By Julia Indigo/@juliaindigo
What is the cause of addiction? Bucket loads of research have been done to answer that question. Some think it’s genetic – alcoholism runs in families, for instance – but co-dependency and learned behavior happen in families as well. In many addictions there is a substance that ‘hooks’ the user: nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, while in others the ‘fix’ is a compulsive behavior: gambling addiction, binging/purging, sexual compulsion. In either case, it appears that there is a change in the function of the brain.
Some addictions have met with approval in some circles: workaholism, smoking in the 1950s (think of the Classic Movie channel), and sexual crimes (think the gang bang as a gang initiation). All that has changed in the past 50 or so years, with increasingly restrictive laws governing public smoking, DWI and DUI, and drug incarceration.
More interesting to me is the emerging brain science concerning behavioral addiction/compulsion. In an article posted on November 20, 2011, Hilarie Cash writes:
When we enjoy playing video games or get caught up in gambling, we experience a similar euphoria. These highs are not something to be worried about, in moderation. The addiction begins to take hold, however, when we do it too much. Then the brain is forced to withdraw neuro-receptors in an effort to restore balance. This is what we call tolerance, and we no longer get the high from the same level of activity or drug use. Now, we need more. And if we go without, we go into withdrawal. In the case of behavioral addictions, that withdrawal involves primarily psychological symptoms (irritability, restlessness, poor concentration, increased anxiety and depression, etc).
In this article from June 2011, Alexandra Katehakis writes:
Both Robert and Clarissa suffered emotional deprivation in childhood. Both have developed rituals to mask the wounds that never healed. While their motivation and end result–despair–are the same, their acting-out blueprints are different.
Clarissa’s compulsions are more indicative of a love addict. Her interactive style is labile, with a come-here/go-away emotional charge that is echoed in her chaotic relationships. Clarissa’s “drug” of choice is less about sex than about a particular romantic experience.
A classic sex addict, Robert is more attached to specific sex acts and sexual encounters than to people. His style of relating is detached, aloof, and avoidant–thus his preference for nameless, interchangeable sex partners.
I believe that one key to addictive behavior is childhood emotional deprivation. In my protagonist Steven’s case, a series of emotional wounds in childhood and again in later life led to a separation from his essential self. His addictive behaviors serve to mask a deep inner discomfort – he describes it as ‘an itch that can’t be scratched’ – and as long as he returns to his compulsive behavior, that itch will not be healed.
While he is truly addicted to nicotine (and later, alcohol), his sexual acting-out becomes a behavioral compulsion, in the same way that someone can be drawn into out of control gambling or video gaming. While there is societal approval in some circles for the kind of things he does, for the most part men like him are a father’s nightmare.
He is a typical liberal college prof, as well as a Cradle Catholic and feminist. If you think that adds to his ‘itchiness’, you’d be right! Even he has difficulty reconciling his beliefs with his behaviors; his logical scientist’s mind rationalizes what his soul cannot accept. This inner conflict further feeds his desire to do whatever he can to bury that primal wound, until he finds himself sucked into the maelstrom called ‘hitting bottom’.
And what happens next? It’s a twisty/turn-y story which I hope will keep Steven Canelli in your thoughts for some time to come.