The common definition of addiction is that it’s very damaging for the addicted person. I suggest, however, that we expand the definition to include socially acceptable addictions, activities that have benefited the individual. Sometimes even the wider society, in important ways. These behaviors can be classified as addictions, however, if the person has compulsively kept indulging in them even when they have been detrimental to some areas of the person’s life and to people who were close to them.
Some examples of famous people who have had socially admired addictions:
Sigmund Freud would see patients for 10 hours a day and then write at night. Twenty-four long volumes contain his collective works. But he didn’t have much of a home life and his addiction to his work, according to some writers (e.g., the psychoanalyst Lewis Breger) was a rather compulsive attempt to compensate for some childhood traumas and to succeed in the eyes of the world. Freud actually wanted to be a professor on the staff of the University of Vienna, but wasn’t accepted because he was Jewish. So he turned to private practice. He himself was addicted to cocaine for a time, thinking it was a medically useful, non-addictive substance. If he hadn’t been so addicted to his patient load and his writing, he might have developed a greater ability to relate to other adults. Also his family, including his wife and children, would probably have been better off emotionally.
Georges Simenon, the very successful Belgian mystery novelist, published nearly 200 novels and numerous short works in his lifetime. According to Wikipedia, he often wrote between 60-80 pages a day. Anyone who has ever written professionally, knows that this is an incredible feat. Yet this behavior, which I think could certainly be regarded as compulsive or addictive, made him extremely successful.
By the way, Simenon also claimed to have had sex with 10,000 women between the ages of 13 and 74. Either he was also a sex addict or a liar!
Gabor Maté, a noted psychiatrist who specializes in working with people with addictions, admits he has had an addiction to spending vast amounts of money, sometimes thousands of dollars at a time, buying classical music CDs.
Benjamin Franklin seems to have been addicted to constantly trying to invent things. When he was on a ship going back to the US after having being in Europe for many years and learning of the death of his wife. he was constantly trying to develop a method of measuring the depth of the ocean at frequent intervals. This may have been a way to avoid the grief and guilt he felt about having been away from his wife for many years and cavorting with prostitutes in France.
Another person who was successful because of addictive behavior was Ted Williams, one of the greatest baseball players of all time. As an example of his greatness, he was the last player to hit over .400, in 1941, led the league in batting average six times, and was a two-time American League Most Valuable Player. He was also a notoriously crabby individual, continually fighting with the Boston press, expressing his contempt for the Red Sox fans. He had poor relationships with his own children and numerous wives. His behavior that sounds addictive to me was his compulsively studying the science of hitting. This very addiction led, however, to his being such a great player.
I know a fellow who is very successful professionally and quite wealthy, but is addicted to constantly attempting to buy things at the cheapest price. Since that behavior often takes a lot of time that, at least from my perspective, could perhaps be better used by him in relating more authentically to others or learning more about his profession.
I would include myself as having a reading addiction, one that I acquired when I was still a young child. It served the purpose of diverting me from my frequent depressive,anxious mood by immersing myself into others’ lives in books. Reading was tolerated by my emotionally disturbed, intrusive mother because she was an avid reader, and I knew that, as long as I was reading a book, she would leave me alone. I still spend a great deal of time every day reading, which is not generally considered an addictive behavior because it’s socially acceptable in the way alcoholism, gambling, drug taking aren’t.
What are the commonalities between socially acceptable and socially non- acceptable additions?
1. The addicted persons feels like he or she must engage in the addictive behaviors even though it takes a toll in some important area of his or her life. An example would be the workaholic parent, often the father, who neglects his wife and children. Countless numbers of my own patients have suffered because of having fathers that seemed to like their work more than their families.
2. When the individual is prohibited in some way from indulging in the addictive behavior, he or she becomes anxious, frustrated, even angry.
3. The addictive behavior temporally solves some underlying psychological problem that the individual is not facing.
4. The addictive behavior has a rigid, stereotypic quality to it.
5. As Michael Clemmons, a prominent Gestalt therapist points out, the individual moves into compulsive activity without allowing himself or herself to experience the painful emotions that get triggered.
6. It prevents the person from growing in certain ways by avoidance of the underlying issues that trigger the addictive behavior.
I invite the readers of this blog to explore their own addictive behavior, whether socially admired or not. It can be an invaluable help in understanding their own addictive clients and increase their effectiveness in working with them. In a future blog I will give suggestions in how to do this.