Defining Addiction

By Outreach1 03/14/19

Defining Addiction

The terms addiction and addict have become terms we are all familiar with and tend to toss about freely. With the surge of the Opioid Epidemic these terms have been brought closer to the forefront and significantly over used. Have you ever wondered where the words come from or how the meanings have changed?

The root word addict comes from the 1st Century Latin word addictus, which means “to devote, sacrifice, sell-out, betray or abandon” In ancient Roman times an addiction was a person that was enslaved to another person due to a debt. This was often done by court ruling and ended when the debt was repaid. When finances were in order, the “slave” was no longer labeled the addict.

The Latin word “addictus” is derived from an ancient myth. It’s the story of a Roman slave set free by his master after the payment of his debt. He had become so accustomed to his chains they began to define and identify him. He could have removed them at any moment since he was freed, but he chose to wander the land with his chains still attached. They affected all his efforts. He had become a slave that could not accept his own freedom.

During the 16th Century the word was used to describe being “formally bound” or “obligated”. Soon after, meanings began to refer to being attached or becoming attached to someone or something.During this time Shakespeare wrote in Henry V: “his addiction was to courses vain”. The Archbishop of Canterbury was just saying he thought the King should improve motivation in some areas more than others. (Theology vs. other more frivolous interests)

And from that moment forward addiction began to infer that a person has or is developing an inclination towards a negative habit or a goal.

In the 1820’s edition of Webster’s the definition of Addiction is “the act of devoting or giving up in practice; the state of being devoted”.

One hundred twenty years later Webster’s 1940 edition added an aspect and states: Addict “to give (one’s self) up to (generally in a bad sense): To devote or dedicate one’s self.

In comparison with today, many of the current definitions read like “a persistent, compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful” or “a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry”.

These contemporary definitions are quite different from the early versions, but let’s point out the similarities. During my lifetime research has shown that chemical dependence can and does alter your brain, your brain’s pathways and your brain’s reward and pleasure system.

As a result of long term substance use you have essentially created a brain that now could be considered a “slave” to your drug or addiction of choice. Perhaps, in certain aspects you have also sold-out, betrayed and abandoned other positive areas of your life as suggested in the 2000 year old definition.How would you have been judged by their standards?

Connecting the terms addiction and addict with narcotic use developed gradually. Starting in the late 1900’s and building forcefully through the early 30’s. During this time there was major legislation regarding drugs, especially narcotics, and society.The Pure Food and Drug Act, which then led to recommendations from the International Opium Convention, which led to the signing the Uniform State Narcotic Act. Attitudes created fears and today the term addict and addiction can refer to any number of things people do on a regular basis or have just become habitual.

Today, being an addict or having an addiction will often be referring to a behavior one really enjoys like discount shopping, coupon use or going to the Starbucks for coffee, with no harm involved or intended.The term addiction appears to have become all encompassing and has lost its potency with those whom have truly suffered through repeated traumas and victimization of chemical dependence, self-inflicted or not. The term addict can be an unnecessary negative identity and label that may prevent a person from growth. It can become an obstacle to a more current positive self-identity and image.

At what moment, after our debt has been paid, and our chains have been removed will we think we are free? How long after we start over with a fresh outlook and new strategy will we accept our new freedom and start to identify as a person whom is no longer a slave but a freed slave with positive hopes and dreams and endless possibilities in sobriety? We have crossed the line and are no longer what we were. Hopefully, as time passes, we can accept what we have become now, today, this moment, and not let those chains continue to drag and interfere with our ongoing efforts toward recovery and continued freedom.

Gregory Fields, MHS, ICADC



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