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2015 Bar Harbor

We unite ourselves and divide ourselves with words. We not only define but give emotional meaning to things with words, and you often can tell the importance of something by how many words there are for it in a language, a classic example being the number of Inuit words for snow.

Political correctness often comes up in the discussion of the evolving of our language and how we frame our culture. The discussion is often disingenuous, for the same philosophical group that disparages the move to change the name of the Washington professional football team name as political correctness gone overboard forced the Cincinnati professional baseball team to change its name to Redlegs for a time in the 1950s so they wouldn’t sound communist. That was also the time that the US national motto was changed from “E Pluribus Unum” (“Out of the many, one” – an inclusive unifying phrase) to “In God We Trust” in an effort to prove we were not and to divide us from “godless communists.” This was done despite the constitutional separation of church and state. In Virginia, Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom had major supporters in the Baptists who did not want to pay taxes to support the official government religion of the Church of England. Those who most speak out against Sharia law ironically want to force their own brand of Christianity (and there are many brands and denominations) on others. They are doing exactly what they say they oppose, but it is okay because it is their brand. To oppose it is to be politically correct in a “bad” way. Those thoughts are further stirred up by talk radio and the disinfotainment branches of cable TV news and propaganda sources that masquerade as news.

One of the Founding Fathers of the US was a physician named Benjamin Rush. One of the things he is remembered for is declaring that addiction to alcohol is a disease. There has been an ongoing debate about whether addictions and other issues of behavior are diseases or not. The labels have changed over the years, and what is and is not a disease or a disorder has changed over time as well. Trying to decide what to call people we see as having these problems changes, too. Do you say, he is an addict? Or do you say he is a person with an addiction? Do you say he is a schizophrenic? Or do you say, he is a person with schizophrenia? Does it matter? Is it all just political correctness? Take a deep breath for a moment, and think. What do you call a person with cancer? Do you call them a cancer patient, a person with cancer? No one that I know of calls them a cancerite or some other word that implies that they are the disease. Now there are conditions like diabetes and hemophilia that do have words for a person with the condition. Do you feel a different emotional reaction to the words “alcoholic” and “schizophrenic” than you do to “diabetic” and “hemophiliac”? Would you feel differently towards someone called a cancer patient or a cardiac patient than you would schizophrenics and diabetics? Would that feeling change according to how you think they became ill? Did it just happen, or did they bring it on themselves by smoking or diet, or was it some environmental contaminant beyond their control? Does that change how you feel?

Our language shows in a very strong way how we determine and express our values. In a diverse culture, there are different values and different linguistic ways of expressing those values. One can rigidly hide behind lazy shortcuts like “political correctness” and somehow feel smugly superior when belittling something as politically correct. Or one can look more deeply at the language and try to see what values that language expresses. One thing working with families has taught me over the years is that families function better when the members treat each other with respect and compassion. Language and the values that language expresses and teaches can help a culture function more positively when it has compassion and respect as fundamental parts of its foundation. Remember the principles of taiji – softness overcomes hardness, and flexibility overcomes rigidity. In the West, another way of expressing that is that a soft answer turns away anger. The emotions of language are contagious for better or for worse.

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It seems to me like the distribution of most everything conforms to the standard bell curve to one degree or another. There may be a skewing to the right or the left, but there is a curve.  By nature we need stories to make sense of our lives, and we make sense according to how we are taught.  We put people and everything else into categories that make sense with how we want/choose to see the world. We don’t even realize that what we have is a construct culturally made up. We see it as just “what is.”

 The thing about bell curves, about “normal distributions” is that there are always outliers.  Take those behaviors we thing of as addictive for example.  Now anything that can act on the pleasure center of the brain and anything that can ease stress and tension can be “addictive.”  It becomes a behavior that we come to rely on to make us feel better.  People can be “addicted” to drugs, shopping, a person, work, the online world, sex, exercise, gambling – whatever relieves stress and works.  There may be consequences that aren’t pleasant, but that rush of adrenaline, dopamine, oxytocin – that instant vacation from what is ailing us and gives us a longed for feeling is difficult to let go.

 One of the Founding Fathers, Benjamin Rush, classed addiction to alcohol as a disease back in the 1700s as a way to ease the stigma.  But when addictive behaviors are called an illness and unusual behaviors are classed as mental illness, the danger is that the stigma actually increases.  They can’t help it, they have a disease, and as often happens with physical illnesses, people ostracize them and fear them.  The fear them not because they are worried about contagiousness, but because “that person has no control over his behavior – you just can’t trust him.”

Think for a moment of “unusual” behaviors as outliers, and take alcohol as an example.  A small percentage of people on the right side of the curve drink more than the average daily consumption of the alcohol, and consume a lot of the alcohol drunk. The middle of the curve drinks but no individual drinks “more than their share.” At the left of the curve are outliers that drink nothing at all. There is no moral judgment in that curve, just differences in behavior mapped on a graph. There is also no notion of disease. People do what they do. Some of the outliers to the right that drink a lot get into trouble.  Some don’t. There are individual differences.  Just as there is no pure yin or yang, there is no pure 100 percentile person or 0 percentile person.  What is important is what tends to happen to you when drink (or do any of those behaviors). What is your relationship with the behavior? Is it overall healthy or unhealthy?  Is it overall positive or negative?  How would you like it to be?  Is it how you would like it to be and if not, what do you need to do about it.  How can you get there?  The thing about outliers is that they stand out, just because they are different.   A person may love computers or art and may spend a lot of time on programming or drawing.  A parent may be concerned that the kid is “addicted” to the behavior. Again, look at the effects.  The child may be passionate about the behavior and may struggle against the parent to follow that passion. Another thing about outliers, people often want to change them to be more like the middle of the distribution. Power struggles can be destructive or constructive. They can be destructive when each side has to win no matter what the cost and control is the goal.  They can possibly be constructive when the individual learns to get better at what the passion is. But again there is rarely a pure yin or yang and there is a cost either way.  It comes down to how you choose to see or live the story.

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