Read an Excerpt
The Many Faces of Addiction
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. 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, and these numbers are expected to double in the next three years. 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, venereal disease, and now even the deadly threat of AIDS.
What these and countless other stories have in common is their compulsiveness. Despite the negative consequences, the person is driven to repeatthe 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.
Brian Is A Credit-Card Junkie. Thirty years old and single, working temp jobs as a word processor, Brian's real addiction is to travel. Mostly, he uses his cards to buy airline tickets, taking trips by himself to destinations he doesn't even care about. The point, he says, is to keep on the go, no matter where. Sometimes he just takes out a map, closes his eyes, points to a place, then buys a ticket to go there.
He joined two "frequent flier" programs offered by the airlines and accumulated 93,000 miles on one and 40,000 on another. He once flew to Kansas City and back in one day just to get a triple-mileage special being offered. If there's space in first class, he gets upgraded. According to Brian, flying is the ultimate "high in the sky."
When he's flying, Brian says he's removed from all his worries -- temporarily. No one can reach him (including his creditors), and he can literally escape his life. Unfortunately, each time he lands, Brian has more pressure than ever from which to escape. His credit card debts now total $28,000, though his annual income is only $26,000. Unable to make even the minimum payment on some of his cards, Brian has received several court summonses for nonpayment and his salary has been attached.
Because all but two airline cards had been canceled (he pays on those selectively), he once went so far as to charge a round-trip flight somewhere just to "eat out" on the plane (Brian is also a compulsive eater). He says he knew while he was doing it that he was "out of control," but felt driven to do it anyway.
Recently, Brian's sister lent him $3,000 to cover his most urgent bills, but admonished him to go to Debtors Anonymous, a self-help group for people with compulsive spending and debting problems. Surprising even himself, Brian went to a meeting and actually found it helpful: "It was the first time I felt I could talk about my MasterCard and somebody knew, somebody could understand," he says. "I felt so accepted."
Kim, A Twenty-Eight-Year-Old freelance writer, has never had a romantic relationship with anyone that lasted more than three or four months. As a teenager, she was in a serious car accident that left her with some unsightly scars on her legs and a slight but permanent limp. Even worse, it left her with emotional scars: Kim doesn't believe she is attractive to men. And in the process of trying to assure herself that she is, she's developed a sexual addiction.
Kim compulsively seeks to be sexually desired, pursued, and "consumed" by as many different men as possible, and she's developed a ritual to obtain it. Three or four evenings a week she dresses up stylishly, has a drink at home, goes to a bar downtown, has a couple more drinks, becomes flirtatious, and picks up a man -- a different one each time. Then she takes him back to her apartment, where she has sex with him. Rarely does she see him again. Increasingly, both alcohol and cocaine have become part of the ritual too -- so much so that Kim may have already crossed the invisible line into these physical addictions as well.
Recently Kim found out that one of the men, an intravenous drug user, has AIDS (she's never asked that condoms or any other "safe sex" practices be used). Terrified of what she could find out, Kim has been unable to get herself to go for an AIDS test. She isalso unable to change her behavior. Kim is still picking up men, still drinking and using coke to numb her feelings -- and still not practicing safe sex. For Kim, sex is a "drug," and she's hooked on the experience.
When Paul, A Thirty-Four-Year-Old engineer, inherited a moderate sum of money last year, he decided to try his hand in the stock market. The only other time he'd invested -- five years earlier -- he'd doubled his money, so it seemed like a good bet now...
Willpower Is Not Enough. Copyright © by Arnold M. Washton. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.