What is addiction? What do we know?

Stock image, St. George News

OPINION — In today’s society the idea of addiction is applied to almost anything – chocolate, Netflix, Hulu, soda in addition to the more obvious drugs and alcohol. But what is addiction?

There are two main camps defining addiction. One says it is a moral degradation of the soul, the other says it is a disease. Most frequently, chemical dependency is viewed as the fundamental essence of addiction and certainly it can figure into either camp’s definitions.

As part of my journey to formulate answers, I recently picked a random employee in a store and asked her my question simply: “What is addiction?”

“I have a very personal experience with addiction,” the woman replied. “Not myself, but there are members of my family who have struggled with addiction, and a loved one is in a treatment program as we speak.”

As we continued talking openly in the store about the topic that some consider taboo, the woman said, “I don’t think we know what addiction is.”

Such a wise statement, I thought, especially given her experience of being impacted by the elusive addiction that has created pain in her family.

So I ask again, what is addiction and is chemical dependency the whole or just a part of it?

Chemical dependency

Chemical dependency is often seen as the Cadillac of all elements of addiction. Of course, it certainly is part of it but chemical dependency is neither the only indicator that addiction is taking place nor addiction itself.

Consider the baby of a mother who has used substances while the baby was on board. He may be born chemically dependent depending upon how long the mother was using; length of time is a factor. If born chemically dependent, he will need to go through a medically managed detoxification.

But once the baby has gone through the withdrawal process, he is not out procuring the substance, calling a dealer or robbing his family to sustain a habituated behavior. No, he keeps sleeping, eating, pooping and … repeat.

This is not to say there are not complications for the baby, there are; but addiction at this point is not one of them. He may or may not experience addiction in the future. He may or may not develop ADHD, depression or bipolar disorder. He may, in fact, experience no future complications at all.

A TED Talk with Johann Hari illustrates this nicely. Citing the Vietnam War, where many American soldiers were using copious amounts of heroin, Hari said that when the soldiers returned home, a majority of those who had been using stopped.

Ironically, the retail worker mentioned above referenced the same research (relating to another TED Talk I had recommended). She knew that addiction does not rest solely on chemical dependency.

A research project in the late 1970s by Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander, known as Rat Park, in simplified summary concluded that a person’s environment and connection to others had as much if not more to do with addiction than the drugs themselves. The more isolated a rat in the experiment, the more dependent it became on drugs.

So I ask again, what is addiction?


Hundreds of books written on this subject, theories debated historically and a new culture of thought have continued the age-old debate that addiction is many things – nature versus nurture, moral degradation of the soul, disease, stupidity, craziness or even a learning disorder (a newer theory).

My own experience illustrates how belief systems form and then compete. As a young man growing up in St. George, I believed I was one of the best baseball players in Southern Utah – in fact, I earned scholarships to then Dixie College as a fighting Rebel and to Mercer University in Macon, Georgia. I was good! I also believed that I used drugs and alcohol the best – in fact, I did so frequently every chance I could without a thought as to why. And the reality of the two beliefs competed.

My own experience shows how addiction can, quite possibly, be benign at first but not immediately malignant. However, in time, a threshold is crossed and a new belief system of addiction begins: Chemical dependency takes root and we learn a pathological way of living that embeds itself in everything we do … day after week after month after year. Drugs and alcohol push and pull, stretching us to all our “nevers.”

The belief that “I AM an addict” is like molten lava, it cures and it hardens. The belief system becomes so personally ingrained that our brain chemistry begins to change; our emotional, cognitive, behavioral and spiritual systems become grossly misaligned. Addiction is more than just “me.” And when it happens we fall … hard. We spin out of control.

It is nearly impossible to delineate chemical dependency and addiction in one short article. But if we can consider a perspective shift, understand the distinctions between chemical dependency and addiction and, more importantly, our need to become connected to feelings, to integrate our belief systems and discard false belief systems, it’s a start.

Our goal at Lion’s Gate Recovery is to shift our perspectives such that compassion may enter and autonomous thought begin, to break free from that hardened exterior and release the innate worth that is possessed by all. As we do so, we hope to create new beliefs, connections, goals and smiles.

For further reading, consider a detailed account of addiction by leading author Dr. Gabor Maté who provides a ghostly account of working with Canada’s chronic substance abuse population. His book, “In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts” offers better understanding to make an informed decision of what addiction is and is not.

•  S P O N S O R E D   C O N T E N T  •

Written by CHRIS CLAYTON, clinician in mental health counseling and social service worker, with contribution in part from St. George News.


Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2017, all rights reserved.

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  • The Dude September 12, 2017 at 11:34 pm

    My definition of addiction is. When one becomes disconnected from his or her own will or the will of a higher power by chemical or psychological means. The addict can’t see this disconnect till living with the problem is harder than fixing the problem. Detox can get them clean, but it takes considerable work to be sober minded. That’s why it’s a lifestyle change that’s needed not just abstinence.

  • Craig September 13, 2017 at 8:03 am

    Very nice

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