For the inquisitive user asking the question ‘ What is an Addict? ‘ the short answer may be obtained by answering this question: Is it difficult to stop using? If so, you are most likely an addict.

If still unsure, you may be able to define yourself as one of four types of problem users. These are based on alcoholics described in the Big Book for the benefit of the wives of early AA members. This will do as well for anyone – including addicts themselves – grappling with the question of what sort of user a person is.


What is an Addict

One – social user
Many people I secretly think are an addict claim to be a recreational user – as though it was keeping them fit. Some call themselves a social user. Since it is self-diagnosis it is not for me to brand them as anything. Publicly I accept that what they call themselves is what they are. I may question their self-diagnosis in an attempt to get them to think about it more seriously, but I have to accept their answer.
The difficulty is that many people really will change their behavior before, or as soon as, it becomes a problem – as soon as they become an embarrassment to their family or at work. You might claim your using does no one any harm, but heavy using will still have cumulative mental and physical side-effects, even if you don’t notice. Further down the line people admit they are harming themselves but no one else. Often the second part is not true. And it seems to me the power of rational thought has already gone when someone admits they may be self-harming but it is OK because it is no one else’s business.

Two – regular user out of control
Looking back, with the benefit of hindsight and schooling in what to look for, I can see when a large group of addicts, especially alcoholics, graduate – when they can be identified and should be given a certificate. Many young people overindulge in a substance or substances but they stop at the family forming stage when the expense of a mortgage kicks in. This is when many an addict stands out. Some get married, some don’t but, when all their peers stop going out as much and lower their consumption, addicts just sail on using more and more. How can they afford it? They cannot. They overborrow on credit cards, steal from their life partners and family, turn to crime or cut down on all other expenditure and start leading the miserable existence of a full blown addict.
Many who admit to being a regular user are really in denial: they claim they could stop at any time, but they cannot. Their friends think their behavior is over the top and no longer funny. You admit this, and protest that you will quit. Work may be affected. You may use in the morning and/or through the day. You are sorry from time to time and tell your partner you want to stop. But you can’t stay off for long. When you get over a spree, you think you can drink moderately next time. If you display some of this behavior you are in danger. These are the signs of a real addict.

Three – raging addict, but you can be hopeful
I was somewhere between numbers two and three when I finally went to see my doctor and the chain of events started which culminated in finding AA. I can remember sitting on bar stools thinking I was free, that I could go anywhere. I always liked travel. But I might as well have been chained to the bar stool. I wasn’t going anywhere. Near the end I wanted to stop drinking, but couldn’t. (Now I have stopped drinking for 13 years I have real freedom to travel and am fulfilling my dreams instead of filling my head full of illusion and killing my body by degrees.)
If you are a raging addict you were once like number two, but you have gone much further. Now your friends have deserted you, you can’t keep a job and your home is a tip. The round of clinics and treatment centers (they used to be called asylums) has begun. Either you pathetically hang on to the idea that an early death is worth the escape you get from a fix or you badly want to stop. The chances of a twelve step program working in your case are good.

Four – far gone, yet you could recover

Maybe you are despondent after detoxing many times. You might be a violent or insane user. But no situation is hopeless. I know someone who had 27 detoxes and frequently drank on the way home from the clinic. He came to AA but couldn’t get the message, in spite of suffering delirium tremens, until this 27th time of asking. If he could get it so can you. Another member was a former gangland enforcer who ended up living in the local park for five years – losing a kidney in the process. The surgeon told him if he drank again he would die. He even followed him out of the hospital into the bar across the road. Desperate, my friend – a member of my home group in the UK – asked another fellow member to be his sponsor. “On one condition,” said the sponsor: “that you will be honest with me and with yourself.” Our friend was outraged at the suggestion that he might not be honest, but buckled down to the task and has now been sober for some years.

Don’t expect everyone to be skid row users at a 12 step meeting. You may never see one in many years of attending meetings. Addiction affects the complete spectrum of society from paupers to princes and presidents. The people at any meeting will seem a fairly normal bunch.

It really gladdens my heart, though, to see young people in a meeting. The sooner they decide they are an addict, the less harm they will do to themselves and others. They and everyone who knows them will be better off.

How do you explain addiction to someone who is not afflicted?

First, once it is established it cannot be controlled by willpower. You might as well try to control diarrhea by willpower. It is an illness recognised by most health professionals these days. They no longer say: “pull yourself together,” but recommend treatment. And they will usually agree that a twelve step program is one of the most effective. Most treatment centers will suggest a 12 step program for maintenance and continuation of recovery after discharge and many will start steppers off in the AA program prior to discharge – sometimes immediately on admittance.
If the addiction involved drug abuse the process might involve a halfway house so addicts can return to the community in stages.

Secondly addicts cannot be forced to take treatment if they don’t want it. Family interventions sometimes work, even on TV, but often they don’t and anyway there are frequent relapses. Once they have tried their best to help, the advice for family members is to “detach with love” from the addict.

Thirdly, on no account should they indulge the addict’s addiction. They should never finance it or help in any way, for example by clearing up after them. It is kinder in the long run to make addicts face the consequences of their actions. This is more likely to end the addict’s denial and lead to a voluntary start on a program.

Fourthly, some addicts die of the disease. This is sad for family members but I believe it is a mistake for medical professionals to cover up the real cause of death: for example they are inclined to write heart attack and turn a blind eye to the cirrhosis of the liver to save the blushes of the family. If they wrote alcoholism on the death certificate, its rise in the statistical rankings as a cause of death might bring about social reforms that would shed light on the problem and cause more people to seek help. It doesn’t end there of course. Some deaths of accident victims are due to drunk driving or drug abuse and could also be put down to alcoholism or using.

Fifthly, unlike alcohol, most other drugs to which people are addicted will cause addiction in anyone who takes a sufficient dose enough times. Knowing this, the question arises of why the addict took the substance in the first place. But twelve step programs don’t address this issue. If addicts want to unravel reasons why they started on this path they should visit a psychiatrist. 12 step programs tackle the addiction head on. Issues like relationships to parents are only resolved to the point where we steppers say: “they did the best they could.”

Sixthly, steppers remain addicts after they have stopped using (including sex), gambling, overeating or undereating. The programs make them happy and contented, after the withdrawals have been negotiated, about never having to use again. Relief is often felt at the first meeting after the miserable final stages of an addiction when someone says: “you need never use again.” But if they do they will be on the downward spiral to full blown addiction once more.

Seventhly, mothers always ask: “how long will you have to keep going to those meetings, dear?” And the addict will answer: “For as long as I live if I’m lucky.” I explained to my own mother that it was a matter of life and death, but it wasn’t long before she said: “Why don’t you get yourself a new hobby, dear?”

Eighthly, this is a symptom of non-addicts not really understanding addiction. It is why we addicts go to meetings, because we are the only ones who understand each other. That is how the group therapy works.