December 5, 2013

Addictive Personality or Urban Legend?

Was this so bad?
Every since I can remember, I have heard people use the term "addictive personality" to explain the long line of addictions that plague certain people. I, myself, thought I may be one of the unlucky ones to have such a personality as I would launch myself into one "addiction" after the other. From smoking and nail biting, to exercise and junk food I would embrace the notion of "all or none" without respecting the philosophy of "everything in moderation". Was that my personality? And if so, how come I changed?

Last night I was watching a very interesting (albeit disturbing, gross, and horrific) reality-based TV show entitled, "My Favorite Addiction" (or something to that effect).  In this particular episode, this 47 year old woman was exercising 6-7 hours a day, taking a truck load of supplements - including human growth hormone - and killing herself slowly because she never was big enough or cut enough or thin enough...she wasn't enough. According to the show, she started her addictions with cocaine and alcohol and when that was "treated" or over, she moved into exercise. It was not surprise to learn that she had a tormented childhood and youth and never sought the mental health support she needed. It would make sense, then, that one could move from one addiction to the other...but does this define the "addictive personality"?

I teach an addictions awareness course, as a health promotion educator, and do so with a social worker. I have heard this term come up over and over again over the seven years I have co facilitated with him and always wondered if this was true or just an urban myth.  If it is true, and we can assume personality is unchangeable, then shouldn't we assume the addict is unchangeable? If this is true, why offer counselling and group support for those jonesing their next hit (that's my lame attempt at street talk...forgive me)?

After giving it much thought (coupled with a hint of research), I don't believe there is such a thing as an "addictive personality".  I think we first need to establish a working definition of "personality"...what is it and is it rock solid or can it change? It used to be thought that our personalities never change, now it is believed that our personalities are fluid and can change over time. Perhaps there are a few characteristics in all of us that are traits (don't change) or based upon the state we are in?

I understand that addictions can originate from our childhood traumas. If this is the case, unless these traumas are cared for through mental health practitioners or self-motivated, the product of addiction will continue and may show up in many forms (food, TV, shopping, sex, drugs, alcohol, and even eating washing detergent - as I have recently learned watching this TV show).  It could be assumed, then, if the individual gets treatment or moves through childhood trauma, the addiction can also be "cured"...right? If this is the case....I rest my case.  The term "addictive personality" is an urban myth.

Perhaps this label has only made the addiction stronger because it has a name and takes on a life of its' own? I mean, if someone believes it is because of their personality that they are addicted, wouldn't it influence their perceived control over the situation? If I believed that my pepperoni pizza dependance was because of a personality trait I couldn't control...I would not be seeking support for it.  Perhaps by removing the shroud of the "addictive personality" we could expose the addiction for what it is....a product of trauma that could be kicked to curb through awareness and support?

But what do I know...I'm an interning counsellor in my first year of training.


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