue. I could make a pretty good case about television being habit-forming, too. Some people go in and get a Whopper every day. Or they check out porn every night. If they’re happy about that and it’s working for them, I don’t classify it as a problem. On the other hand, if a person is ashamed about what they do and they don’t feel like they can stop themselves, the exact same actions take on a different character. They swear off their habit over and over, and over and over they find themselves in the position of someone who has just done that thing they said that they were never going to do again. I think of it as the “How did I get to be this guy?” moment. When that feeling starts to become familiar, it’s important to pay attention. You’re having some control issues and may have become habituated. You may be so used to the action that it seems a more important part of life than it actually is. Sure, you could stop. If someone offered you a million dollars to cut it out, you could probably do it. But that’s not going to happen, and if you’ve already proven to yourself more than once that just really wanting to quit isn’t good enough, some would say it’s time to come up with an alternative strategy.

Not all habits are bad, of course. Some we even deliberately program into our children, such as basic civility and sanitation protocols. Others get built up by repetition and positive association, like doing yoga or making tea.  Some artists have creative rituals that help them focus on their work, or they require certain props, like a particular kind of pencil, in order to do what they do.  When I lived in New York by myself for a while, I trained my body to take a short nap in the afternoons. It worked out awesome for me. My husband gets cravings for healthy foods. I almost always look both ways before crossing the street. The examples are endless. I’m actually a big fan of ritual and repetition, and I like having little touchstones and things that I do with some semblance of consistent regularity.

I go through phases in which I smoke a lot of pot, and there is an ongoing conversation between me and mine about the nature of my relationship with it. Smoking is kind of a ritual for me. It’s also a habit. I’m not going be a poseur and say that it’s always a sacrament. Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s not. But I do use it effectively as a transition ritual. It helps me to stand down from my work set, for instance, and spin up into the version of myself that I want to be at home. Once when I was super poor, I got one of those fake hollow cigarettes and I’d just take it out a few times a day and suck on it. Most of the time, it worked! I found it fascinating that the calming effect seemed to come from the ritual itself, not from the actions of the plant ally. In the same way, cigarettes serve a primarily ritualistic function for many users, which is not to say that they’re not physically addictive. There are just overlapping processes happening simultaneously. Same with coffee. Same with alcohol. Some people always come home and have a glass of wine to unwind from work. Is it addiction, habit, or ritual?

One good friend of mine has a problem with the ritualistic use of drugs because he sees it as a potential crutch. A crutch is fine, he says, if your leg is broken. Some people really do need antidepressants, for instance. You shouldn’t use a crutch as a pogo stick, though. He says he wouldn’t improve himself with drugs even if it were safe, legal and effective, because the idea of coming to rely on an external agent is offensive to him. And I get that. But what, I asked, about someone who meditates for half an hour every day? Studies show that some people can change their brain chemistry that way. My husband knows a girl who is an absolutely lovely person in every respect, so long as she does her meditation every single morning. Otherwise she’s a total raging bitch. I’m not exaggerating that much. It’s really obvious if she hasn’t done it. Isn’t that a crutch? My friend says whatever you get out of meditation comes from inside of you, so that’s a different kind of thing. Well, what about somebody who plays the guitar for half an hour after work and gets the same effect? What about people who practice flow arts? Our students quite often describe spinning as addictive. I think it’s partly the intermittent reward thing. They also report that it gets them high from the endorphin rush and helps them deal with people and transitions throughout the day. Is hula-hooping a crutch because it requires an outside element to activate the effect? I bet that emerging technologies will soon blur the line between our natural selves, external toys and prostheses, so it may serve us well to examine exactly where we draw our lines and why.

Of course, for some people the ritual use of psychoactive substances has a religious or spiritual element to it. The ayahuasca religions are a good example of this, as is the Native American Church. And what about the sadhus in India who smoke ganja all day as a part of their practice? What about the Rasta thing? Is regular ritual use a form of addiction? Could ritual users stop if they wanted to? A certain percentage of them could do so easily. For others it would be renouncing their most profound connection to the numinous. Some of us would rather die. What about the guys who sit up on icy mountaintops and chant for twelve hours a day? They must be getting off in some way or they’d eventually give up and go home, right? For sure their bodies and minds must adapt to that mode and I bet they would really have to recalibrate if they suddenly had to renounce their practice. Does that mean that they’re addicted to chanting? And if so, so what? Is it incumbent upon friends and family to stage an intervention? Why is it somehow totally acceptable and even holy and awesome if a person hypnotizes herself into producing her own endogenous supply of liquid sunshine, but it’s considered vulgar and in some cases illegal if she just cuts to the chase and adjusts her brain chemistry in a more efficient way?

Obsession is yet another facet of the issue. Obsession is to the spirit what habit is to the mind and what addiction is to the body. I know how oversimplified that sounds, but the point is that we are susceptible to various kinds of reprogramming and some people are more vulnerable to one type than another. I was never really a “body drugs” person. I’ve never done speed or crack or anything of that nature. I’ve never tried heroin. I don’t even like alcohol because it tends to make me sick and sorry. Psychedelics, on the other hand, fascinate me to no end. I remember the summer when I was the kid who had a sheet of acid that nobody knew about. I also had an effectively bottomless supply of 5-MeO-DMT (this was when it was still easy to get). For a little while I fell into the habit of waking up in the morning and loading my handy dandy little glass vaporizer pipe before I even got out of bed. Nothing like a brief visit to the Great and Only before breakfast to make my day a little bit more surreal. Pretty soon I was officially fixated.

As far as I was concerned the Monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey had landed in my back yard. This was big news! I was absolutely dumbfounded and remain so to this day when I witness people apparently passing into the true heart of the psychedelic mystery and then somehow managing to shake it off and continue on their merry way to a life that revolves around what seem to me to be relatively mundane affairs. My first reaction is to suppose that they must not have gotten the effect that I’m talking about, or that they have no imagination or poor recall. As hard as it is to wrap my spacey little head around, it occasionally dawns on me that not everybody shares my form of mystical preoccupation, and many who do share my interests in a general sense would not approve of my methods or resonate with my philosophy.

It seems that some people are just incredibly badass, and they can totally encompass and cherish the most profoundly magical experience possible, and then gently let it go and move on with their lives without looking back. My husband is like that. He knows that it’s some kind of a trick universe, and he’s worked out that it’s the same to him from the inside as far as right living goes and so forth, and he figures that he’ll find the rest out soon enough or it won’t matter. He doesn’t have to pull at loose strings and he’s serenely untroubled by the baffling complexity of it all. Clearly, he says, it’s all much more beautiful and elegant than we can begin to suppose from our default vantage point, and that’s all he needs to know.

Myself, I can’t get over it. I’m a total mystery whore. When I discovered psychedelics it was perfectly clear to me that this was what I’d been waiting for all my life. It was like receiving a vocation. I was born for this. I was transfixed. Even just getting to watch other people do them holds a bottomless fascination for me. Psychedelics reset the compass of my life. But would I say that I’m addicted? Classic psychedelics aren’t really addictive in the medical sense. I feel like almost anyone who actually had my same experiences with them would be totally blown away and drawn into some kind of life-changing obsession, but I would feel that way, wouldn’t I? When I eventually got the clear message that it was time to slow down, I did so easily and without any physical withdrawal. I’ve never stopped thinking about the subject, though, and I doubt that I ever will.

The issue of behavioral attractors can be pretty slippery. Sure, sometimes it’s fairly cut and dried. We can all recognize the classic addiction scenario; it’s not really all that uncommon. Everybody has seen it. It’s not all black and white, however, as the foregoing has hopefully illustrated. For instance I know people with chronic pain conditions who get truly massive amounts of morphine prescribed by their doctors. You probably wouldn’t call them addicts, though. That label is reserved for the guy down the hall who self-medicates with the exact same drug for the exact same reason. The only difference is that he doesn’t have official permission from the Powers that Be.

And then there’s the elephant in the bedroom: the chemistry of love and attraction! Sex and bonding hormones are super-powerful drugs, and people often allow themselves to be led around by the nose in pursuit of them. People who are romantically entangled often manifest many of the classic symptoms of addiction, and when the relationship ends the withdrawal can be murder.

I think an inclusive discussion of the way that certain inputs tend to result in unexamined or compulsive behavior is going to become increasingly important as more and more compelling options become available to us. Right now we’re working with some pretty blunt instruments compared to what’s on the drawing board. What if you could increase your active memory by 500%? What if you could experience an orgasm or even something pretty close to enlightenment at the push of a button? These may well be coming, and people are going to be intrigued when they do. I wonder if folks are going to be forced to accept a certain level of symbiotic partnership with their compulsive habits in order to keep up with the more enthusiastic adopters of new drugs and technologies. I wonder what percentage of people are going to be able to continue to self-regulate in a way that is safe and functional for them when more and more targeted adjustments become available. We’ve got to be smart about this. […]

I’m encouraged that we’ve started to get a handle on the phenomenology of addiction as a species. We’ve worked out some systems that are pretty effective at disrupting deep habits so long as the addict in question can summon the necessary amount of motivation to participate in the treatment. There may be a lot of ways to look at these things, and of course there are shades of gray; but if you think that you have a problem, then you probably do. Reach out for help. Tell a friend what’s going on. Call a 12-step hotline. Do it now, today. You can beat it, whatever it is. Maybe you can’t do it by yourself, but there are lots of people who are trained to deal with this kind of thing and they want to help you. Really.

Despite my view that the mainstream meaning of addiction is inadequate and the boundaries between compelling behavioral attractors, habits, obsessions, and physical dependence are very blurry, it is obvious to me that some illegal drugs cause real, deep, powerful addiction. I find it interesting, though, that possibly one of the most promising treatments we’ve found so far for heroin addiction is ibogaine, an African root-bark with strong psychedelic properties.

Drugs are tools, people. They can hurt and they can heal. They can liberate and they can enslave. It’s true of Facebook and it’s true of love. The solution is clearly not to demonize everything that we find hard to resist. Instead, we have to start getting extremely sophisticated about these things in short order. Because the world isn’t going to get any less compelling any time soon.