Who’s got the baddest addiction?

Mary G is a sex addict. Her partner at work and longtime friend Glen B is an alcoholic. They’ve just met me– a recovered love addict. Glen goes to AA, but claims, because there are no other meetings in his hometown, that a meth addict, a cocaine addict and a gambling addict also attend.

He told me that no one takes the gambler, who sits quietly in a corner with his styrofoam cup and listens, seriously in these meetings.  There’s this underlying sense of We’re worse off than you’ll ever be, buddy.

And I suppose therein lies the brunt of Who’s Got the Worst Addiction mentality and why we classify to begin with.

Well, we classify addictions like any other social group– by interest. The sewing group in my town is a far cry from the gardening club, the choral singers and for that matter, the needlepoint ladies who meet in the church basement after service on Sundays. It’s natural to want to classify “what” you’re addicted to by interest. But that’s as far as it should go.

And yet it doesn’t.

At a screening for the new Love Addict documentary, an artumentary by Danish filmmaker PERNILLE ROSE GRØNKJÆR I overheard, “Alcohol and drug addiction do so much more damage than the lesser addictions. ”  An hour later, a guy says to me, “You really can’t compare apples to oranges. To compare heroin addiction to cigarette smoking or gambling is ridiculous.”

Is it?

The argument of “physical” substance addiction (heroin, alcohol) no longer seems to hold more weight than the “process” or behavioral addictions (sex, gambling, watching TV all day) simply because there’s a substance involved. We now know that our behaviors–repetitive, addictive ones– can cause chemical changes in our body akin to ingesting a substance that drives us to want more and take another hit. A recent piece on addiction in The New Statesman called, Addiction, The Key to All Mythologies states, “In a process addiction – to sex, for example – a person may well be addicted to the biochemicals she shoots up in the privacy of her own body.”

Nonetheless, I felt like a pariah, like I had no right attending a recovery festival. It was as if he was implying that love addiction is a joke compared to what most had been through in that room. And maybe he’s right. My “bottom” was mild compared to many . And yet, I can only speak for myself. Some love addicts jump off bridges, driven by obsessive jealousy for someone they are addicted to. How much “less” of an addiction is that?

Isn’t suffering relative? Haven’t we all been through the eye of the needle?

The Addictive Personality

My father was replete with every addiction imaginable. He was an alcoholic, a Rx drug addict, a sex addict, a gambling addict, a workaholic, a shopaholic (when he had money), and a chronic liar, which I believe should be classified as one among the many varieties of addictions simply because he could not stop doing it–even when he knew I knew he was lying.  Strangely,  he only identified with the alcoholism. In retrospect, that was the least of his problems. I say this because, when he was sober from alcohol, faithfully attending 12-Step fellowship, he was either popping so many pain-relievers or gambling all our money away that there was no clear delineation of better behavior after removing the substance. Tolerating his irresponsible, reckless behavior was a challenge to us all the same. At one point, he lost his mother’s house on one hand of poker. He made bad choices drunk or sober.

In the early 80’s there was a study done by lan R. Lang, a psychology professor at Florida State University. He determined that all addicts–from drug to alcohol to chronic TV watchers– had several “personality factors” in common:

– Impulsive behavior, difficulty in delaying gratification, an antisocial personality and a disposition toward sensation seeking.

– A high value on nonconformity combined with a weak commitment to the goals for achievement valued by the society.

– A sense of social alienation and a general tolerance for deviance.

– A sense of heightened stress. This may help explain why adolescence and other stressful transition periods are often associated with the most severe drug and alcohol problems.

With these in-common personality traits, we can begin to define the addictive personality. And yet, within the real world of recovery, there still exists an unspoken (and sometimes spoken) competition among addicts as to who has the baddest addiction, who caused the most pain to himself or others and who has suffered the most.

When I would go to my dad’s AA meetings back in the day, I remember the members within the group all struggling to outdo each each others’ stories. Stories of throwing broken beer bottles in an empty parking lot, were quickly topped by stories of someone throwing a beer bottle at someone’s head. People who told stories of cheating on spouses while under the influence always got a lot of reverence. But there were also those who told stories of beating up a friend, stealing money, abandoning children, driving into trees or others on the road, passing out at the Thanksgiving dinner table and robbing a bank (this latter feat was my father’s claim to fame, and the one which set him as the Alpha male of the group).

I remember too, as a teen, joining my mother in her 12-Step group: Al-anon. While my father, who seemed to be causing all the trouble, was over on his pulpit, dramatizing the pain he had induced within our family, getting lots of support and pats on the back (and even a few laughs at some of the “funny” antics he had caused), my mother was in her group, crying the entire time, along with everyone else. Her meetings had no sense of rivalry for who suffered the most. We all just suffered; we all just felt pain. It was collective hopelessness.

Picking and choosing between the two groups, I naturally gravitated toward my father’s group in AA. They were having more fun. And I loved the stories that played out like Hollywood movies. It was evident that these people were bad asses. And I loved it. And the more dramatic the story, the more evil the doing, the more pain inflicted on others and the more under the influence the person was, the higher their rank among their peers.

The Extreme Side of Addiction

But let’s get back to the gambler in the corner with his styrofoam cup, who’s also trying to tame the beast that is his pathology. Who’s to say his addiction is a “lesser” addiction when he has brought his entire family to live in a cozy cardboard box on the streets of Philadelphia? Sure, the alcoholic is pickling his liver, and the heroin addict is now schizophrenic and the crack addict is dead from an overdose. But the gambler has brought himself down to the grittiest, most impoverished facet of life–abject poverty–and he brought everyone in his family down with him.

Addiction is suicide, homicide or a combination of both. No matter what the addiction. And how’s this for bad ass:

  • Romeo and Juliet committed a double suicide for their obsessive love of each other.
  • In contemporary culture, a talented singer named Amy Winehouse killed herself with drugs because of her love addiction to then boyfriend Reg Traviss, who “dumped” her a year before.
  • Crimes of passion, “passion murder”  and suicide are all degrees of love addiction–albeit extreme ones.
  • AIDS, unwanted pregnancy, lifelong sexually transmitted diseases, prostitution, imprisonment, and death are all possible consequences of sex addiction.
  • Unemployment, bankruptcy, forced home sales and imprisonment can all be consequences of gambling or shopping addiction.
  • Diabetes, heart disease, amputation, invasive surgery, health issues, lack of mobility, morbid obesity can all be the end result of a food addiction.

I could go on. But I won’t. My point is this: the deeper rooted issue is not to what we are addicted, but rather, to not being able to manage our impulsivity, not having healthier values, our tolerance for deviance, and our sense of heightened stress. It’s not about the bottle, or the drugs or the lover or the money. It’s about our internal addictive personality and how to tackle the enemy within.

I can tell you that Psychology Today has a list of the seven hardest addictions to quit and love, cocaine, cigarette smoking and eating potato chips all made the list.

Here’s a quick story for you. Before I realized I was a love addict, I was a smoker. I smoked one to two packs of cigarettes a day (OK, I’ll give you that cigarette smoking is a lesser addiction, unless you’ve seen the graphic images of its ultimate consequence). Sick of being a hypocrite and trying to exercise while smoking, and simply because I knew it was bad for me, I was desperate to quit. I joined the online group quitnet.com and basically brainwashed myself for a few weeks, sitting in front of my computer screen, talking to other quitters who helped me learn not just how to stop smoking, but why I needed to. It was not, as I previously thought,  because smoking was bad for me. That would be too easy. That’s the argument that makes so many of us rationalize smoking. We can tell ourselves, “Well, it’s not like we’re smoking crack or something. Because that’s really bad.” No, instead, it was because I was too good for it. What a concept! That I was worth more than the junk I was putting into myself– no matter what it is, I am better than that. My body is a temple. And upon learning these core values,  I started to respect who I was and what I put into myself and what I allowed the world to do to me. But here’s the clincher. When I learned this lesson, I quickly applied it to every other addiction in my life, namely, my love addiction. And that’s when it all made sense.

It doesn’t matter what you’re addicted to. Once you recognize your own personal worth, you immediately stop identifying with the addiction of choice and start to see ALL obsessive, addictive behavior as toxic and irrational. Because now what you’re doing, is simply protecting the gift that is you, against any kind of harm.

Competition within the world of addicts or recovering addicts, for that matter therefore makes no evolutionary sense. Does it really make a huge difference in the big scheme of things how you kill yourself, whether slowly or quickly, whether by pills, slitting your wrist, drowning, gun shot to the head or jumping off a bridge? Dead is dead. Life is wasted all the same. And does it really matter, in the big scheme of the things, the degree to which you choose to wreck your life or the lives of others? Are we really basing what is ultimately our own level of stupidity or naiveté on the laws of gravity? That the harder something drops the higher up it bounces back?

When my father was 57 he walked into the ER with stomach issues. Six days later he was dead. The drama, emotion and intensity  of those last days were extreme. At the time, his death was a mystery. We scrambled, looking for clues as to how he could be here one day and the next, gone. We wondered if he was murdered, we looked into any enemies he had. We interrogated the doctors. Were they guilty of malpractice? Was it suicide? The questions haunted us.

In the end, there wasn’t much of a story. In fact, it was the unHollywood, unglamorous story that befalls some addicts. A year before, he had been diagnosed with a mild form of leukemia that, as the doc put it, “If you’re in good shape, you could live with this for 10 to 20 years…” My father wasn’t in good shape. In the last year of his life he was drinking more heavily than ever, popping Oxycotin like candy and even crushing it and swallowing it. His liver was so damaged from his drug and alcohol use, that when they went to treat him with chemo for the leukemia his liver was unable to flush out the poison and he went septic. Within hours, organs shut down and we were left with having to pull the proverbial plug.

For the longest time,  I couldn’t help but wonder if all that drama was part of his ego-driven need for attention. One last posthumous craving to be able to say, “I told you I was the baddest.” And he was. But it didn’t really matter much in the end.

4 thoughts on “Who’s got the baddest addiction?

  1. A common problem – woundology, glamourising, euphoric recall….all the 101 things you learnt NOT to do in treatment and early recovery and which would prohibit you from getting the “gifts of recovery”. I remember walking into treatment and being asked immediately whether I was a “junkie” or a “juicer”. ?! Of course, I wanted to be tragically cool and fatally hip (or however the phrase is turned), and was mortified that in my own mind my alcohol abuse was more progressed than any of my other drug addictions. I spent the first 6 months of my recovery fearing that I didn’t “belong” in NA. I entered the programme at 25, and didn’t have that much material and or legal damage. Just very psychologically and spiritually bankrupt. For me its all relative, as you say, and depends on what someone’s personal threshold for pain is. I went through similar experiences when i unearthed my other addictions throughout my recovery journey…My eating disorder – I wasn’t obese, I wasn’t a bulimic, I never got morbidly thin. Wth my love addiction, I wasn’t a dependent – but more of an avoider, seductive withholder and saboteur – and my family history meant that I close myslef off from people, so I dont have a lot of romantic encounters. I did admit to struggling to identify with the other people in the group, and to find out what action I needed to take – as it wasn’t a case of staying out of relationships. I learnt though from this, that it really didn’t matter, and htat the sum of all these addicitions was a super subtle way of keeping me out of life, learning, loving and acceptance of myself. And that comparing is like using (as a sponsor once told me).

    However, I do think that there are also several institutional issues behind this, which if greater attention and leadership could be directed at, would assist people to see that these distinctions are opposed to what 12 step programmes advoacte for (as in its old behaviour and rather sick).

    1. The distinction made by lots of people is reinforced in 12 step groups. In AA, its tricky, because they have chosen to isolate the recovery focus to one drug in particular. I think this is more a product of the time, where “scientific and psychological” terminology and concepts weren’t available. However, there are sufficient passages within the texts to make very clear as to what is alcholoic or addictive thinking, and it makes it very clear as to when one is indulging in pathological thinking. Anyone who is doing a regular thorough step four (in whatever form) will be wary and conscious of what is sick and healthy thinking and behaviour.

    in NA, people often make the distinction between “drugs and alcohol”. For me this points back to a culture of not paying attention or emphasising the tradtions. It categorically states that there is no distinction, and ignoring this will lead to relapse. The other issue here is that one of the primary goals of the 12 steps is to carry the message. its the 12 step and is critical to our ongoing recovery. AA as well. I find a lot of the time people work a 3 step programme…..and the recovery numbers are telling because of this. Apart from this all, I get out of myself by helping others – and I suffer from extreme self-centredness….which is the corner stone of my issues.

    2. Most preambles in NA South Africa state clearly – we dont care what you used, who you know or what you did. We just care about what you want to do with your problem and how we can help……this is part of the concept of “Anonymous”…anonymity is more about not caring who someone is, and divorcing their identity from their spiritual journey. A lesser known fact. Sadly.
    For me, a lot of this institutional knowledge is being lost in the fellowships. I always used to get bored and judgemental of the blue book or big book bashers who would share the same generic literature based shares – but they are relaly important.

    Maybe its a bit black and white – but there needs to be a clear distinction drawn as to what is appropriate and recovery orietned behaviour in groups and what isn’t. I’ve been in al-anon and coda groups as well, and I found that some are equally non-recovery oriented with people indulging in enabling pity parties. there are no victims in recovery. My mom is a codependent (my father was the alcoholic) and when my sister went to rehab, she said “not another one, why do i have to go through this again). Fair enough – but a codependent has a huge part in an alcoholic family. Healthy peopel dont stick with sick people.

    Anyhow – this makes me sound a bit dictatorial – but for me the more we condone it, the more we enable. and the more we let the legacy and power of 12 step fellowships down. And that means less people have the chance to find recovery.


  2. I wonder what the statistics would show if you looked at how many love addicts and or sex addicts also became alcoholics or drug addicts??? To me there seems to be a very common thread. Love addicts are seeking the same type of euphoric feelings that alcoholics and drug addicts seek. I really don’t feel there is a worse than better than situation here …I just watched your huffpost video and I was really offended at how the other guests seemed to belittle this addiction.
    On a separate note… I am wondering if you know of any connections between ADHD and love addiction… I have both so that man on the video did get my attention with that comment???


    1. You are spot on! Many addictions overlap because, let’s face it, it’s not the object that we are addicted to ( the alcohol, the person, the food, the drug) it is rather, the addictive personality that uses food, alcohol, sex, etc. to avoid the self.

      And yes! There is a huge connection between addiction and ADHD. I wrote a blog about it. Do a search on my site for ADHD, or add, or attention deficit. It should come up.


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