Saturday, November 06, 2010

[Rant] Shiny Happy Addicts

Shiny Happy Addicts: For non-addictive people, addiction can be a struggle to understand. "If you're so miserable, why don't you just stop?" is the na‹ve, unanswerable question. The fact is that the addictive activity brings tremendous pleasure. Heroin addicts describe the sensation of getting a fix as better than any sex you could imagine. I am not a broadly addictive person but I have certainly done my share of drinking -- especially when writing -- and I've used alcohol as more than a social lubricant. The consolation and bliss from surrendering to the careless ease that comes from anesthetizing your nervous system is very enticing. I have never passed the point of no return, but I can see why people do, especially if they are to blame for their own misery.

I do allow myself the twee addiction of caffeine. Even if it's just a little, I need it every day. I used to periodically wrench myself out of its clutches on principle, but I don't even bother anymore. I don't have that much -- I bet average the equivalent of two or three cups of coffee per day and would certainly have no trouble with say, a cup of tea in the AM and slug of Diet Pepsi in the afternoon. In fact, it's entirely possible it's only psychological at this point. Still I don't quit because the benefits outweigh the costs to me. I didn't really feel that much better when I was off caffeine and do love that nice hit of energy.

That's kind of the thing that falls out of much of the talk about addiction. Looking beyond the physiology of it, there is a real risk that breaking your addiction doesn't make you any happier. It would be interesting to find out what percentage of reformed alcoholics are truly happier now that they are sober. Let's say you've already destroyed your relationships with your family and friends; you used to spend all day at a dive bar sailing in semi-conscious euphoria with a bunch of other friendly drunks, now you have a dreary paper pushing job in some cubicle farm. You didn't used to worry about anything -- except where your next drink was coming from and that wasn't a big problem -- now everything is stern and serious and stressful and you can never let your guard down. For the sober, the world is a hard place, no? Are you happier now? You are certainly healthier, and probably wealthier (addiction can get expensive), and will likely live longer, but are you really happier?

I suppose that opens the can of worms of defining happiness. But in terms balancing pleasure against pain, I'm not so sure it's clear addition is the short end of the stick. Cognitively, you probably better off unaddicted. But is that really much of an argument against addiction? It would go something like, "Overall, the world will be a more painful place to you, but in most normal functional circumstances you will be vastly better off so, on balance, you should sober up." That's a tough sell.

All this came to mind when I read this astoundingly well written piece about what it's like to be a gambling addict. I have never gambled enough to cause me any distress, but I have won and I have lost and resulting feelings from those are quite different. Winning is instant gratification, then nothing. Losing sticks with you. You'll rethink your losses quite possibly for the rest of your life. But it's the kind of hurt that is has a comforting value to it. It's proof of life. My stories can't compare to the ones in the article, but I have had horrendous weekends in Vegas where I couldn't win. Just couldn't. Where everything I played and every move I made cost me. I would lie in bed those nights and replay everything in my mind to figure out if I did anything wrong. (If I didn't, it just made it more frustrating.)

On the other hand, I would end up those evenings sitting in the lobby bar at Bellagio or Parasol Down at Wynn, muttering to myself and rehashing my problems with a world weary bartender and watching the hum of activity from a storied vantage point. I may be down some cash, but I'm a walking, talking, Frank Sinatra-noir tragedy. What are you, sitting on your living room couch watching a CSI rerun in your underwear? I'm feeling the suffering of the living. It's addictive. Are you happier than me?