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Sunday, November 28, 2021

Addictions: An Eternal Human Condition

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Prof. Georgios Piperopoulos* & Dr. Anastasia-Natasha G. Piperopoulou**

     Anything in life is capable of becoming an addiction. Addictions have been many and varied throughout the history of mankind. Modern societies, characterized by a multitude of dependencies and inter-dependencies of men, machines and technological innovations, appear to create a vast reservoir of potentially threatening and hitherto unknown to man possibilities of developing addictive patterns of behavior. Thus, addictions have become a crucial problem that afflicts millions of individuals and disrupts the lives of their families, friends and associates costing large amounts to their employers and to health systems and charitable foundations.

     Addiction or dependence has been defined as a state in which a person is unable to stop engaging in a behavior because of strong physical, psychological and social reasons. Thus, an addiction is essentially an ‘excessive appetite’: a repetitive behavior that is subject to powerful motivational forces. Addiction has also been defined as a repetitive habit pattern that increases the risk of financial and physical problems. Addictive behaviors are often experienced subjectively as ‘loss of control’ – the behavior continues to occur despite volitional attempts to abstain or moderate use. These habit patterns are typically characterized by immediate gratification (short-term reward), often coupled with delayed, deleterious effects (long-term costs). 

     Attempts to change an addictive behavior (via treatment or by self-initiation) are typically marked by high relapse rates. The key features of an addictive behavior can be considered as a compulsion or strong desire to engage in the behavior; an overwhelming priority or salience being given to the behavior; an impaired capacity to control the behavior; distress if prevented from carrying out the behavior; and a detrimental effect on the individual, the family and society at large.  

     Examining the subject of ‘addictions’ with a sufficient dose of socio-psychological and philosophical sobriety, it will easily emerge and will be equally easy to discern that humans, throughout history, have always had the tendency to become ‘addicted’ to one or more of a multitude of dependency producing substances and behaviors. 

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     The Merriam Webster dictionary classic definition of addiction was ‘a strong inclination to do, use, or indulge in something repeatedly’. When the term is used in modern periods to describe persons exhibiting a pathological condition, Merriam Webster defines addiction as ‘a compulsive, chronic, physiological or psychological need for a habit-forming substance, behavior, or activity having harmful physical, psychological, or social effects and typically causing well-defined symptoms (such as anxiety, irritability, tremors, or nausea) upon withdrawal or abstinence: the state of being addicted’.

       Rosenthal and Faris in their article titled: ‘The etymology and early history of addiction’ present an interesting diachronic, etymological study of addiction as it appeared in Latin in the early Roman Republic. Carrying their analysis through to our times they note that the word constitutes an auto-antonym, i.e. a word with opposite conflicting meanings. Etymologically the word has a Greek origin (it is a synthesis of the Greek word ‘αντί’ meaning ‘against’ and the Greek word ‘όνομα’ meaning ‘name’). An auto-antonym (also called a contronym or, a ‘Janus’ word simulating the two-faced Roman god) is a word with multiple meanings, one of which is defined as the reverse of one of its other meanings (Merriam Webster online). 

     The origin of the word ‘addiction’ stems etymologically from the Latin root ‘dicere’ meaning to ‘say or to speak’ from which the addition of the proposition ‘ad’ produced the term ‘Addicere’ forerunner to the English term ‘addiction’. As the authors note ‘addictions’ from early Roman Empire times to early English times have been used to describe both positive and negative attachments to persons, ideologies and habits. In our era it is almost universally accepted that when we use the term ‘addictions’ we are almost exclusively referring to ‘pathological’ dependence on substances and behaviors which enslave an individual and are detrimental to his physical and mental health and, extending it to gambling, to his financial status (Rosenthal & Faris, οn-line 2019). 

     Highlighting the current co-existence of ‘positive addictions’ as exhibitions of healthy types of individual and group behaviors in contrast to ‘negative, pathological addictions’ Rosenthal and Faris bring forth the term ‘positive addiction’ used by psychiatrist William Glasser to describe a healthy positive behavior, like running or meditation, that strengthens the individual’s functioning. According to Glasser, engaging in either of those behaviours regularly, at a dosage of about an hour a day, will produce a non-critical, transcendental state of mind. Glasser identified that pleasurable mental state as the ‘positive addiction’ (Glasser, 1976). 

     Modern human societies characterized by the dizzying evolution of high technology and the diffusion to billions of users on a global scale of related devices as tools of work and leisure, are  experiencing new and unforeseen types of ‘addictive’, pathologically dependent behaviors. As the relevant statistical data show, some very modern ‘addictions’ have been added to the classic  substance abuse and dependencies such as, dependencies to virtual reality games, and the use and ‘abuse’ of the internet through endless ‘surfing’ by children, adolescents and adults.

     For social and behavioral scientists, sociologists, social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, ‘addictive’ is considered to be any behavior that the individuals are unable to control or mitigate and much more to stop, as social and psychological factors render them weak and at the same time ‘captives-victims’ of their frail, uncontrollable pathological behavior. Many critics hold the same view for excessive and uncontrollable dependence on the so-called ‘positive addictions’.   

     Each and every human being, a boy, a girl, a man, a woman, constitutes a unique existence endowed with the DNA helix inherited from their parents. As we grow up, through socialization and acculturation processes, each one of us develops a distinct personality and character internalizing a multitude of attitudes towards other persons, institutions and realities prevailing in the sub-culture and the main culture of our societies. Motivated by personal reasons such as curiosity or the pursuit of pleasure derived from adventure seeking, or drawn into and encouraged by peers, an individual may start using narcotic or stimulant substances or may engage in behaviours which can ultimately become ‘addictions’.

     In many societies, not in the very distant past, such behaviours have been dismissed by a section of public opinion as problems characterizing certain types of individuals or members of certain sub-cultures. As such they are not deemed worthy of the attention and the intervention of Authorities, Charitable Institutions and Society in general despite the obvious and detrimental damaging psychological and physical effects to individuals and families. However, it should be noted that when the numbers of those using and abusing ‘addictive’ substances or engaging in ‘addictive’ behaviours swell in parallel swelling fashion with comorbidity characteristics such as the amounts of money involved and threat to physical and psychological health, societies are faced with what social scientists conventionally have defined as ‘social problems’ needing the intervention of State Authorities and Charitable Institutions. 

                      ***************************************

Dr Anastasia-Natasha G. Piperopoulou, Tenured Psychologist at Secondary Level Special Education & Training School for SEND adolescents in Piraeus, Greece.

                                

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