August 19, 2012    Psychology

Searching for My Addiction

Are you addicted to anything? When someone asks me this question, I’m not exactly sure how to answer it. My feeling is that I must be addicted to something; I just don’t know what it is. It’s certainly not something that I can append “-holic” to. The reason why I’m convinced that I’m addicted to something is because I have strong compulsions, and I believe that the only difference between a compulsion and an addiction is that the latter is inconvenient, inappropriate or disadvantageous for today’s society.

I went to an art school, so substance abuse was/is all around me. I’ve lost several friends to drugs, and many of my friends seem to be struggling still. The most common form of substance abuse today is food. A hundred years ago, being hungry all the time wasn’t such a problem, because we weren’t surrounded by fattening food. In the Stone Age, someone who is hungry all the time, probably had an evolutionary advantage. He would have worked harder to find food, which means he would have gotten better at finding it. Today, such a compulsion is a disadvantage, so we call it an “addiction”.

Today, advantageous addictions are mostly conceptual or abstract, like fame, money, authority, and power. Those who desperately crave for them have evolutionary advantages. As our lives have become more cerebral, so have our addictions. Many men are addicted to porn but not to sex. The latter is too primitive for them. Whether our addictions are socially advantageous or not, lack of control necessarily leads to pain and misery.

Substance/physical abuse is easier to identify than psychological abuse. This is why I can’t exactly tell you what I’m addicted to. I’m tempted to say “thought-addict” or “think-aholic” but it’s too general. It’s not useful to say I’m addicted to thinking; we all are to some degree. I need to figure out what kind of thinking I’m addicted to.

All addictions have rewards. In the end, it’s all about the brain chemistry. Endorphin, dopamine or whatever else makes us feel good. The question is: what kind of thoughts makes me feel good? The obvious candidates are egotistical thoughts, like daydreaming about becoming rich and famous, but I don’t have those types of thoughts all that often because they are too obvious. I would end up feeling bad or ashamed, which is not rewarding. This is where the complication of cerebral addiction comes in: For us to earn the rewards, we have to fool ourselves. We cannot know that we are rewarding ourselves with our thoughts. As soon as we become aware of the process, we lose the reward, or at least diminish the effect of it. After all, denial is the first hurdle in overcoming any forms of addiction. I must think harder. No, I’m not addicted to crass thoughts like becoming rich and famous because I’m too smart to fool myself with them. My system of denial is more sophisticated. 

Alcoholics do not enjoy drinking. It’s more that they drink in order to escape pain. For me, dreaming about becoming rich and famous is enjoyable, which means I’m not addicted to it. I need to search for my addictions in situations where I’m running away from pain. That’s when my urge for reward becomes desperate.

A few months ago, I was at a restaurant with my wife’s family. For some strange reason, their kitchen could not coordinate the timing of the dishes; they brought them one by one with good 15 minutes or so in between. This is despite the fact that there were more employees than the customers. By the time, the last person received her plate, most people had already finished theirs. I was one of the last ones, and because I had been munching on other people’s food while waiting, I was already getting full. So, I told the waiter to cancel my order. It turns out that just as I told her, the kitchen had finished making my plate. We were sitting right across from the kitchen, so we could see the chef’s reaction when the waiter told him the bad news. I thought he would be apologetic and feel sorry for me, but instead, he got pissed. The waiter then came back and told me that it was already done, and that I could take it home, meaning I would still need to pay for it. Before this moment, I was just mildly annoyed. Shit happens in restaurants; I understand. But their attitude made me lose it. I yelled at the waiter, which is not something I do often. In fact, I’m not sure if I’ve ever done that before.

After we left the restaurant, we went to a park nearby so that our kids can play. As I sat on the park bench, I could not stop thinking about the incident, like rewinding a video tape over and over. Even at the time, it was quite obvious to me that thinking about it was pointless. Whether I was right or wrong to yell at the waiter, it had already happened. I couldn’t undo it or do it differently. Yet I kept thinking: Maybe there was something I didn’t know that made them decide to serve the food that way. Maybe asking them to bring the kids’ food first screwed them up. Etc.. My mind raced to find the potential reasons why they were so unapologetic. I tried hard to let go but the thoughts kept coming back. It was like playing a Whack-a-mole.

How do you prove that you are not an alcoholic? It’s simple: You stop drinking. In other words, you are an addict if you cannot stop whatever you are doing. I was addicted to thinking at that park. I couldn’t stop even though I wanted to. Perhaps some of you might think my thoughts were productive and appropriate, but that’s besides the point. Some alcoholics can still enjoy drinking, and manage their lives fine. What makes them addicts is that they cannot stop drinking. Even if there is no need to stop, they should have the choice. By the same token, I should have been able to stop thinking about that incident, but I couldn’t. My mind wanted to find a way of escape the pain. Social conflicts like the one above cause me a great deal of anxiety, and the only thing my mind knows how to do is to think.

I have a talent for problem-solving. My brain is designed for it. I often solve problems for fun. Sometimes I get into trouble by trying to solve other people’s problems because they seem more fun to solve than my own problems. This talent might have developed as a coping mechanism to my social anxiety, just as alcoholism can develop as a coping mechanism. However, the irony is that logical problem-solving skills are often ill-suited for human conflicts. Regardless, my mind tries to solve them by thinking, like how it solves computer problems. And, I can’t stop. I have no control over it.

Hi. My name is Dyske. I’m a think-aholic, for lack of a better word.