“There is no point helping him. He would spend all his money on alcohol or drugs.”
This is how the complex issue of addiction has generally been perceived by the general masses. It has been associated as mental illness, lack of character, a religious sin and all such negative connotations. The society very conveniently outcasts an addicted person, discredits all his merit, calls him “useless”, “a liability” and shuts upon him all doors of rehabilitation especially if that addicted person comes from a poor background.
What we fail to understand is that addiction is not a problem by itself, but in the words of Sally Satel, it is “a problem of the problem.” Our popular culture, social system, academics and religious institutions have provided us a very narrow understanding of substance abuse, alcoholism, gambling and other forms of addiction. The alcoholic character in a typical Indian movie has either been shown in a humorous was, say Amitabh’s famous character in Amar, Akbar and Anthony, or has been romanticized, say the character of Devdas.
Drug abuse has always been shown as something deplorable, or incorporated in a comedy movie like Hera Pheri, as a smuggling substance that can make the main leads rich. In both cases, not concerning whatsoever with the social and psychological effects of drug abuse. The reason why I bring cinema into the discussion is that it has been the most influential of the sources in relation to socio-cultural problems in our country.
Understanding the psychology of addiction
Addiction is a complex problem. Medical science is split on questions like whether to call it a disease or not, how much “choice” (control) the addicted person has in the matter of addiction, how much are the biological and environmental factors responsible for addiction, and so on. In the light of such complexness, it would not only be unfair, but naive of us to have simplistic connotations about any kind of addiction. Before we dig any further, let us address some fundamental questions.
What is addiction?
While there are several definitions of addiction by various schools of thought, in the simplest sense, addiction is a condition in which the addicted person uses a substance or engages in a behaviour repeatedly as it provides him great satisfaction, even if it comes at a cost of physical and psychological harm. Substance abuse involves alcohol, cocaine, nicotine et cetera, while behaviour includes gambling, playing video games, using mobile phones et cetera.
Why does the person get addicted? (the science behind addiction)
Our body naturally produces a chemical called dopamine whenever we do something pleasurable. It creates a memory in our mind of the pleasant experience, which makes us want to repeat the activity. While dopamine is secreted for regular healthy habits such as eating, sleeping or having sex, it is produced in massive amount when we drink or smoke or involve in gambling. For a vulnerable person, the dynamics of the brain can alter to the extent that the normal functions cease to provide the level of satisfaction as they earlier used to, and the person is dependent on the unhealthy substance or behavior to experience the same levels of dopamine. With excessive and repeated use, the person becomes addicted to that substance or behaviour.
Is everyone who uses a drug an addict?
NO, drug use does not necessarily mean drug abuse. This is one of the most common misconceptions about drugs that every user gets addicted to. The Association for Physiological Science states that only 20-30% people who use drugs develop an addiction.
How do we know we have an addiction?
The symptoms of addiction are wide-ranging and their extent can vary from person to person.
There are psychological, physical and social symptoms:
Psychological symptoms include being obsessed with the substance or behaviour, using it as a means to deal with your problems, unable to stop oneself from use, ready to take a risk to get the substance.
Social symptoms may include sacrificing one’s career, hobby, family, excessive consumption, denying and lying about your addition. Physical symptoms can include change in eating and sleeping patterns, any disease due to overdose and withdrawal symptoms when the substance is not used.
Can addiction be treated?
While addiction is not a disease in the traditional sense of how we define a “disease”, the treatment for addiction is also different from a traditional disease. It is a battle fought in a person’s brain, which requires counselling, therapy and lifestyle changes.
The problem behind the problem
We already discussed that not every user is an abuser. Why is it then that some people end up getting addicted to a substance or behaviour and others don’t? Biological and physiological actors play a key role, as we know that every human being reacts differently to different situations but they are not the only factors. There is indeed no single factor that causes addiction, but multiple factors are responsible for it. In understanding the psychology behind addiction, it is useful to quote The Guardian, which says,
“It is wrong to call addiction a disease; neither is it a result of individual flaws. It is, instead, “a consequence of social ills,” such as emotional stress, environmental pressure, and unhealthy lifestyle. Choices are part of this equation, but they are choices made in adversity and poor mental health. Those are what needs to be addressed, not the illusion that addiction is a disease and needs to be treated the same way other diseases are. The disease model has helped our understanding of addiction, but it has run its course; addiction is a complex and vast condition, and the disease label simplifies it to the point of inaccuracy.”
While several aspects regarding the cause and nature of addiction are debatable, the above extract clearly states that addition is a consequence of social ills. The most significant of these, which require a deeper understanding is emotional stress.
Emotional stress can take many forms and can have different causes. Traumatic childhood experiences such as facing or witnessing domestic violence or sex-related crime can lead to a number of mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, PTSD and suicidal thoughts. The child may develop lifelong resentment towards his parents, develop a low self-esteem and even blame himself and start feeling guilty for whatever is happening to him.
Similarly, loss of a dear one, a major injury or a disease, a life-threatening accident, unhealthy relationships can be some other factors leading to lifelong traumas. Social factors like facing discrimination on the basis of sin colour, gender, religion or caste can also lead to emotional stress.
Besides emotional stress, environmental pressure is another important reason behind addiction. A man is a by-product of his circumstances. It is likely that a person living in an environment where consumption of alcohol and tobacco products is common, he will pick up these habits as well. These habits become a part of the popular culture.
The market also plays a significant role. While the government issues statutory warning against the consumption of alcohol and tobacco products, these items are easily available everywhere. There are a large number of people involved in the production and trade of these items, and the government earns a large chunk of their revenue from the taxes levied on sale of these items. We all know, for instance, how easily alcohol is available in dry states of Gujarat and Bihar, so banning these items is not only an over-simplistic solution, but a completely irrational and impractical one.
Alcohol, tobacco, drugs, gambling, video games et cetera have been and are going to remain a part of our system. The solution lies in not eradicating them completely out of the system, but to create an environment where we can understand and empathise with the person who gets addicted to them. If a poor person spends all of his days earning on alcohol or gambling, it is not something to be frowned upon, it is a cry for help. If only we can talk to that person on a humane level, we would be able to empathise with him and understand the rationale behind his action. Perhaps what we look down upon as an addiction on alcohol or the drug is what helps the poor person to survive against all odds. To conclude, we should look beyond the problem (addiction) and focus at its root cause.