The Dawning Of The Age Of Addiction?

Alice Steinbach

May 20, 1991|By Alice Steinbach

It's amazing, the growing number of things to which we might become addicted if we don't watch out.

Let's see. A partial list, compiled from a short computer search of major news publications, would include addictions to: shopping, television, exercise, chocolate, computers, coffee, nicotine, work, pets, wife-beating, bank-robbing, gambling, power, relationships, lying, cheating, cross-dressing, and something called the Women-Who-Fall-in-Love-with-Priests-Only Addiction.

In fact, the abandon with which we now attach the word "addiction" to various activities suggests there may be such a thing as an addictions addiction: That is, the compulsive need to label something an addictive activity.

You might say we live in the Golden Age of Addictions.

Or to be more precise: the Golden Age of Excuses For Excessive Behavior Due to An Addiction.

Take, for example, the case of Marion Barry, the former mayor of Washington, who is appealing his six-month jail sentence for possession of cocaine. He has publicly declared himself addicted to alcohol, drugs and power. Now, in a television show that will air nationally on Friday, Barry confesses to talk-show host Sally Jessy Raphael that he is also a victim of a "disease" called sex addiction.

"You get caught up in it," said Barry during last week's taping of the show. "This disease is cunning, baffling, powerful. It destroys your judgment."

He is joined on the show by several other guests, including a psychiatrist and a minister, who claim also to be struggling to regain control over their excessive sexual behavior. And in a new spin on the old adage, "The devil made me do it," all of them attribute their lack of control to their addiction: In other words, "My sickness made me do it."

Not everyone in the studio audience, it seems, was won over by the "I am a victim of the disease known as sexual addiction" defense offered by Barry and the others. (It is an excuse, you may recall, used also by baseball player Wade Boggs after he heard about the disease on the Geraldo Rivera show.)

"I really don't believe what I am hearing," one woman at the taping told a reporter after hearing Barry's explanation of the behaviors that led to his downfall. "He knew right from wrong. He was the mayor. What about taking responsibility for your own damn self?"

It's an interesting, if somewhat old-fashioned, question. And it makes me wonder: Just when did our society begin what seems to be a national flight from the idea that an individual has some responsibility for his or her own actions?

And when, I wonder, did bad habits metamorphose into addictive diseases over which one has no control? Smoking into nicotine addiction? Coffee drinking into caffeine addiction? Promiscuity into sex addiction?

Addiction as a catch-all diagnosis for any excessive behavior, according to many psychiatrists, is a modern phenomenon; one that bears little resemblance to the original notion of addiction as a chemical dependence on a drug. But increasingly, the theory of being a victim of an addictive disease is being used -- in legal defenses as well as moral alibis -- to explain criminal or excessive behavior.

In a 1990 California case, for example, a Los Angeles judge allowed that a man accused of the theft of an expensive software program was a victim of the certifiable ailment of "computer addiction."

It seems the concept of assuming responsibility for "one's own damn self" may well be on its way out.

"Creating a world of addictive diseases may mean creating a world in which anything is excusable," writes Stanton Peele in his 1989 book called "The Diseasing of America: Addiction Treatment Out of Control."

It is easier, apparently, to simply bypass facing the psychological problems that underlie such behavior as womanizing or cheating on one's spouse and go directly to offering up oneself as a sexual addict.

And it is easier to accept a biological explanation for one's actions than it is to face the possibility that a major overhaul may be necessary -- not in your neurotransmitters but in your character and integrity.

Of course, in this era of wall-to-wall television talk shows that chew up and spit out every behavior that can be sensationalized, integrity addicts don't sell. Sex addicts do.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.