February 19, 2012


Watch your thoughts, for they become your words. Watch your words for they become your actions. Watch your actions for they become your habits. Watch your habits for they become your character. Watch your character for it becomes your destiny. 

Everybody knows somebody who has been impacted by addiction.

Whether it is an addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, food, shopping, sex or even hoarding; addiction is a major factor in the destruction of lives and the breakdown of relationships.

As a student of psychology, I am fascinated by the issue of addiction.

This fascination stems in part from the fact that I have been personally impacted by the cost of addiction. I have lost countless friends to drug addiction, including my beloved fiance, and I have watched from the sidelines as drug, alcohol and gambling addictions have torn apart the lives of people I care for.

But I have also struggled with my own addictions, and while I have been successful in conquering an alcohol addiction, my own battle with addiction is far from over.

Many people tend to think that addiction can be overcome with willpower, or in other words, by the power of the mind.

However, from what I have learnt and experienced, this simply isn't possible. An addiction to alcohol is not fought and won by simply deciding not to drink alcohol, just as an addiction to gambling isn't overcome by avoiding pubs and clubs.

In fact, statistics show that more often than not, addicts will fall off the metaphorical wagon when they attempt to go cold turkey.  The reason for this low success rate of sustained abstinence is complex, but then again so is addiction.

It is these complex issues that we need to tackle in order to understand and overcome the devastating issues of addiction both in our own lives, and in the wider community.

Another misconception about addiction is that it only happens to people with addictive personalities. While research has shown a genetic link between generational addiction, it is important to understand that regardless of the type of addiction or the personality, all addicts are masking some form of pain.

Often, the pain of loneliness, anxiety, child abuse, grief, depression or low self- worth are just hiding beneath the surface, and the source of addiction becomes a tool used to mask or escape from that pain.

In this sense, the addiction becomes a coping mechanism and the addict becomes more and more reliant on that coping mechanism - not necessarily because it brings them pleasure, but rather, because it brings them relief from the pain of day to day living.

Unless the driving forces behind addiction are addressed, most addicts who manage to stop using their drug of choice, (alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, shopping etc) usually end up transferring one addiction onto another addiction.

In other words, you can treat the issue of alcoholism by educating about abstinence, avoiding triggers etc, but unless you treat the driver behind alcoholism, the addict will often replace alcohol with something else that masks the pain, such as shopping, sex or eating, and in time, this too will progress to an addiction.

Recently I have been doing some research on compulsive hoarding or pathological collecting. According to Wikipdedia, this pattern of behaviour is characterised by 'an inability or unwillingness to discard large quantities of objects that would seemingly qualify as useless or without value'.

Many of us  are guilty of acquiring too much, especially in this consumer economy. However, it is our ability to discard of objects that we no longer need or use, that distinguishes us from the pathological hoarder.

Compulsive hoarding is often linked to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) however it is not clear whether compulsive hoarding is a symptom of OCD or an isolated disorder.

Other factors associated with the disorder include alcohol dependance as well as paranoid, schizotypal, avoidant and obsessive-compulsive traits. When thinking about compulsive hoarders, it is easy to conjure up disturbing images of men or women trapped inside their animal infested homes, in a pit of mess and squalor. And at the far end of the disorder, sadly, these images are accurate. However, there are varying degrees and types of hoarding, because like all addictions or compulsions, it is progressive in its nature.

While we don't really know what causes compulsive hoarding, we can hazard a guess that somewhere along the line, the obsessive hoarder has cut off from the outside world, replacing human contact with objects and / or animals.

Attaching sentimental connections to newspapers and over expired food items may seem bat shit crazy, but in the mind of the obsessive hoarder, nothing can be discarded out of a fear that it may be needed at a later date.

The treatment for this disorder is complex but one of the steps involves discarding one object for every new object that is brought into the home. This process takes place once the home has been cleaned and emptied of the majority of useless items.

Another tool used by mental health workers when treating this disorder is to take a before and after photo of the home. This helps the person to gain perspective and to see that the calamity in which they were living, is not normal, sanitary or healthy.

The stigma around addiction still exists in our community, largely because of social misconceptions and stereotypes.

However, it is important to remember that just like compulsive hoarding, all addictions are driven by a compulsion to carry out a behaviour and this is neither a matter of choice nor a problem that can be fought and won with will power alone.

It requires professional help, support and education to address and confront the issues driving the addictive behaviour.

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