North America is in the midst of an opiate crisis of epidemic proportions. Tighter restrictions on the distribution of pharmaceutical painkillers, compounded with the newfound popularity of dealers cutting substances with the dangerous opioid fentanyl, has resulted in a continent-wide surge in the numbers of opiate-related deaths. With these tragedies on the media’s register, every layman seems to face a desperate compulsion to project their shallow understanding of addiction into the ears of all that will listen.
Addiction is a complicated phenomena that resists simplistic and concrete defining. There is of course a biological portion to it – a dependent relationship formed between a body and a substance. However, this isn’t the constitutive factor of this concept, or else a diabetic would be an addict in relation to their insulin. There is a layer of moral judgment that goes into signifying this or that as addiction, and they or them as an addict.
We label phenomena as addiction if we judge that the relationship to the object is both destructive and not socially acceptable or “proper.” University students who get drunk at bars thrice a week aren’t labelled as addicts — but middle-aged men who drink alone in their living room are. People who have a tobacco habit only recently started being labelled as addicts — but they’re still less of addicts than someone with an oxycodone habit is. A person with chronic illness who needs to take painkillers to manage their pain might be physically dependant on the substance — but are they designated as proper addicts?
I believe this analysis is much needed at a time when popular culture enjoys designating any action that is semi-compulsory, or even any action that consistently gives pleasure, as addiction. You have an ‘addiction’ to dark chocolate. You’re so ‘addicted’ to computer games. You find Facebook so ‘addicting.’ Where is the linkage between these pseudo-addictions and the life-changing, heavily stigmatized addiction of actual addicts? There isn’t one. This is akin to persons applying psychiatric terms to themselves for comedic or poetic emphasis, i.e. “I’m soooo OCD about this!”
Related to this trend is the tendency of culture to take addiction, a complicated relationship between biologically-dependent subject and chemical object, and internalize it absolutely in the subject. I’m speaking to the myth of the Addictive Personality Disorder — a concept largely debunked in modern psychiatry.
There are certain character traits that might predispose a person to become an addict, but the reality of addiction isn’t as clean as that. More accurate predictors to addiction are being located at the intersection of societal inequities — being poor, racialized, queer, mad, and/or disabled. Attempts to locate the predictor of addiction as inside the biology of the person reflect, more than anything, the lengths people will go to side-step the discomfort of acknowledging inequity.