When we think addiction, most of us think substance abuse. Crack cocaine, heroin, even the relatively socially acceptable cigarettes and alcohol all come with the stigma of addiction attached. But many psychologists hold that every one of us – from the hard core partier to the stay-at-home parents to the high-flying business people – are slaves to some of the most intractable addictions out there. Some of the most common addictions are even free. And most of us probably don’t even know we’re addicts.
Back in 2008, Stanton Peele – a psychologist who specialises in addiction, and is an adherent of the somewhat controversial school of thought which holds that addiction is not a disease – penned an article on the seven hardest addictions to give up. The methodology for his unusual conclusions can be found here. While some of the most addictive substances Peele lists aren’t particularly contentious, the more generally obvious addictions rank lower on the list than some ‘addictive’ habits or substances which most of us would class as pretty innocuous. The more damaging and more immediately addictive of the list are, Peele’s theory goes, ‘easier’ to give up, while the less obvious and more insidious addictions are arguably less inherently addictive. While we may all use the latter substances or partake in the latter experiences without being addicted, a dependency – once developed – is difficult to identify and more difficult to escape. Below, we’ve compiled information on the seven hardest addictions to give up, elucidating Peele’s theories. Are you an addict? The following list might make you think twice about your response to that question.
Cocaine, a stimulant that increases levels of dopamine (that feel-good chemical), is one of the most popular illegal drugs in the world. It’s the second most commonly trafficked drug in the world, and tens of millions of American adults have reportedly used cocaine at least once. A 2006 survey worryingly revealed that over 8% of twelfth grade students had tried the drug and it’s one of the most commonly used illegal substances across the pond in Europe, too. Numbers decline when discussing frequency of use, however – the National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that 1.1% of 18 – 25 year old Americans have used the drug, but that decreases to 0.6% for the 26 + age group, suggesting that many one-time users quit before they hit their late 20s. If an addiction develops unchecked, though, users’ reward system is dulled and they may find they’re unable to attain a feeling of elation without the drug.
It’s generally accepted that alcohol addiction is an intractable one, and most believe that total abstinence is the only way to escape alcoholism. Alcohol is also, of course, one of the most widely and commonly used drugs in the world. Around 90% of American adults over the age of 18 will drink alcohol during their life, and – according to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse – 56% of all adults will have consumed alcohol in the last month. Alcohol use is not synonymous with addiction: Most of those 56% will not be classed as alcoholics. For the around 17 million American adults who do suffer from alcohol use disorders, however, escaping this burden can be very difficult. Dr. Lance Dodes, former director of substance abuse at Harvard’s McLean hospital, reports that Alcoholics Anonymous has a 5% – 10% success rate – this is not an indictment of the organisation, but a testament to just how difficult giving up can be for alcoholics.
Valium was historically one of the most commonly prescribed anti-depressants on the market, but it’s highly addictive if abused. It’s relatively easy to obtain, and socially acceptable – so much so that is gained the nickname ‘Mother’s Little Helper’, marking it out as a drug that’s thought to be most commonly abused by middle-aged, middle-class stay-at-home moms. This cutesy nickname is misleading, and belies the insidious nature of this highly addictive and hard to quit drug. Prescription of valium and other anti-depressants reportedly reached 60 million in 2010. Withdrawal symptoms are similar to cocaine, in that someone dependent on anti-depressants can have difficulties producing ‘happy’ chemicals without it. The pseudo-respectability and attainability of prescription drugs means addiction can go on unchecked for long periods of time, making it all the more difficult to quit.
Heroin and any other intense analgesics aren’t easy to obtain. Heroin is a Class A illegal drug – but it’s almost impossibly addictive to those who try it. Other powerful analgesics are often carefully administered in hospitals – lots of us may have had morphine after an operation, for example, without becoming dependent. But the dangerous mix of chemicals in heroin, the impossibility to trace its origins or its contents, and the unmonitored way in which it’s taken make it a powerfully dangerous cocktail which can be – and very often is – highly and even fatally addictive. Heroin use has increased in recent years, as it become cheaper and more accessible. Users increased by 300,000 – almost 100% – between 2007 and 2012. Worryingly, a market for the drug has emerged among the ever-increasing number of people who have become dependent on other weaker, too-freely prescribed pain killers.
Around 20% of Americans smoke cigarettes habitually. It’s a dangerous habit, the risks of which we’re constantly warned. Yet, a fifth of the American and European populations indulge in it. This fact, in itself, tells us a lot about just how addictive smoking is. The smoking cessation industry is currently valued at around $219 million, and is growing year on year. The investment being made in quitting smoking isn’t reflected in the numbers of people who are actually quitting – the smoking cessation industry is growing while the global tobacco consumption per capita continues to increase, indicating that knowledge of the dangers of smoking combined with the will to quit still isn’t sufficient for most smokers to quit the habit.
2. Fatty Foods
A 2011 report by Bloomberg stated that ‘fatty food (are as) addictive as cocaine’. The report, drawing on research by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, states that fatty foods can affect the brain in the same way as cocaine and nicotine, creating a boost of short term satisfaction and sending feel-good chemicals around our bodies. Like smoking, the dangers of junk food are widely proven and universally known but the junk food and fast food industries remain both powerful and rich. Processed foods, candies and fast food consumptions are increasing year on year, while the fast food industry spends a reported $2 billion a year on marketing – much of which is aimed at children. Child obesity is growing at an alarming rate, having increased by more than 100 % in the last thirty years. It’s been proven that obesity in childhood is highly likely to progress into obesity in adulthood, a fact which suggests that an addiction to fatty foods isn’t one that’s easily quit once developed.
No, really: Addiction specialist Dr. Peele maintains that love is the addiction which is more difficult to quit than any other addictive substance or habit. He states that ‘it certainly cause more murders and suicides than any other addiction’ which is perhaps a bold and certainly a questionable statement, especially when we consider that annual deaths from heroin alone in the United States totalled over 3000 in 2010. Dr. Brenda Schaeffer, author of ‘Love or Addiction? The Power and Peril of Teen Sex and Romance’, reports that 1 in 2 teens have gone against their core beliefs to suit a partner, while 1 in 4 teens say their partner tried to limit the time they spent with their other loved ones. Such unhealthy behaviours are markers of love addiction, and if the stats are to be believed it’s startlingly widespread. What makes it so hard to ‘quit’ love addiction? Peele maintains that our psyches are, universally, programmed to be responsive to love and its imitations. Everyone loves love and the physical, psychological and emotional responses triggered by it. An addiction to love, one of the most primal needs, is all too easy to feed and all too difficult to turn our backs on. Repeated patterns of unhealthy, abusive or dangerous sexual and romantic relationships could indicate a love addiction.