Addiction Culture & The Repetition Compulsion

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Photo by Simon Shim on Unsplash

It is the curse of being human that many of us are addicts — to something or another. Granted, this is certainly not a feature of us that we are willing to admit to — for who wants to confront their own unattractive dependency — but is not denial knitted up with addiction? As it is, the societal landscape we are witnessing currently has been profoundly shaped by a culture of addiction (and not in the best way) and by the whole motley assortment of them — both those life-threatening and those seemingly trivial and everyday in nature.

Addiction can hide in the sloshing contents of the bottle of alcohol just as much as it can be found cloaked in the digital, pixelated sheen of the ever-expansive Internet. In the news we hear of opioid epidemics wracking the country, quite-literally choking off life in various pockets of the nation at the same time that the journalistic murmurs of increasingly depressed youth are drifting through the air. With nauseating routine predictability, headlines pronounce that Americans variously eat too much, spend too much, “use” too much, consume too much. Stack that up against national trends that suggest people are profoundly unhappy, lonely, and anxious, to name a few.

It’s remiss to advance doomsday sentiment about our current society just for the sake of it, but if data tells us anything, modernity hasn’t exactly solved the precarious question of human fulfillment. That said, there ought to be a connecting of dots being attempted. Roughly speaking, a pattern of staggering “consumption” — regardless of the form or outlet — appears to have engendered increasingly deleterious psychological effects.

Zooming out to peer at the nation at large, it almost seems as if we are viewing a panorama of coping mechanisms acted out in millions of everyday lives. There’s something pitifully inadequate about it all, wrenchingly insufficient.

And addiction is far more commonplace than any one of us typically has the causal readiness to admit. Sure, there’s the man on the street corner who feels the fresh flow of heroine in his veins who’s addicted. But there’s also the woman in her sparsely lit kitchen at night forking ice cream into her mouth for the fifth time this week who’s also, to some degree, just as familiar with the well-worn paths of addictive behavior.

And then there’s the man feverishly enamored with the frenzied rush of work that so handily absorbs all of his waking moments, so that he has no time to think for himself, and perhaps that is exactly the point. And then there’s someone addicted to the heady, pleasurable dopamine surges of social media recognition and someone else burrowed away in bed enslaved before the screen to hours of streaming content, comfortingly infinite and always-just-stimulating-enough. Just-stimulating-enough to stave off the existential discomfort hiding somewhere in the bushes, that is — if we were brave enough to admit this, anyways.

Disappointment quickly follows an installment of an addictive behavior and reality seeps back in. This slow dawning of soured realization of having never escaped what one originally sought to escape (because addiction is an attempt at escape, however irrational) many of us can personally attest to, and could readily serve as the criteria for admitting our own addictive behaviors. Often, there is a delay between engaging in the behavior and consciously recognizing ourselves taking part in it. This is the repetition compulsion in action — starkly laying bare the exceedingly powerful pull of addictive behaviors.

It is no secret to us when we are addicted — it is something we know in our bones, even if we try mightily to avoid voicing the realization in words, dragging it out into the bright light. Usually, we are darkly troubled by the addiction’s futility — that is, its irritating inability to satiate us. We consume and yet it still leaves us hungry. Thus, we are partly angry, partly anxious.

There’s something tellingly primitive about this rustle of anxiety that crops up — it appears to harken back to our days as an infant when we craved sustenance, made a fuss, and were subsequently appeased. Thus, it feels almost wrong that our addiction cannot assuage that hunger. It feels, on some unconscious level, incorrect and unjustifiable and we thus rush to repeat the behavior and perhaps remedy the offense, hoping that this time might yield the outcome we seek. Of course, this smacks of your typical definition of insanity — but the unconscious (the stage whereon this entire process would be acted out on) has no qualms about rationality, let alone an ability to conceive of it.

Call it a generalization but the evidence is sprinkled throughout society: Lots of people are in psychological distress. Various states, and to various degrees, no doubt. Familial conflict sows discord, economic unrest sows anxiety, career unfulfillment begets existential floundering and digital life begets loneliness, to name a few. Absent of ways to consciously navigate the tumult of emotions that usually accompany such developments, all of the associated phenomena is relegated to the underground — that is, to the unconscious.

Indeed, the classic Freudian split of the unconscious and the conscious applies remarkably well here. Addictions roughly mirror the Freudian repetition compulsion — the desire to repeat scenarios which do not actually help us. We do not realize how much, in the course of daily life, we play to the rhythm of our unconscious, cyclical behavioral patterns. Many of us do not realize how gripped we are in patterns technically of our own making. But that they are “self-inflicted” is almost besides the point. They serve some sort of purpose, after all. Repetition compulsions power addictive behaviors and play a crucial part in directing the entire drama of the Self.

Lost in the shadowy realm of unarticulated psychological territory, we are endlessly subjugated to the compulsion to repeat addictive behaviors, to keep re-running the same drama over and over again. Few of us are exempt from such a phenomenon. We need only watch ourselves carefully one time or another, to catch ourselves in the act of something, something we are irrationally and unwisely partaking in that never yields the full gratification we are after. Psychological awareness, then, cripples the repetition compulsion and bleeds the energy from addictive behaviors, prying it out of unconscious territory.

Addictions are coping mechanisms. Of course, some are more physically invasive and enslaving while others are entirely psychological. Nevertheless, none exist independently of some unfulfilled need, one could say. Addictions are a strategy for avoiding consciousness. Strangely, they are also reminiscent of comfort zones. They are a grasp towards a perverse kind of equilibrium.

After all, what do you do if you cease an addictive behavior? Absent of being engaged in the requisite physical activity of the addictive behavior in question, you have only the unflinching truth of the origins of that behavior staring you in the face. It is a cold frontier, howling with wind, housing a stripped-down reality. Maybe you mustered up the ability to put it in words, like, I watch other people live their lives so that I don’t have to live my own. Maybe, however, you cannot distill the discomfort into language, and are only foggily aware of the presence of something in your midst.

And so, by repeating the cycle of addiction, we actually attain an equilibrium that we as humans all fundamentally seek. The repetition compulsion can be seen as a cheap, breezily accessible, ultimately insufficient substitute for the honorable human desires of balance and harmony. Needless to say, it doesn’t quite do the trick. We are disillusioned moments after we receive the rapid relief from engaging in the behavior. We are not so unaware after all, it turns out. Our conscious awareness that we are papering over emotional pain of some sort juts through just quick enough for us to register its flash.

The signs of our unwell-ness are always there — helpfully urging us to attend to our psychological wounds, just as when our bodies are brilliantly equipped to signal physical pain when it is felt.

A culture of addiction, of people hungry for instant relief and preoccupied with the familiarity of its ultimately unfulfilling cycle, is a culture overlaid by the seductive comfort of predictable feedback loops. Feedback loops read as order against the chaos inherent in sober self-analysis, which is the alternative to addiction in most cases.

Addiction, then, can be seen as the age-old conflict between the known and the unknown. We reach for that which impedes us (unhealthy, addictive behaviors) through the repetition compulsion because it tastes like order, stability, calm, balance. Some might find this particular claim odd considering the obvious excitement rush of many addictions of choice, but the overall effect is one of order — of opting for the activity of tangible behavior in exchange for the difficult task of introspection, self-analysis, and thought.

Addictions are indeed coping mechanisms adopted to achieve the tasks of managing our lives and feeling in-control of them. They are inferior and destructive methods to achieve these aims, of course. But seen this way, we might begin to feel an ounce of compassion for the role we have casted them in in our own personal dramas. We thought we might be protecting ourselves from pain, in most cases. We thought we might avoid ugly confrontations and challenging disruptions.

The methodology of addiction can be seen as the perverse attempt to provide the Self with a sense of calm lulling, that maybe some individuals were starved of as children. Seen in this light, addiction has the seeds of a self-soothing adaptation contained within it.

But as any one of us knows in our bones, little good comes from avoiding confrontation with ourselves and personal growth only arises out of transcending those things that we are enslaved to. You must be free to be heroic but that demands a shattering of the cycle and claiming ultimate responsibility for yourself — which previously, you see, you would have attributed to the slew of addictions powering you. They pulled all the strings, didn’t they? But it’s no wonder people are afraid to do this: responsibility feels dangerous, weighty, frontal.

But here’s the kicker: People like themselves when they are responsible. They don’t like being witness to their own dependency. When addictions are sloughed off (and depending on what the addiction is, this can admittedly be extremely difficult), something else may reveal itself to have been discarded too, lying at your feet: self-loathing.

After all, is there not an element of self-loathing bundled up within the sliver of conscious decision you made at one point to continue the addictive cycle, to continue the repetition compulsion? The truth is in the choice of continuation: you don’t feel heroic and you’re just trying to hide. This is the patching together of a workable cause and effect relationship I introduced at the very beginning: People are swimming in addictive behaviors and they’re also pretty unhappy. One begets the other and the other begets the one and a vicious cycle of societal despair is enacted. And we’re watching it happening in our own backyard.

Addictions run the gamut from the serious to the seemingly benign and plenty of us have our own personal collection of them. We incorrectly believe these addictions might promise “freedom from pain” — for they feel this way at first but their effects fade quickly and their pleasurable glow dims.

Nothing promises freedom from pain better than our very Selves, you see, but this is a hard lesson that demands both our own brave participation and the sacrifice of our own monsters of addictions, to be shed at our feet.

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Writer of economics, psychology, and lots in between.

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