January 13, 2010

What makes one addiction an illness and not another?

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 12:48 pm

To my understanding, this question really gets to some of the differences between clinical and popular views of these issues.  In our culture it is much more acceptable to have an illness (which we couldn’t control), than to have a behavioral disorder (which is our fault).  As we learn more about neurobiology and the science behind addiction, it is easier to point to observable biological breakdowns associated with addictions.  We like to call these illness.

As we have learned more about alcoholism, there has been a desire to refer to it as an illness.  This really isn’t a clinical term at all.  From what I have learned in the current arc of psychological analysis, there is more of an interest in referring to these types of behaviors as chemical dependencies than as an illness, or even the term we are currently addressing- addiction.

My understanding of the answer to that question is that alcoholism should not be given special status as an illness above other forms of chemical dependency.  For example, drug addiction would be an intuitive parallelism from a medical perspective.  Of course, I brought all this up because I think a subject that has a little more wiggle room is what constitutes an addiction.  Beyond that, I would be comfortable classifying all addictions as pathologies by definition.  Off hand, I think we would be safe to say all addictions are also illnesses.  I’m not sure what criteria we would use to say addiction X is an illness, but addiction Y is not.

That being said, I would circle back to my opening sentiment, that popular culture absolutely has a stack-rank of acceptable additions and which of those are considered social-accepted illnesses.  Alcoholism is near the top.  Bigorexia is not. =)

UPDATE:  Just to clarify, this post is to address Joe’s earlier comment.  Art is next.


  1. From what I understand about addiction in regards to a chemical reaction, it is that when someone is addicted to a substance or in this case an activity there is a nerological reaction that results in a releasae of dopamine. I would say that in order for a behaviour such as alcoholism or the viewing of pornography to qualify as an addiction first it would have to be assertained whether or not dopamine was being released in quanitity.
    These measurements are difficult to accquire and so most diagnoses are given through a study of behaviour patterns that match those who have been clinically diagnosed.
    An addiction is most often present when an individual continues to particpate in a given activity dispite that participation’s negative impact on nessessary aspects of life. These include social, finacial and personal nessesities.
    I agree that society at large would much rather believe that individuals are “sick” rather than struggle through bad choices and/or bad habits. One glance into the national obesity average and societies reaction to weight loss supports that theory. While conservative religion has taken a zero tolerance stance on pornography I don’t believe it can be extrapolated that Mormonism specifically would rather misdiagnose a perceved sin as addiction.

    Comment by Terra — January 13, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

  2. I found this thread so interesting that actually posted my own take on it on my own blog.
    I for one agree with the authors observations as to the error of calling sin an addiction. My view is generally that the use of this word both in religious and secular circles is a way to absolve the individual of personal responsibility of their sin. In this victim centered society we now live in I believe it is very easy for individuals to excuse sinful personal choices they have made to an “addiction.” This label also often has a way of allowing an individual to continue these practices with with muted or no consequences for these actions which would be the natural order of things.

    I also find it troubling that in this thread the the spiritual side of addiction has been virtually ignored.
    Spend time in the addiction program at Cook County Hospital,Chicago and you will get a taste of what I talking about.
    I do not believe that “addiction” can be boiled down to a simple neurochemical response or even simply labeled as a mental health issue.
    Addiction is the result of a sick and broken soul looking to fill a void. A void for God.
    It is like a psychic malignancy, sucking out life energy into specific obsessions and compulsion, drawing us away from others. The love of other people, pursuits, and God.
    It has been proposed by many Christian (non Mormon) psychiatrist, physiologist and opologist that reoccurring sin and object attatchment is based on a mans fall from Gods grace and is an “addiction”.

    Gerald May,M.D. author of Addiction and Grace states that “To be alive is to be addicted, and addicted is to stand in need of grace.”
    A state of compulsion, or obsession or preoccupation that enslaves a person’s will. Addiction attaches to natural and spiritual desires and
    enslaves that to certain objects, activities, even people.

    (Screwtape ( a master demon) to his underling nephew)
    “Never forget that when we are dealing with any pleasure in its healthy and normal and satisfying form, we are, in a sense, on the Enemy’s [God’s] ground. I know we have won many a soul through pleasure. All the same, it is [God’s] invention, not ours. He made the pleasures: all our research so far has not enabled us to produce one. All we can do is to encourage humans to take the pleasures which our Enemy has produced, at times, or in ways, or in degrees, which He has forbidden. Hence we always try to work away from the natural condition of any pleasure to that in which it is least natural, least redolent of its Maker, and least pleasurable. An ever-increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure is the formula…. To get the man’s soul and give NOTHING in return–that is what really gladdens [Satan’s] heart.”

    Screwtape Letters-C.S. Lewis

    Taking God give gifts and pleasures and making them objects of idolatry.
    “An ever increasing craving for an ever diminishing get the mans soul and give NOTHING in return” a good definition of addiction.
    In my humble opinion.

    Comment by Paul — January 14, 2010 @ 6:03 pm

  3. Paul,

    I would very much enjoy a link to your take on this.

    Comment by admin — January 15, 2010 @ 6:03 am

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