When I was a kid, I would frequently walk downstairs to find my father on his computer. A couple of hours later, I’d walk by again and he would be doing the same thing, in a different position, but maybe with a cigarette in the ashtray.
He was playing Civilization, a computer game where you essentially build an empire from scratch, wage wars, and rule over your kingdom. Hours were spent on that game — more than anything else, it seemed. My father was completely addicted to it.
My mother always told me that I was like my father in that way: easily addicted to things. When I was 14, I met an older kid named Alex, who introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons. Alex and his friends would invite me over on Saturday nights to ‘campaign’ with them. I’d arrive at 6:00 pm and bike home at around 3:00 am.
I bought my own special set of die, three instruction manuals, and a cape and sword. To this day, my mother jokes she had “post-traumatic stress” from the time I became obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons.
“You have an addictive personality,” she once said to me. She warned me about things I could get addicted to: video games, food, porn, cigarettes, drugs, attention, work projects. The list went on, seemingly forever. While not individually unhealthy, these were things that could become unhealthy in large doses.
Luckily for her, my interest in Dungeons & Dragons subsided after Alex and his friends went off to university.
Where do addictive personalities start?
I wanted to know a little more about the ‘addictive personality’ that I’ve apparently harboured my entire life. I looked for somebody who might be able to tell me what it was. After numerous emails to professionals at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), I got a reply from Dr. Nigel E. Turner, a research scientist at CAMH who specializes in gambling addiction.
We arranged a time to meet, and I visited his office in the CAMH tower building.
Turner’s office was a cacophony of artifacts accumulated through a life spent doing research. It was cluttered, to say the least: papers were strewn about, books on addiction and gambling towered on bookshelves, and posters about gambling and paintings done by Turner himself covered the walls. Of the three fluorescent lights meant to illuminate his workspace, one worked and two didn’t.
I relayed to him an anecdote about my obsession with Dungeons & Dragons and my father’s gaming addiction, among other unhealthy practices. I asked him to diagnose whether or not I had an addictive personality, and whether they were even real.
“Yes and no. How’s that for an answer?” he replied with a drawn out laugh.
Some personality types are more prone to addiction, Turner explained. There are two primary reasons why people become addicted, the first being that, quite simply, an addiction feels good.
“That’s one of the ways in which you could become an alcoholic, ’cause you keep just wanting to get that ‘feel good’ feeling,” Turner said. “That’s true of heroin, cocaine — they feel good! These drugs work! They do what they’re supposed to do. It’s true of cannabis, it’s true of gambling, it’s true of video games. These things work, they make you feel good.”
The fascinating part of spending an hour in a stuffy office with Turner was that everything he told me seemed to come alive.
“The second reason that people get into addictions is to feel better, to escape, to forget about your problems, and that’s very clear with alcohol,” Turner continued. “You’ve heard the person who’s drinking their problems away, forgets about all the problems. There’s a t-shirt I think, [of] Homer Simpson saying ‘Beer: the cause and the solution to all of life’s little problems.’ That’s a very good statement about the escape as a motivation for addictions.”
Turner went on to explain what he called the “three pathways theory” for how individuals become addicts. The first pathway, as he explained before, was that a substance or activity feels good. The second is when people seek an escape. He referenced people with anxiety problems, depression, or who have gone through traumatic life experiences as those who might follow this pathway to addiction.
“So these people are, you can’t say they’re really an addictive personality, they just want to escape from their problems, that’s how they deal with their problems,” he said. “And the first group aren’t really an addictive personality because they just wanna have fun, and they get into it because they’re having too much fun.”
The third pathway to addiction has to do with impulsivity. Turner explained that impulsivity is a personality characteristic including but not limited to people with antisocial personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder.
“Now people who are impulsive by nature, what they’re picking up on is that feel good is more attractive to them,” he told me. “Impulsive people are looking for that [good feeling], looking for that high. They want the thrills.”
If there is an addictive personality, Turner concluded, it has to do with impulsivity: “They enjoy the thrill, they like taking risks, so you may have a type of addictive feature that gets people into addictions. I wouldn’t really call it an addictive personality.”
At this point I began to wonder if my mother had been lying to me all these years. Maybe I didn’t have an addictive personality after all; maybe I was just an impulsive, antisocial narcissist. I searched for people who might share this problem.
Who else has an addictive personality?
When I began my search for others with addictive personalities, I posted a Facebook status asking people to reach out to me, explaining that I thought I had an addictive personality. My friend Daniel thought I meant that my personality was addictive to other people, and that they couldn’t get enough of me. He could be right for all I know; and I wouldn’t mind that, to be honest.
I did, however, find someone to speak with me. A friend of mine, Winston Sullivan, spoke about his addiction to food. He and I were in a theatre production of RENT in my first year at university, but I hadn’t talked to him in a while, except for some hellos here and there.
Sullivan explained that his parents told him his family had history of severe addiction, similar to mine, and that he carefully listened to safety-related messages in grade school: don’t do drugs and don’t drink alcohol. He said he thought he was safe.
“But food isn’t something that you can simply cut out of your life because you eat excessively,” Sullivan said. “When I was still in elementary school, I came home after school and ate handfuls of cereal at a time until supper was ready. My parents asked me to stop, then would confiscate or hide it from me.”
When we were talking, I realized that this was something Sullivan had put a lot of thought into. When I asked him to describe the nature of addiction in general, he said that addiction was a set of cognitive pathways that cause a person to “overvalue the pleasures of certain actions or substances to the point of self destruction.”
He continued, telling me that some people have certain personality characteristics that make those types of pathways develop more deeply and easily. This was the same thing Turner told me.
“When I find something that I like, I usually like it so much that it occupies an unhealthy portion of my time and mental energy,” Sullivan explained. “For example, [I] don’t play video games much, but when I do, I spend all my waking hours playing it for a few days, ignoring my other needs and responsibilities.”
To curb his cravings, Winston occupies his time with other things, getting involved in groups, activities, or going on the internet. “Unfortunately, I rely too heavily on these crutches and become unable to function without them, and they become unhealthy and it often seems like I am unable to do anything to a non-obsessive extent.”
Can addiction ever be good?
As I sat in Turner’s small, dimly lit office, I began to wonder whether there were positive aspects to addiction. For about five minutes we spoke about his paintings — his love for the art was clear, given the array of canvases strewn about the office. I asked him if he was addicted to painting. He said yes, adding that the difference was when a gambler gambles and loses, they’re in debt. For Turner’s addiction, the stakes are not as high.
“It’s been proposed that there are some behaviours that can be thought of as addictions which are not harmful, that they could be a positive addiction,” Turner said. He cited love as an example, but noted that, in some ways, addictions to substances and certain activities are essentially founded by the feeling of love, except that the feeling of love is directed toward unhealthy practices.
“Our brain’s all messed up, basically,” said Turner. “It doesn’t know what we’re being in love with. That has been suggested,” he speculated, “that people who are addicted are addicted because they didn’t get enough love or enough affection in life. It’s compensating. Nobody gets enough love so we should all be addicts.”
A psychologist, a painter, and a philosopher, Turner and his insight helped me better understand what I’ve often struggled with my entire life. I certainly didn’t pay him to diagnose me, but nonetheless I walked out of his office with a lot to think about. I’ll be the first to admit that I take on a lot at once. Perhaps that’s part of my addictive personality, perhaps born of a need to prove myself, or an insatiable addiction to the numerous interests I occupy my time with.
So, as Sullivan observed and Turner concluded, some personality traits or types, particularly the impulsive ones, have a higher likelihood of becoming addicted.
“But there’s no addictive personality, per se,” said Turner. “No one is invulnerable to an addiction. People vary in their susceptibility to specific addictions, and some people are more susceptible to addictions in general, but I would say no one is invulnerable. [In] the right circumstances, a person could become addicted to something.”