Our Many, Many Addictions

This year the World Health Organization decided that playing too many video games is a bona fide addiction deserving of medical treatment. This newest certified addiction is tagged onto a very long list of daily behaviors and activities that have over the years joined alcohol and drug use as problem behaviors. We can apparently now be addicted to eating, collecting, cleaning, gambling, anger, sex, golf, clutter, work, pornography, sunlight, sleep, exercise, shopping, guilt—and so much more. However, our many “addictions” raise a variety of questions regarding our self-perceptions and how these impact our own lives and the lives of those around us.

In addition to the more recognized addictions to drugs and alcohol, which have spawned massive rehabilitation industries that provide little in the way of actual long term cures, we seem incredibly anxious to define more and more of our daily lives and life outcomes as the inevitable results of one addiction or another. Although many behaviors provide pleasure or reward and can readily turn into habits that are difficult to break, I worry that our ever-expanding list of addictions is a symptom of our society’s pernicious flight from the concept of personal responsibility. Although it is certainly more comfortable to blame our failures on forces beyond our control—particularly when “experts” absolve us of all blame—our desires to shrug off our individual responsibilities is ultimately both self-defeating and self-destructive because it excuses a willful avoidance of adult behavior that continues to infantilize our nation and culture. Moreover, an inability to take responsibility for oneself also paralyzes the ability to take responsibility for the well-being of others—which has had a catastrophic effect upon our nation as a whole.

It is impossible, for example, for an irresponsible man or woman to be a responsible parent. If a parent is irresponsible, the burdens of child rearing are typically transferred to grandparents and government—often working in desperate tandem to ameliorate the damage done by parents who are unable to adequately care for themselves or their suffering children. By the same token, those irresponsible adults will be disasters as neighbors, spouses, and employees because they will continue to perceive themselves as being unable to take full control of their own lives.

As unpleasant as the truth may be, most of the time people screw up their lives because they excuse their own immaturity and stupidity on the grounds that self-control and self-regulation is unachievable. This lack of personal agency—continually reinforced by cultural norms that insist on framing basic irresponsibility as an outcome of addictions—is a prescription for wasted lives that lay further waste to everyone else with whom they come into contact.

It is no accident that the Golden Age of Addictions and the Golden Age of Big Government have arisen simultaneously—each serves the interests of the other. The more irresponsibility is excused by our supposed addictions, the more government programs must be created to “cure” those addictions and lessen their real world consequences. On the flip side, the more government programs that are created to shield individuals and families from the irresponsible behaviors caused by their “addictions”, the more entrenched government becomes in the daily lives of our families and communities in order to hide the continued consequences of childish self-absorption. It is the perfect symbiotic storm of waste and stupidity—and taxpayers foot the bill.

There are, of course, addictions that are exceedingly difficult to break, and great personal struggles are involved. However, the signal difference between addictions and diseases is that you can stop engaging in bad or self-destructive behavior. One can, for example, stop drinking too much, but you cannot simply stop having cancer. However, now that we routinely conflate addiction and disease (these two words are even now linked in Google searches), this distinction is often lost in our day-to-day discussions of ruinous personal behaviors.

This confusion also serves the interests of our nation’s many incredibly lucrative rehabilitation programs—and the corporations and agencies that run them. These have embraced and promoted medicalized models of irresponsible behavior because they can both offer the prospect of a “cure” and demand that private and public insurance programs pay for “treatment”. Unfortunately, the treatment will typically fail because the “patient” is continually told they are in the grips of a disease instead of plainly speaking a harsher and less welcome truth—you’re screwing up your own life and the only one who can change your life is you. However, given there is money to made with extended and expensive courses of monitoring and care that offer little prospect of a cure, and which are often repeated multiple times over that individual’s lifetime, it is little wonder that addiction treatment programs continue to spring up like poppies after a heavy rainstorm. The business model is a license to print money.

Very costly treatment programs are typically justified as being less expensive than the prison sentences, healthcare needs, or job losses that might result from an addiction, but it might be reasonable to ask whether spending vast sums of money to shield people from the consequences of their irresponsibility or poor choices actually impedes the development of the self-examination and self-control that is a necessary precursor to positive personal changes. Pain is a powerful motivator, and having to deal directly with the train wreck that you’ve made of your own life is about as powerful a wake-up call as life can provide. Although a night spent in jail and a screaming spouse the next morning are infinitely less pleasant than a sympathetic addiction counselor carrying a plateful of banana-nut muffins, it could well be the case both of these are far more efficacious pathways to long term improvement than any soothing, blameless, and protracted course of expensive counseling and treatments could ever be.

Adulthood is rough, maturity often comes after a few hard knocks have been delivered, responsibility occasionally gets in the way of sleep, failures are the fuel for success, and sometimes a good kick in the pants is the most effective lesson possible. All this is true, and we forget life’s realities at our own peril. Perhaps, as awful and wrenching as it might be for some, now is the time for our nation to ditch our addiction to our many, many addictions and resolve to finally grow up.

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