Alcoholism and drug addiction still raise a few eyebrows in society today. But other compulsive behaviors are totally mainstream—and can even earn you respect.
By May Wilkerson
Do you have an addiction? It’s not unlikely. Human beings are wired to seek pleasure. And most of us—if not all of us—are hooked on something. For some of us, it’s drugs or alcohol. Scary! If so, you’re probably pretty familiar with shame, secrecy or guilt, what with the media shrieking about Lindsay Lohan’s coke problem and celebrity DUIs and the latest designer drug to shield your kids from, at all costs.
But though media fear-mongering, with a little help from the DARE program, has trained us to think of illicit drugs, certain aspects of alcohol use (underage drinking, drunk driving, binging alone) and, in recent years, smoking as bad and shameful, not all addictions are seen as taboo.
One way to think of addiction is as an extreme level of dedication to an activity—which is something our culture accepts, and even celebrates. Replace crack or cigarettes or booze with other activities or substances, and your peers might regard you quite differently.
Here are a few addictions that are so widely accepted in the US that they could even make you a hero in the eyes of your fellow Americans:
In most big cities in the USA, you can’t walk 10 blocks without passing a Starbucks. And at this iconic caffeine-dispensing Mecca, even the smallest drink on the menu is “tall.” In America, we like our coffee by the gallon. We guzzle it all day long out of necessity and for pleasure. We proudly call ourselves “coffee addicts” and “caffeine junkies.”
Sometimes we go to sleep just thinking about that first morning cup.
Caffeine is an addictive, mood-altering drug of course. Most routine coffee drinkers experience some form of withdrawal if they go cold turkey. But unlike other drugs, caffeine makes us feel like we’re contributing to society. Like we have an important reason to be awake. I need this coffee because if I don’t stay alert, society will come crumbling down, we think. I drink coffee. I am important.
In college I once drank so much coffee while studying all night for an exam that the room started spinning—I had to lie down on my back for three hours with a cold press on my forehead until it passed. I was so proud of this story, I told everyone about it. No one sat me down and said “May, we’re worried about you. You might have a problem. Please get help.”
They just continued to get coffee with me.
2) Our Phones
Most of us are accustomed to walking into a restaurant or a subway car to a sea of downturned faces, bathed in the soft glow of a handheld communication device. Much has been said and written about the way smartphones and tablets are decimating our attention spans and isolating us from each other in the real world, even as we attempt to “connect” with other people in a digital realm.
Smartphones provide an escape, much like a drug. Whether we’re cruising Facebook or crushing candy or choosing the perfect Instagram filter, these devices offer us a porthole into a digital world that is simple, colorful and easy to manipulate. And thus, highly addictive.
But even if we let our devices separate us from friends and family in social settings; even if we get into a car accident from texting and driving; even if our Candy Crush habit cleans out our bank account, most of us smartphone addicts won’t raise eyebrows or prompt a tearful intervention from friends and family. In part because they’re probably too busy staring at their own phones to even notice.
Americans are obsessed with working out. Granted, not all of us. Some of us are obsessed with lying as still as we possibly can on our backs while watching Netflix, our laptops balanced on our bulging bellies. But those of us who do hit the gym regularly are treated like gods in the USA. If you have a six-pack of abs right now, you’re no stranger to compliments.
People work out for a variety of reasons. Because we want to look good. Because we’re addicted to the high we get from running 10 miles. Because we’re running away from our pasts. Because we believe if we achieve seven percent body fat, we will finally be able to receive and accept love. Because we feel powerful, standing in front of a full-length mirror flexing our enormous biceps and saying out loud “How do you like me now, you middle school bullies?”
Sometimes we take steroids or protein powders with 8,000 ingredients to enhance our work outs. We might spend hours at the gym every day. We might run 26.5 mile marathons, causing shin splints and other injuries.
But it seems like the more we work out, the flatter and harder our bodies, the more likely strangers will stop us on the street to say “How did you get that body?”
4) “Healthy” Eating
It’s no major revelation that the USA has a junk food problem. Gorging on McDonalds has earned us a global reputation as a country full of overweight couch potatoes. Whether or not our soaring rates of obesity, diabetes and heart disease are primarily related to food addiction remains controversial. But either way, most of us aren’t exactly proud of our fast food habits.
But food addiction and obsession takes many forms that are socially accepted and rewarded.
The billion dollar diet industry takes advantage of Americans’ desire to lose weight, at their doctors’ and/or the media’s persistent urging. Bottled, packaged, processed products of all color and texture are touted as a “healthier” alternative to regular meals.
We count calories. We grind our food to a pulp and drink it through a straw and call it “juicing.” We cut carbs. We cut gluten. We drink lemon juice and cayenne pepper, because Judy from accounting said it helped her lose 10 pounds in two weeks for her sister’s wedding. We compulsively discuss, blog about and photograph our meals as if they were our beauty pageant contestant daughters.
Fat or thin, many Americans are obsessed with food and addicted to talking and thinking about it. But unless we take it so far that we end up hospitalized, most of us just consider this form of addiction as normal and American as apple pie. With a side of dairy-free soy iced cream.
Are you a workaholic? Congratulations! You’re living the American dream. Your boss loves you. You have money in your bank account and maybe even a mortgage and life insurance. You have the admiration and envy of your peers (and high school bullies). Your kids respect you, even though they hardly ever see you.
Many American workers scoff at the term “nine to five” because we haven’t left the office at 5 pm in our entire lives. And when our butts aren’t glued to our desk chairs, we’re “always online.” Checking emails from our iPhones on the treadmill at the gym. Conference calling in from the beach in Hawaii on our family vacations.
We may piss off a few people in our lives, due to negligence. Our partners may be seeking intimacy elsewhere, since we’re never home. And one day in therapy our kids might talk about how they are struggling to form bonds with other human beings due to their parent’s absence. But that’s okay, because we can afford to pay for their therapy with all the money we made working, working, working.
Also, we never worry about this stuff. Because we don’t have time to worry. We have too much work to do.
Editor’s Note: Close “runner-ups” I would add include addictions to driving cars, spending money, television, and legal pharmaceutical drugs.