May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and mental health is comprised of a variety of factors. I was listening to a lecture by Dr. Gabor Maté the other day and gleaned some insights that I think are important to share about respectable addictions. Because I am a respectable addict.
If we use the definition of an addiction “compulsive engagement despite adverse consequences”, then I am clearly an addict but one that Society applauds as opposed to the ones that we condemn. That doesn’t make my addictions any less troubling or harmful. And I reflect upon this as I watch someone I care dearly for in the grips of a destructive addiction that they deny even though it is plain for the most casual of observers to see. But one thing about addiction is that we refuse to see in the mirror what our friends and family easily pickup on, so hopefully you can pick up something to help you help those you care about.
First, it is a good idea to mention the four most visible signs of addiction:
- Changes in energy (positive or negative)
- Inability to control behaviors or to stop
- Extreme mood changes
- Physical changes
If you notice multiple signs in a friend (or yourself), it is not necessarily an addiction but is at least an indication that something is going on and more attention should be given to see if some of the more subtle hints (changes in appetite or attention span, increase in nervousness and secretiveness, irritability, change in sleeping patterns and other habits, lying to cover up actions) present themselves. No one incident generally will make you say “oh, this person has an addiction”, usually it is not the snapshot but the unfolding movie, the changes from previous baseline behaviors that give an indication of a decline in control.
I am a workaholic. Not because I am avoiding reality but because I am trying to improve it. I run ultralong distances (marathons are a warmup) even though it takes time away from other things and leaves me starving and sore. I am driven to produce content and help others, and it is because of early traumas. As Dombrowski would say I have embraced post traumatic growth to an extreme level, and I am willing to short term harm myself for the greater good I believe I am doing. Contrast this with others that have experienced trauma and look for external feedback and need a fix from other people or chemicals to feel complete for a moment before seeking the next fix in an ever-increasing need, a consumptive versus creative response to trauma. The unifying issue is unresolved trauma leaving us hungry for something we can’t get from within.
Dr. Daniel Lieberman explores this in “The Molecule of More” where he delves into the neurobiology of dopamine. Blasts of dopamine to the limbic system create a feedback loop that in the short term meet the needs to feel better but create a longer-term negative consequence. But it is exactly this disconnect over time that creates the issue because as Warren Buffett observed: the chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken. The sacrifice of future for the present is the hallmark of addiction we are familiar with, that the addict denies.
I know I push too hard. My Dopamine Control Circuit is supercharged, I live in asceticism as opposed to hedonism or even enjoying the present for the most part. And luckily I have people around me that I listen to that have no problem calling me out. I force myself to take breaks before I break. I unplug (probably not enough), I spend time with young kids (best way to live in the moment), I try to catch sunrises and sunsets because of their transitory beauty. I know I have an unhealthy tendency to push myself to extremes and so use external structures, not to make me feel better like a destructive addict but as guardrails to prevent me from going too far. Setting up an environment for rest and restrictions is often times as important as setting it up for success.
Many of us who have had success become addicted to it, to the thrill of the chase and sale, to the hours and accolades. To the point where that high becomes the most important thing and relationships suffer, our health is put on the back burner, and we need “just one more”. It is an attempt to fill a void, to resolve a pain deep down that can only be papered over by the successes or external stimulations.
If you notice these signs (in yourself or someone you care for) at a level that raises your concerns, you should seek additional (professional) resources, such as:
Alcoholics Anonymous and other groups can be very helpful, but the first step is recognizing the problem, and often that step is predicated upon having someone that cares enough to hold up the mirror and make us look at ourself. So here is my plea: be that friend. Have the strength to tell someone you care about how you see them changing in a negative way. Have the courage to confront your friend with the unvarnished facts and your concerns. And if someone is bringing their concerns about you to you, be strong enough to listen to them and see the truth, because a friend ready to fight your demons and even you for your benefit is the best friend that you could hope for.
NB: I am not a shrink. People come to me not because of a medical degree but because of my ability to listen and observe, to ask questions, and to believe in people. Please do not take this column as medical advice but as another way of looking at yourself and others and potentially a way to help you help yourself and those you care about. Professional help is always recommended when people can get to that point of awareness.