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Self-Knowledge • Behaviours

Why We Are All Addicts

When we think of an ‘addict’, certain stock images come to mind: a homeless person in the park sniffing glue, a gaunt figure with a heroine needle in their arm, a breakfast-time vodka drinker…

Detail from ‘Gin Lane’ by William Hogarth, 1751

But such gothic characterisations mask what is in reality a far more universal and less overtly dramatic — though still pernicious — phenomenon. Addiction doesn’t have anything to do with what one is addicted to: it can’t be neatly circumscribed to those who rely on hard drugs or alcohol. In its essence, addiction simply means leaning on something — it could be anything — because it prevents particular ideas from coming into our minds. The addict relies on their chosen pursuit to block unwelcome emotions from storming the theatre of their consciousness. 

The particular object of their addiction might be whisky or marijuana, but it could just as well be their mobile phone or ever more copious buckets of fried chicken. One can be addicted to talking to one’s mother or cleaning cupboards, doing the accounts or tracking migrating birds.

What the addict fears above all is to be left alone, to have nothing to do other than to turn into themselves and to face unbearable sadness or regret, fear or longing.

The popular misunderstanding of what addiction is lets too many of us off the hook. It allows people to claim that they are merely going to the office again or checking the news, toning at the gym or catching up on football results.

Yet addicts are not evil or weak. They are first and foremost scared. The solution shouldn’t — therefore — involve censorship and lectures, rather love and reassurance. We should make moves to allow people to feel as safe as possible about opening more doors in their minds and confident that they can handle whatever might be skulking inside. 

It is never really fried chicken or social media updates we like anyway: we are just at a loss as to how to begin to reflect without terror on the course of our lives.

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