In my post “The Cause and Cure of Addiction, and its Relationship to Dependency“, I endeavored to explain the origins of addiction, the point at which dependency becomes addiction, and the condition for the shift between one and the other: identification. That is, when you start identifying with a dependency, it becomes an addiction, and when you stop identifying with the addiction, it reverts back to a dependency.
While I think the post succeeded for the most part in explaining these things, there was much work left to be done in clarifying the difference between dependency and addiction, and why this difference is crucial to understand. Too often, even the greatest scientists and psychologists researching the causes, nature, and optimal treatment framework for addiction– even those knowledgeable in these matters fail to recognize the distinction, an oversight which I feel is detrimental to the research and treatment of addiction. I will explain this distinction as clearly as possible in this post.
As I said in the first post, dependency is when you become reliant (dependent) on a substance, object, activity, person, etc. to fulfill a need. This need can be emotional (friends/family/relationships), mental (infornography), physical (drugs), or sexual (hypersexuality/masturbation). Because dependencies are rooted in genuine needs, they can be very powerful, and ultimately very addictive when identified with.
The latter part (the identification) part is what really gets people, because it’s not clear when the identification of a dependency (and thus the addiction) begins. So to explain this, I’ll use my own dependency, masturbation, as an example:
In general, I don’t have a problem with addiction, chiefly because I’ve never identified with anything I have had or done. Owing partly to my unpossessive nature, I’ve never thought of myself of really owning or being attached to objects or even people, I’m more of a “using” type person; that is, I’ve never thought of anyone or anything as actually “belonging” to anyone. While you might personally not relate to this mindset or even agree with it, this has done wonders for me in avoiding most dependencies and (by extension) addictions.
The exception to this “addiction immunity” of mine is masturbation, and I have struggled for a while with ridding myself of my dependency on it. Note that it’s not an addiction, just a dependency, because I haven’t identified masturbation, I’m only making use of. So let’s stop right there to address this important distinction:
Identification occurs when you identify (the applying of attributes to something in order to associate it with something) a substance, person, activity, etc. as the means of fulfilling a “need”. For example, marijuana can get rid of a headache, sex can get rid of depression, a romantic relationship can get rid of feelings of emptiness, and God can get rid of fear of death. To get rid of legitimate problems, we depend on a substance, etc. as the means of fixing the problem; by identifying with such substances as the solution to these problems, our dependencies become addictions.
In my case, I have used masturbation to get rid of (among other things) my emotional angst rooted in perceived lack of freedom of expression, but I don’t identify masturbation as actually freeing my expression, I know it’s just an artificial emotional shift, and so I don’t associate masturbation with my need of freedom. It’s just a tool, a means to an end, not the means-in-itself. When a person begins to possess the tool– that is, associate the substance with the need as if it were a means-in-itself, at that point a simple dependency becomes an addiction.
To illustrate that, let’s talk about how I’m coping with my dependency, and getting rid of it: Because I am only fulfilling a need, and I know what the need is (in this case, freedom of expression), I need only provide a means of achieving that need more effectively, and substitute masturbation for that new means-to-an-end. So I’ve opted to sublimate my need for freedom of expression into meditation. Sublimation is very important, I cannot stress that enough, it is the key to converting every dependency from an unhealthy state to a creative and self-liberating state.
By meditating every time I want to masturbate, I satisfy the need (freedom of expression) while simultaneously providing a powerful impetus for the far more productive and self-edifying activity of meditation. When such a powerful incentive is realized, both addiction to and dependence on masturbation cease to exist; that is, the conditioning through which the behavior of masturbation was reinforced, is extinguished. This principle was first demonstrated through Pavlov’s experiments, and is still a hallmark of modern conditioning psychology.
So the crucial difference in practice between dependency and addiction, is that dependency can be changed (such as masturbation to meditation, in the example above), whereas addiction cannot be changed until it is unidentified with. In order to end an addiction, the first step is to stop identifying with it. Then you must shift the dependency to one that is more effective at meeting your needs, and is beneficial instead of detrimental to your well-being. This shift of dependency is best accomplished via sublimation, the substitution of one need-fulfillment device for another which is more productive, beneficial, acceptable, etc.
Alcoholics Anonymous’s approach is only half right, which is probably why relapses are so common in the group, despite all their efforts to prevent such. They are right in that they try to shift one dependency (alcohol, drugs, etc.) for another (God, friends, support system), but the whole system skips a step: They don’t remove the identification with the original substance first! So while they might be opened up to healthy alternatives to substance abuse (which is a good thing!), they become no more than that: alternatives! They don’t replace the need of substance abuse, they merely supplement it so that the dependency lessens! So what we have here in A.A., is a system where they are less dependent on the substance(s), but just as addicted to (associating with) it as ever! See the problem?
I hope you can see now why the distinction between dependency and addiction, these two interchangeably-used words, must be made clear. Without a clear awareness of this distinction, addicts will never truly recover from their addictions.