Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

In The News

The Globe and Mail (Canada) Saturday, January 15, 2000


Addiction addiction: Welcome to a culture in which heavy lip-balm use can be earnestly compared with being hooked on heroin.


Last summer I watched a friend flirt with addiction. A blizzard of cocaine had blown through the country, and people everywhere seemed to be frolicking in its drifts. For my friend, things got more intense. What started off as a Friday-night social snort quickly escalated into a $100-a-day habit.

A responsible A-type with corporate ambitions, my pal was suddenly behaving like a textbook cokehead: borrowing cash from relatives, blathering animatedly about nothing, lying, doing favours for scummy dealers, taking impossibly long pee breaks.

When I asked him about the sudden identity change, he replied, knowingly, "I want to do this for a while; it's just where I need to be." It struck me that, far from being a hapless victim of the drug, my friend was choosing, at least for a while, to become an addict. And it seemed to me I would have to respect that. Unless things got bad (and I mean Less Than Zero bad), there would be no panicked calls to mothers, no cushy detox spas in Colorado.

Things didn't get that bad. Still, my friend's honest self-assessment hung in my mind. This notion of addiction as a choice, rather than a disease, is echoed in Anne Marlowe's excellent new memoir, how to stop time: heroin from A to Z. In chronicling her decade as a Harvard-educated junkie working on Wall Street, Marlowe expertly examines the seduction of getting hooked: "Addiction," she writes, "isn't just a possible outcome, it's a partial motivation for drug use. Putting it another way, if heroin were nonaddictive, it wouldn't be a good enough metaphor for anyone to want to try it."

As a culture, we seem to look to addiction to render us dependent, helpless, absolved. In this sense, the idea of being hooked is just as addictive as the vice itself. And, lately, it seems any type of socially unsanctioned behaviour conceivably can be considered an addiction -- and, by extension, a disease.

That dubious leap in logic has been embraced by a new wave of self-help gurus who classify any excessive or obsessive behaviour as a harmful dependency requiring purchasable "treatment," usually in the form of books, therapy and motivational CDs. North Americans can't get enough of the stuff.

We are, it seems, a culture addicted to addiction. For proof, take the following quiz: Do you find yourself looking for sexually arousing articles or scenes in newspapers, magazines or other media? Does the sight, smell or even the thought of food sometimes stimulate you to eat? Do you just have to have your morning cup of coffee? Do you ever sleep in longer than you intended? Can you apply lip balm with one hand?

If so, you are apparently an addict -- a sex, food, coffee, sleep or lip-balm addict.

Those questions were taken from quizzes posted on various addiction Web sites; a quick roam around the Internet will convince even the most moderate square that she is a craven dependent. Personally, I found out that for years I have been masking my "buried childhood pain" through substance abuse and compulsive behaviour. After taking several addiction-site quizzes, I tested positive for dependencies on stress, cigarettes, carbohydrates, sugar, caffeine, alcohol, love, Labello lip conditioner, pain and work.

The irony is that these sites aren't offering a way out of addiction, but a new crutch altogether. By medicalizing naughtiness, we declare that our behavior is beyond our control, thus absolving ourselves of blame.

The addiction addict's logic goes like this: I wasn't having an affair with the summer intern, I was, um, trying to "fill an emotional void" by pursuing my sex addiction. Or, that Pucci scarf is not a merely a gorgeous accessory, it's this season's crack rock for me, the helpless shopaholic. Or, I gained 10 pounds over the holidays, not from pigging out, but because I was in a state of post-prandial reactive hyperinsulinemia -- carbohydrate addiction.

Addiction addiction is the latest self-help goldmine. The "Carbohydrate Addiction" Web site at is so popular that its on-line support group was recently closed to new members. Oprah Winfrey (an admitted carboholic herself) recently declared ex-sex-addict Gary Zukav's addiction-healing book, The Seat of Soul,the most important text since the Bible.

A group called Lip Balm Anonymous has a spoof Web site ( which, at a glance, proves as disturbing as it is funny: Oblivious to the joke, hundreds of people have posted dead-earnest confessions of their dependence on Carmex, cherry Chapstick and Vaseline.

Here you have the current semantic tug-of-war: On the one hand, lip-balm users claiming to be sick, victimized and in need of treatment, and, on the other hand, heroin users demanding the right to take responsibility for their actions.

In fact, whether dependency is a disease or a choice is the central, age-old quarrel in addiction research. Though in some quarters the argument rages on (U.S. psychologist Jeffrey Schaler has just published a tract called Addiction is a Choice), addiction addiction reflects the fact that the disease model has largely won out. Addiction is even listed in the World Health Organization's International Classification of Diseases.

"When people argue that addiction is a choice rather than a disease," Dr. Harold Kalanp of the Addiction Research Foundation in Toronto argued when I spoke to him last week, "what they fail to see is the fact that diseases aren't necessarily strictly physical. Behaviours can also be regarded as a disease if they're maladaptive and harmful."

But anyone who has been a serious addict or has been close to one knows that real addiction is both a disease and a choice. Like most inconsolable emotional states, it is a disease willfully contracted in order to evade the plodding insistence of reality. Or, as Marlowe writes, addiction is "a form of mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time