Terminology (I)

I throw around words in highly specific ways in reference to myself, and in recent days, in a couple of different conversations, I’ve realized that I’m not always clear about what I mean.

Without any claim to “correctness” or “accuracy” that extends beyond me, here is what I mean when I use certain words:

Compulsion: An urge to do something that feels irresistible, the doing of which removes or relieves stress or discomfort. Often, but not always, this is inconsistent with my consciously experienced will. Sometimes, it’s “ego-dystonic” – not just inconsistent with my consciously experienced will, but inconsistent with my notion of my self, my notion of who I am.

A benign example is my relationship to writing: I am constantly doing it, often to the exclusion of other things that I (tell myself I) wish I spent more time doing. I stay up late to write, I wake up early. I jot down ideas at socially inappropriate moments and my experience of the whole thing is that, as much as writing brings me pleasure, if I had my druthers, I might choose to feel the urgency a bit less. I would sleep more, spend more time doing productive things for my family, etc. The good news is that writing isn’t ego-dystonic for me, in the way that my compulsive sexual urges were.

Addiction: A term of art, describing the relationship between a person who is physically dependent on a substance, and who experiences mounting tolerance for that substance, and the substance. To be clear, if you haven’t gleaned it elsewhere on this blog, I do not believe that one can, in any meaningful sense, be said to be “addicted” to sex, or shopping, or debt, or overeating, or gambling, or any other behavior.

I think this an important point for several reasons: first, from a recovery standpoint, because with heroin, or alcohol, “withdrawal” ends after a person has been detoxed. This is not to say that recovery is over, but it is the case that the body no longer needs the substance. In the case of the behavioral “addiction,” there is no withdrawal. There is a tendency for self-described behavioral addicts to describe themselves as experiencing withdrawal, but what, in fact, they are experiencing is simply life. IT DOES NOT END (well, until life does). Addicts to heroin, alcohol, and other physically addictive substances have to make it through withdrawal to reach the stage that “sex addicts” call withdrawal, and then they too must learn to confront life without their drug of choice.

And second because the social construction of addiction does behavioral addicts a disservice in their attempts to recover, I believe. With physically addictive substances, there are two components of addiction: a physiological component and a component related to the tolerance of unpleasant emotions, or “affect regulation.” With behavioral addictions, it’s all about this latter category. There simply is no recovery without engaging with affect regulation, the tolerance of difficult emotions. Attention devoted to understanding “behavioral addictions” as the same as physical addictions obscures this.

Finally, there is a challenge associated with the application of the 12-step theology to recovery from behavioral addictions: it depends on abstinence as the only solution to addiction. (I won’t, here, get into whether that is good or bad, though I bet you can guess what I think.) One simply cannot (and should not) abstain from many of the behaviors we’re describing here: eating, fucking, spending money, borrowing money…. And if your recovery model says abstinence is the only solution, but abstinence isn’t possible, well, then you have to go to all sorts of tergiseverations to make it (still) work. In Sexaholics Anonymous, they declare lust the enemy, rather than sex: “The only requirement for membership,” says the organization’s “White Book,” “is a desire to stop lusting and become sexually sober.” And, honestly, for this sex addict? Lust was never my problem. The SA believers would say, “Well, then, SA isn’t the fellowship for you,” and they’d ultimately be correct. But I think that SA, and fellowships like it, use the language of addiction to address a problem different from addiction: moral rejection of self, culminating in compulsive, out-of-control behavior. And the solution to this problem? It ain’t abstinence.

Acting out: When I use this expression, I use it to mean the phenomenon of speaking, or acting, in lieu of feeling. Violent behavior when angry is a prime example, as is yelling. All addictions (and all “addictions,” for that matter) feature a substantial component of acting out. In the 12-step fellowships, “acting out” is used to mean “engaging in the behavior over which one is powerless in violation of sobriety.” But this seems to me to miss the crucial aspect of intent: if I’m alcoholic and I choose to have a drink, one drink, for the taste, with dinner, that’s not acting out by my definition. If I’m alcoholic and I choose to have a drink, one drink, because I’m sad, or angry, or lonely? That’s acting out.

More terms to come…. (and feel free to request definitions of terms if the ways I’ve used them are mysterious to you.)

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