The Anatomy of Addiction: An Essential Guide (1/3)

This three-part series of addiction recovery articles provides you with essential insights to help break the spell of destructive behaviour.

The Anatomy of Addiction: An Essential Guide (1/3)
Understanding and overcoming addiction

If you have a compulsive habit causing concern, this three-part series is a must-read. The series will arn you with essential insights to help break the spell of destructive behaviour. I cover the candid journey of a young man's journey out of a crippling addiction and back to a life of freedom.

Audio version here:

Shopping, gambling, sex, porn, drugs, botox, junk food, alcohol … any activity promising relief can hijack your emotions and govern your behaviour.

You might think of it as your little thing. An emotional release. Your secret habit or guilty pleasure. A soothing sanctuary to help reduce life’s noise and escape it all.

It feels delicious while you’re there — at least it used to. Warm, embracing, and non-judgemental.

You revel in the flow, and things — momentarily — seem as they should.

Easy, accessible and enjoyable, softening life’s hard edges.

But it doesn’t last.

Something else soon catches up. A pervasive guilt. Perhaps shame and despondence that you’ve relinquished control to a clandestine relationship.

Because a habit that began as a tonic for life’s ills may now represent the weight of fate creeping up and breathing across your neck.

The controlling consequence of a habit can spring out to taunt you as soon as you’re done with it.

The disquiet of compulsive behaviour may ramp up and harass you during the still of darkness, or hit you like a bus and flatten your confidence in moments when you hope to muster self-assurance.

Addiction represents a pervasive menacing presence hovering in the wings, threatening to charge onstage and demand the spotlight.

Like a bully’s silent gestures across class — it’ll be coming for your lunch money when no one is there to protect you. 

Addiction. A tyrant that promised protection, only to become a threat.

Because whatever it is for you, any out-of-control behaviour will come to represent a distressing — and often lonely — experience.

Addiction: Not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could harm you. And the statistics suggest a large number of us are hooked in some form or another:

Almost 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, yet only 10% receive treatment.

Drug overdose deaths have more than tripled since 1990.

Alcohol and drug addiction cost the US economy over $600 billion annually.

About 20% of Americans with depression or an anxiety disorder also have a substance use disorder.

More than 90% of people who have an addiction started to drink alcohol or use drugs before they were 18 years old.(source:

If you nurse a compulsive habit, there’s a chance those numbers offer a tainted shred of twisted comfort — justification, even.

This is how sneaky addiction is, so don’t be hoodwinked. If you do, the devious aspect of addiction will twist the evidence to make your habit seem acceptable.

Everyone’s at it; it’s just how it is. Can’t be anything wrong with it. Besides, if the ship is going down, go with the flow and be merry.

This is the toxic influence of a sickness deploying your intelligence against you to steal your freedom.

With self-destructive and compulsive behaviour running rampant throughout society, how do you know when you have a problem?

Knowing when you have a problem

Your habit likely swallows vast amounts of your time and attention. More than the activity itself, the climb of anticipation and the post-distress off-ramp are hungry for your time.

You’ll find you overdo it, often without realising it. You slip out for a swift one but lose a whole afternoon.

A quick, cheeky flutter mutates into a costly and exhausting financial drain — as the slippery perfect feeling becomes ever more elusive.

And so your use increases — often without realising it — to try and recapture the pleasure from earlier experiences. You are constantly chasing a high that only exists in euphoric — and unreliable — recollections.

As a result, the damage seeps into other areas of your life.

Missed opportunities, disgruntled significant others, and the omnipresent preoccupation of being bound to a habit that keeps changing the rules on you.
Addiction. Strapped in the passenger seat of a moving car without brakes. You’ve long since vacated the driver’s position.

When I met Jay

When I first met Jay, a young man from London, he had a kind and gentle face. He was quick to smile and keen to present as doing okay. But he wasn’t. Talking to him made it clear that he was privately troubled and ill at ease.

Jay was addicted to internet porn. It was a rabbit hole he’d fallen into - quite by chance — as a young teen. He described how he’d opened a page online and clicked a link.

One thing led to another, and the beginning of thousands of hours of lost time, focus, energy, self-esteem, and confidence began.

Now aged 33, Jay found the impact of addiction in sharp focus.

Preoccupied and battling inadequacy around women, his uncertain demeanour diverted attention from the potential of a young man who, apart from a crippling habit, had much to offer.

The stress endured through social inadequacy, sexual frustration, dependence, etc., left him veering between impulsive attempts to please others — hoping to establish belonging — or irrational responses in social situations due to his anguish at not controlling his behaviour.

He hadn’t done as well at school as he might. And now, staring down the barrel of an unsteady future, he couldn’t push away the need for help any longer.

In a nutshell, Jay’s addiction had bullied him into a corner while masquerading as a friend.

His porn dependence was deeply rooted — offering itself as a response to life’s daily pressures and disappointments.

He could always succumb to the glow of his screen playing the harmless distraction, a quick fix, an effortless way out from his troubles. But, in truth, he’d been sold a lie.

So how did Jay rescue himself from an addiction running so deep through his psyche — one that had hijacked his self-identity?

In short, how could he get his life back?

We’ll get to this. But first — to get addictive behaviour under control — we need to understand what drives dependence.

A perversion of the learning circuit

Joe Griffin, an Irish psychologist and therapist, offers an extraordinary and compelling explanation for what drives addiction — and it’s one well worth our attention.

In Freedom from Addiction, he argues that addiction’s highs and withdrawals function by corrupting the brain’s learning mechanism.

Reward and withdrawal

We experience purpose and pleasure when we learn new skills or overcome challenges. Yet, over time and with repetition, the pleasure we derive from completing the same activity dials down. Essentially, we get bored.

This is nature’s strategy to regulate the experience of satisfaction, encouraging us to engage in ever more complex challenges and, over time, evolve as a species, i.e., nature governs the experience of pleasure to promote ever more creative and flexible behaviour.

Equally, evolution ensures we maintain functional skills and behaviours deemed essential to survival.

Nature thus urges us to maintain the basic, less pleasurable behaviours by imparting the discomfort of withdrawal when we cease their activity while pressing us to develop more complex skills in pursuit of pleasure. A clever combination of carrot and stick.

The need for variety

Imagine this: Following too much sofa time, you realise you need to lose some weight and get back in shape, so you resolve to get running. While challenging initially, you soon increase your distance and feel good about your progress.

person wearing orange and gray Nike shoes walking on gray concrete stairs
Photo by Bruno Nascimento / Unsplash

Yet, before long, the pleasure curve flattens out. You stop deriving the same satisfaction from your usual route and distance.

Following a cold and wet run, motivation dwindles, and you decide to take some time off. Yet, back on the sofa, something doesn’t feel right. You experience a faint nagging discomfort because you know you should be running.

This is withdrawal, nature’s way of coaxing you back to a positive habit while — at the same time — spurring you on to pursue it in a new and more challenging way (a different or longer route, perhaps).

The upshot: Nature endeavours to support your progress while ensuring you retain essential habits to maintain survival.

But what happens when you don’t have enough new, life-affirming events or interests to keep you engaged? For instance, if stress narrows your hopes, or a lack of confidence prevents you from pursuing new opportunities?

In this case, we search for alternative means of reward and connection. Thus, a door opens to behaviours that mimic nature’s natural reward system.

For instance, an expedient buzz from a line of coke or the satisfying warmth from a glass of whiskey. These are attempts to decompress, distract or escape, perhaps from boredom, loneliness or other life stressors.

In other words, we get hooked on experiences that replicate (or aid) a sense of engagement along with the pleasure and withdrawal experience. But it’s rarely the real thing.

When we don’t experience purposeful rewards, addictive imitations — the false promise of shortcuts — introduce themselves as the next best thing.

From here, falling into the grip of dependence is an easy next stop. This is nature’s learning mechanism, but it’s been switched from construct to destruct — we’ll tackle this bait-and-switch with a plan for beating addiction in the next instalment.

Read the next instalment (2/3) HERE.