I must admit to being disappointed at people who view addiction only through a tolerance and withdrawal lens. The most recent of these is James Fell’s Is sugar addictive … with his people “aren’t knocking over convenience stores or fencing grandma’s jewelry” to get their fix, so therefore it isn’t addictive. As if people need to steal given that crap food is cheap and available 24×7!
Fortunately, after reading Fell’s post, I came across this one on craving from Dirk Hanson. Hanson, unlike Fell, has a far more sophisticated understanding of addiction. He was reviewing Marc Lewis’ (a fave of mine) participation in a recent conference on addiction and craving convened by the Dalai Lama.
Lewis on why withdrawal is not the issue:
[Craving is] the one condition all addicts agree is their worst enemy. … This is one place where science and subjectivity have to come together. Scientists need to focus on this, because addicts are completely unanimous about it. This is the enemy. It’s not physical withdrawal symptoms, it’s not relief. It is craving.
And what is:
Craving is such an unpleasant state, that after a while, you end up doing it, you get the drugs. I did opiates, and I would spend hours and hours trying to sit on my hands, trying to watch something on TV, trying to go for a walk, and finally, there’s this thing that keeps rising in the background, and it doesn’t go away. It was a constantly growing tension, an anxiety and discomfort, that came from very deep down. You spend most of your energy trying to hold this thing at bay, and according to the ego depletion literature, you can’t do that for very long. These cognitive control centers just give up. They are limited resources.
I don’t know what my issues are and I don’t really want to fall on the sword to call it addiction. But there’s an aspect to what Lewis describes that really resonates for me. I’ve spent too many nights in a convenience store or similar not wanting anything there but not being able to leave until I bought something that I could consume. And knowing how insane this was.
I think the truth lies in the middle.
BTW, I recommend reading Arya Sharma’s post Food and Eating Addictions May Not Be the Same. I would argue that the process addictions (eating, gambling, sex) are just as harmful as substance addictions. Fixating on whether or not there is serious withdrawal or robbing grandma is (IMO) dated thinking.