According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “addiction” is defined as a disease of “brain reward, motivation and memory" characterised by, among other things, the inability to abstain.
And although we usually associate abstinence difficulties with physical addictions, we often struggle to imagine that behaviours could create the same problems. Which is why, as a 2012 paper from the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs points out, behavioural addictions are often treated as symptoms of other disorders.
According to Dr Michael Miller, a board-accredited general and addiction psychiatrist, our societal understanding of addiction is that if it’s physical, it’s a disease. If not, it’s a non-legitimate lack of willpower. “There’s still a lot of concern that addiction involving behaviours is not a brain disease [but] more of a sociological phenomenon or a cultural aberration,” he explains.
For 10 years, Dr Miller has been on the board of directors for the American Board of Addiction Medicine. And according to him, non-physical addictions present symptoms such as physiological or subcortical cravings and an inability to abstain just like any other addiction. In essence, non-physical and physical addictions are much the same, even if we society assumes they're different.
To hear what a behavioural addiction is like for the individual, we sat down with three people from very different walks of life. Each have experienced a non-physical addiction, and each illustrate what it’s like to have a mental illness that’s broadly considered fake.
Following the suicide of her father and being in an isolating and emotionally-absent marriage, Angela developed a shopping addiction for dolls and teddy bears that lasted 20 years.
Looking back, it was a control thing. I had all this internalised grief, and my now ex-husband had shut off all communications. He showed his true personality after we were married, telling me he hated all the cultural and creative things we did together while we were dating. I was very isolated and alone without any support but the one thing my ex-husband allowed me to do was buying dolls.
I’d spend whole days in online chatrooms talking to all these other collectors and buying teddy bears and dolls. Looking back, I think we were all enabling each other. My ex-husband was quite wealthy, so I didn’t have to contribute to any bills and I’m on a disability pension of $500 a month, so I’d just devote all of that to my shopping.
Whenever I’d buy a doll, it was this euphoric high. There was a certain sadness after the transaction and by the time the doll arrived, I was already over it. It was just having that brief connection and interaction with someone, which I mistook as a new friendship.
After I divorced my husband at 36, that’s when it became a real problem. Throughout that time, I lived with my mother, my brother, and three friends. I’d tell them I’d help pay the bills, but of course, I was still spending all my money on these dolls.
My mother would generally dismiss it. She wasn’t supportive in trying to get me to stop, but was vocal how she didn’t like it. My friends were confused and frustrated by it, thinking it was a symptom of my bipolar disorder. Like myself, they couldn’t understand why therapy wasn’t solving this.
18 months ago was when I realised I had a problem, but getting support wasn’t easy. The two times I called addiction centres, I was laughed at and told "we only deal with real addictions." I’m quite resourceful, but imagine if I was someone who had low self-esteem?
It’s now been 201 days since I’ve bought a teddy bear or a doll. My new husband is very supportive, and my new friends are a lot more accepting. I don’t identify as a compulsive collector anymore, but as a self-compassionate former collector embracing a minimalist mindset.
Related: Watch this video on an Australian national obsession, lolly snakes. Article continued below.
When they were younger, Max developed an unhealthy relationship to LSD for 18 months, taking it up to four times a week—something Max feels was actually an addiction. This is despite the fact that LSD has been shown to be a non-physically addictive narcotic.
I first tried acid when I was 19 and just fell for it. The most I was taking it was three to four times a week. That was for about four months. I did actually stop for six months, but that’s only because I was traveling. Although I didn’t take it, there were cravings. After that, it was about once a week until I started university the next year. I was only taking it about once once a month, but every summer—I’d have it weekly. It was something of a priority. I’d always make sure to have everything in order before I took it so I could enjoy it.
Usually, I’d take it with friends, but sometimes I’d be the only one. Something that happened a lot was I’d get home from work during the week, sit with my housemate and take acid because why not? Looking back, it was an escape and a relief. I felt more at ease with myself and more expressive. When I was high, I’d read more books and appreciate art more.
When I wasn’t on it, I’d be anxious and depressed. After stopping, I had really bad cravings for two months and struggled to fall asleep, which I addressed by smoking more weed. I never ever thought it to be a bad thing or a problem. No one thought you could get addicted. If I knew at the time it was an addiction, I would’ve got support but at the same time, probably not. I’ve always been one who thinks they don’t need support.
No one ever told me I had a problem because everyone I knew was taking it, but few people told me to slow down. My best friend who was at University with me told me once that “We shouldn’t be taking this much.” I agreed, but told them I’m not stopping. If I was taking heroin or meth, then sure, my friends would’ve told me to stop.
I still do take it, but a lot less regularly. The last time was over six months ago. I was a little bit nervous before I took it—I’m naturally more cautious with drugs now—but I did feel that release.
My lifestyle has changed too much to pick it up again. I don’t have the desire and I’m too busy you know. Could it happen though? A lot would have to happen, but I can see that.
Following fantasies of being obsessed over and experiences of romantic rejection, Scarlett developed a “dating and love addiction”—flirting with people on dating sites to ultimately have them they fall in love and obsess over her.
What I do is go on dating sites and as soon as I get an interest, I start talking—telling them I’m lonely, which is partially true because I do try to avoid people over this. Once I get an idea of their insecurities, I change myself and tell them what they want to hear. I have a blog where I document it, and use it to get people to obsess over me more.
I know it’s bad, but I need it. At first, I thought it was just a habit but I’m just so dependent on it. There’s this rush of energy, my heart starts racing like crazy and I feel on top of the world. When I don't do it, I become depressed, almost suicidal. I’ve tried to stop it with these techniques my therapist gave me, but they make me feel like a fraud.
I’ve lost friends and family over this because it’s too much to handle. I’ve had friends obsess over me, and then two years ago, a friend of mine cut me out of her life because after she had a baby she decided I was “too toxic.” My mum thinks I’m a good girl, but she keeps her distance because she doesn’t like when I’m like this. She thinks I’m probably going to get kidnapped by some crazy obsessed guy. Most of my relationships have lasted only a few months but I’m in a long distance relationship now with a guy from Europe. That was at first another attempt, but he called me out on it and I really respected that.
I spoke to a therapist a few years ago, and they told me it was a narcissist thing, but I don’t know if that’s true. I’ve also been told it’s bipolar which I guess could make sense. Two of my previous therapists thought I was trying to seduce them and cancelled my sessions with them. I only see female professionals now, and the one I’m seeing has been really supportive of me.
I know deep down I’m a good person because I know this is wrong. I do think I’ll get past this. Once, I didn’t have any intention to act it like this for six months, until I had a trigger. I don’t see why that couldn’t happen again.
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Names changed to protect identity. Interviews edited for clarity and length.