It’s no news that there’s an epidemic of compulsive drug use in America. But while politicians and police search in vain for ways to stem the tide, more and more people are beginning to realize that our national appetite for mood-altering chemicals is just one aspect of a more far-reaching national problem: an epidemic of many different types of compulsive behavior—not just drug abuse.
The number of Americans addicted to something has been increasing yearly since the sixties, and addiction treatment programs have worked hard to keep up to accommodate needs. Some 14 to 16 million of us now attend one of a half-million different self-help groups that have sprung up around the country to help people with one kind of addiction or another. Many of the “other addictions”—to food, work, gambling, shopping, sex and even exercise—sound harmless enough, and at times even humorous. But for a growing number of Americans, the activity has become an end in itself tyrannizing and controlling rather than enhancing their lives.
The examples are endless: the compulsive shopper who is unable to leave a store without buying something—anything! The compulsive gambler who plays the horses (or stocks and commodities) even though the mortgage is overdue; the sexual addict who seeks one empty encounter after another, despite a trail of broken hearts and risk of venereal disease.
What these and countless other stories have in common is their compulsiveness. Despite the negative consequences, the person is driven to repeat the behavior—as if responding to an inner command rather than to choice.
The very mark of addictive behavior is that in trying to bring it under control, willpower’s not enough.
The addict used to be some other guy, that poor unfortunate; a derelict, the product of an impoverished upbringing or someone obviously mentally disturbed. The addict was not someone like me, not someone who functioned, for the most part, “normally” in society. No, the addict was not me—not my brother, my parent, my wife, my neighbor, or my child.
But we can no longer maintain this denial about who is vulnerable to addiction. This epidemic of compulsive behaviors is not just happening in urban ghettos, or to poor people, the uneducated, or to one particular race. It’s happening in every small town and big city in America; behind the doors of sprawling mansions, suburban tract houses, and high-rise apartments alike; among the highly educated as well as those barely out of grade school; among people of all colors and all classes. We don’t have to look any farther than our own hometown, our own block, and often even our own family to find stories of addiction and the pain it carves into people’s lives.
In fact, the addictive personality exists on a continuum. As we have all grown up in an addictive society amidst conditions that, as we shall see, generate addictive vulnerability, most of us exist somewhere on the continuum. We are vulnerable to different degrees based on who are inside—not where we live, how much money we make, or the color of our skin. What we get addicted to may be influenced by some of those factors, but not whether we get addicted.
Differences between the “faces” of our addictions—how the disease expresses itself—do exist. Some addictions are obviously more overtly destructive than others. Few would dispute, for instance, that addiction to freebasing cocaine has more serious ramifications than workaholism or that the sexual addict who molests children is more destructive and dangerous than the compulsive shopper. Differences—in the severity and effects—of different addictions are enormous.
But when we allow ourselves to take seriously even the “non-serious” addictions like workaholism, stock-market gambling, shopping, or exercise, we find people who are not failing to reach their potential, they are suffering greatly. But because their drug is socially acceptable, there is little pressure to get help.