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Monday, February 24, 2014

Obsession and Addiction

From some of the earliest days of man, the behavior we now call 'obsession' has been with us.  In fact, it has been around much longer than the recent idea of 'addiction.'

While there may be more ancient examples of obsession, none is so striking is that of Narcissus.  In this story from Greek mythology, a spell is placed on him so that he fell in love with his own reflection, and eventually perishes from starvation.

Modern psychology has variously described this phenomenon of obsession with terms like monomania and idée fixe.  All involve a single idea that the mind concentrates on, to the exclusion of others and without a reasonable connection to reality.

Addiction is often described as an 'obsession.'  It certainly bears all the earmarks.  But, there is a critical difference, one that is hard distinguish at times as the suffer transitions from obsession to addiction.

In the case of Narcissus, the spell caused him to lose control.  Obsessions often represent losses of control.  People who are obsessed will often find themselves doing embarrassing things because they simply cannot see themselves being embarrassed.  They suffer from 'tunnel vision' which leaves them unable to make rational decisions.

However. whereas an obsession can be about any idea, an addiction is a type of obsession involving the usage of a substance or engagement in a behavior that causes a 'high.'  Not all obsessions are that way.

Sure, many obsessions can have a reward component, but most obsessions are just anxiety-riddled experiences with little in the way of benefit.  They are a form of mental illness which have no up-sides.

Addiction is tricky: it offers an 'upper,' the brain chemical cocktail that the anxiety sufferer desires as a momentary escape.  It is an obsession with a 'benefit.'

This is why most obsessed people can break the obsession through a therapeutic process (unless we are talking about organic mental illness, and even there therapy can help relieve some symptoms), whereas therapy has had little effect on addiction.  The reward mechanism is powerful enough to short out the rational process necessary for talk-therapy to really work.

Making something that feels good to not feel good is impossible.

This is often why addicts will report a point when their addiction 'stopped working,' and soon after they found the path of recovery.  The powerful bond of the reward to the obsession was broken.

If this bond is not broken, the addict cannot use his rational, upper-brain intellect to overrule his lower, animal-brain experience of the high.  Yes, addiction is a lower-brain experience, which is why it is so powerful and so hard to overcome.

Obsession is an upper-brain problem for the most part.  It confuses and tangles the lower-brain functions, but it is still largely a problem of faulty logic.  Addiction, however, comes about when the lower-brain hijacks the upper-brain with its desires and impulses, leaving the mind to race with excuses for its lurching into short-sighted and foolish decisions based on cravings for rewards.

Religion can be an obsession for sure, but aspects of it can become addictive once those rewards click in.  Take the priest who gets a 'rush' when he instructs someone to do something and they do it.  He can become 'addicted' to his own power.

I think many of us have seen that type of obsession/addiction.  It is a manifestation of lust addiction, probably the most powerful of all the behavioral addictions.  Religious organizations can be a place of temptation for those who come into power in them.

As we approach Great Lent, it is a good time to examine ourselves and see if we are indulging in these 'highs.'  We ought to search ourselves diligently, lest we overlook the one thing that might bring us down... like Narcissus.

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