Because of cold weather in America, Longform (the website) linked to a 1995 article about the death by freezing of Teresa McGovern, daughter of George McGovern. She was drunk and fell down. Her alcoholism was intractable. She went for treatment dozens of times. I have a theory about what causes alcoholism and other addictions and why they resist treatment.
Let me start with the fairly obvious part. People go to their addiction (alcohol, gambling, smoking, whatever) to escape pain. The addictive activity provides a hit of pleasure that eliminates the pain for a while. It is difficult to endure pain and after a while, if you can escape, it is impossible — your “willpower” runs out. An addict keeps feeling pain, keeps doing the addictive activity to get rid of the pain. Pain triggers the addiction. Addictive activities, such as drinking, often produce cravings, which are an additional source of pain. This makes the problem worse — makes the total pain even harder to endure — but it is not the whole problem. The addiction started when there were no cravings. This is why abstinence alone — which does get rid of the cravings — is not a good solution. It does not get rid of the sources of pain that were/are the ultimate cause of the problem.
The McGovern article illustrates the pain-reduction aspect of addiction:
I can numb the pain, says a voice. “It doesn’t sound like an evil voice. It sounds like a friend, telling you the truth.” Teresa’s younger brother, Steven McGovern, is describing the voice of alcohol, as it whispers to you when you are feeling tense or dissatisfied or empty: Here’s your old pal, I can get you through this. “I have experience with this,” he explains. Like Teresa, Steven has struggled for years with addiction.
At the end of Double Down, a great memoir by Frederick and Steven Barthelme, about loss of a large inheritance due to gambling addiction, the authors say something similar, that their addiction derived from depression. I haven’t talked with addiction specialists but I doubt any of these ideas would surprise them.
The less obvious part of this comes from my discovery that seeing faces in the morning caused a large oscillation in mood: happy during the day, unhappy at night (while asleep). The effect of being happy during the day was that small amounts of badness (e.g., bad news) made me less happy but did not push me all the way to feeling bad (= painful). I had a buffer. If I feel very happy and then something bad makes me feel less happy — only slightly happy — this has no effect on my behavior. I don’t go out of my way to increase my happiness. Only when the border between happy and unhappy is crossed, and I start to feel bad (pain), not merely less happy, do I feel any desire to reduce the pain.
Life is full of pain-causing stuff. Everyone should have a buffer of happiness provided by morning faces but almost no one does. For almost everyone, as far as I can tell, most of the time they are in a neutral state, neither happy nor unhappy. When something bad happens, lowering their mood, they don’t go from very happy to slightly happy, they go from neutral to unhappy (= painful). And when in pain they seek ways to escape it. This makes all sorts of pleasure-causing activities, including drinking alcohol and eating “comfort food” (= food with a strong flavor-calorie association — the stronger the flavor-calorie association, the more pleasant a food tastes), more attractive.
Long ago, people had this buffer of happiness during the day which made it possible for them to forage together in spite of problems, such as hunger and thirst and yesterday’s disappointments. In the evening, the buffer disappeared as your mood went down. The problems indicated by pain became more urgent and were dealt with. If you were thirsty, for example, you would drink something. Modern life has reduced or eliminated many sources of pain but it has also (a) eliminated the buffer, our natural protection, and (b) provided many short-term sources of pleasure (such as drinking) harmful in large doses. Because we live in a world that is inevitably painful now and then — no treatment can change that — the combination of (a) and (b) causes addiction. Treatments for addiction, at best, push people away from one short-term source of pleasure. They never restore the buffer, the natural protection.
When The Shangri-La Diet was published, many SLD dieters said it had become easier for them to stop smoking. My explanation is that because their hunger (one source of pain/discomfort) went down, they had more willpower left over to deal with another source of pain/discomfort, craving a cigarette. As my sleep has improved in recent months, due to bedtime honey and related changes, I have found it easier to do everything. My explanation is essentially the same. No longer having to use willpower to overcome tiredness — I am less tired — leaves more of it to do everything else.