March 21, 2004 - The Observer (UK)

Why We're Addicted To Addiction

From Love to Shopping, Food to Gambling, These Days Everyone Seems To Have Some Dependency or Other

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By Amelia Hill

Ian Young spent UKP25,000 overcoming his addiction to love. It took eight weeks of round-the-clock rehab and a further seven weeks of intensive therapy, but it was worth it: the addiction he claims almost destroyed his life is finally under control.

Some have accused the 32-year-old former disc jockey of mistaking neurosis for addiction or of giving in to outrageous self-indulgence, but he is adamant: in Young's eyes he is a recovering addict of an impulse every bit as dangerous as drug or alcohol dependency.

'It began when I was around 12 years old: it was essential for me to know I was surrounded at all times by people who loved me,' he said. 'That's normal for teenagers, but I didn't grow out of it.

'The need to be intimate with as many people as possible remained,' he said. 'I once went to a rave with my girlfriend and found myself in a room with six of my current mistresses. I'm not pretending that didn't feel fantastic, but it was completely out of control.'

By the time Young was 29 he 'realised I had to get help'. He booked himself into the Promis Recovery Unit in Kent for treatment for drug addiction and stayed for 15 weeks. 'I eventually regained my sanity and that's when I realised the drugs had never been my primary addiction; that has always been love,' he said. 'I know it's an addiction rather than a neurosis because my need is completely overwhelming.'

Young now considers himself to be a recovering love addict, permanently in danger of falling off the wagon. 'I realise I have an emotional disease; my brain is just wired differently to other people,' he said. 'I thank my lucky stars I discovered rehab in time; without it, I would never have survived.'

Young is not alone in his praise: rehab has never been so used, by so many. The Priory Group is experiencing such a boost in numbers that it is planning to float itself on the Stock Exchange within three to five years, once it has doubled its 2,400-bed capacity and increased turnover, which has already grown from UKP108.9 million in 2001 to UKP120m in 2002.

The Promis Unit books 3,000 addicts a week into its stringent six-week course. NHS rehab units are just as busy, with UKP573m spent on drug treatment and UKP95m on alcohol treatment by the Government each year.

But is rehab being abused? Are these figures proof of a sick society, desperate for salvation, or is the rush to rehab becoming an addiction in itself?

The answer divides psychiatrists into two camps: those who believe twenty-first century society is spawning a new range of serious addictions focused around pleasurable activities, including mobile phone texting, video games and eating fast food; and those who have no time for such dependencies.

Dr Phillip Hodson, a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy, occupies the latter camp. 'I groan to the bottom of my therapeutic shoes at this sort of discussion,' he said. 'It is misleading to ascribe the term "addiction" to emotions.

'As a therapist, I have the greatest problem with the glib labelling of behaviour as "addictions", where these have no obvious physiological component beyond a reaction to our own body chemistry,' he said. 'Our bodies contain any number of hormones that without self-control will "cause" us to rob, rape and kill. I don't think we really want to encourage the idea that our centre of control, in many ways the essence of our very humanity, can be selectively disregarded.'

Hodson says he was infuriated by the recent announcement by Petrina Khashoggi, daughter of former Minister Jonathan Aitken, who claimed that not only is she to join a love addicts' support group, but that her illness forces her to share her traumas with the public. The 23-year-old model, who once admitted being so addicted to cannabis that it nearly destroyed her life, said: 'The saddest thing is that I don't seem to be able to sort out my issues in private.'

Her statement is, Hodson believes, simply another step in Britain's steady march towards becoming a nation of addiction addicts, where celebrities jostle to declare ever more extraordinary addictions which demand constant rehab.

Not satisfied with winning her high-profile battle with cocaine, Tara Palmer-Tompkinson, the former 'It Girl', also confessed to an addiction to shopping. Paul Gascoigne, a self-confessed alcoholic who also suffers from an obsessive compulsive disorder, last week took to the tabloids to announce his addiction to the caffeine-rich energy drink Red Bull - he is said to knock back five cans an hour.

Not all the experts are as unsympathetic as Hodson. Mark Griffiths, a professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University, who has researched addictive behaviour for 16 years, believes any activity can produce chemicals in the brain that give the same high as cocaine. 'We are living in the most addictive society the world has yet seen,' he said. 'Society has changed dramatically in the last few years; we're living longer than ever before, we have more spare time, more disposable income and there are more socially excessive behaviours in which we can indulge.

'The biggest impact is technology, which is deliberately designed to mesmerise the user and manipulate their behaviour. It's exactly what happens with addiction: you become de-sensitised and end up needing more.'

According to the Government, at least one in 25 British people is dependent on alcohol, twice as many as are dependent on drugs, while almost one in four of us boasts an addiction to shopping, a rise of more than 6 per cent in just five years.

More than 370,000 Britons are addicted to gambling, while 6 per cent of 17,251 respondents in a recent online survey met the criteria for compulsive internet use, with over 30 per cent using the net to escape negative feelings.

Hodson is critical of the therapy industry for its open-door policy. 'It's the definition of addiction that is on the increase, not the numbers of those genuinely addicted to anything,' he said. 'It is very distressing to be a compulsive gambler, but addiction is not the right word to describe what is, in fact, a conditioned or compulsive behaviour.'

Hodson also points to the tendency of psychiatrists to classify patterns of behaviour or compulsion. 'The word addiction contains a meaning which takes away the sufferer's freedom of action,' he added. 'It is a destructive word if misapplied. If you are told that you're someone who chooses to do things that are destructive, you have more hope of recovery than if you're told you have no choice.'

Robert Lefever, director of the Promis Recovery Centre, which only treats those suffering alcohol, drug and food dependencies, agrees: 'There is an addicted population and a stupid population. There are people who just need to pull themselves together and those who are so dependent on their drug that they're just trying to stay alive.'

Lefever blames the stretching definition of addiction on the private and state sectors of industry. 'We are getting consultants vying for significance by arguing the disease they treat is more significant than any other,' he said. 'In the private sector, that is increased by moneymen desperately trying to find ways to increase their business.'

Dr Austin Tate, medical director at the Priory Hospital in Marchwood, Hampshire, is bullish in his defence of the Priory's open-door policy. 'The word addiction has been so misused that it has lost its value,' he agrees. 'Like "stress" and "depression", they've all become shorthand for "I'm unhappy". It's become a social description and the medical profession needs to move away from it.

'But focusing on precise classifications is a waste of time: why make things difficult for ourselves by arguing about it?' he asked. 'When you get to the point of treatment, it doesn't make any difference whether something is a dependency or an addiction,' he said.

To Lefever that distinction is not the point: 'I'm not saying people can't be addicted to text messaging just that I don't care if they are,' he said.

'It is a doctor's job sometimes to make moral judgements. I don't care what gets called addiction, as long as we recognise that compared to a drug, alcohol or food addiction, any other compulsion is trivial.'

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