Understanding Addiciton’s payoffs can help relate with Addicts

If someone asked me to play a game of tennis, there’s absolutely no way I could accept.  I’ve never played tennis; hell, I’ve only held a racket once or twice.  There’s no way I could play someone with even a basic understanding of the game — tennis is as foreign to me as is the native tongue in Botswana.

Most human interaction plays out like a game.  That is, there are certain rules and payoffs to almost all relationships, even if we aren’t aware of those things.  Addiction is no different.  The Addict interacts with his world seeking the payoff of using his substance.  For him, there are no rules except one: Get the substance.  However, most people approach The Addict the way I approach tennis.  They simply have no idea about the way Addiction works and so they mostly end up frustrated with The Addict because he seemingly operates against basic rationality.

But if people learned the mechanics of Addiction, they would be able to at least understand Addiction behavior and make their own decisions on what would then be a level playing field.  For example, think of a woman who has developed a dependency on painkillers whose marriage is in severe jeopardy because of her addiction.  Her husband begs and pleads with her to “get help;” he sees her behavior as dangerous and scary and he simply cannot watch her kill herself any longer.  She has grown increasingly deceptive and defensive and they are at in direct conflict about her addiction.  That is, he think she should just stop using the drugs and she wants nothing more than to continue using them

The reality is that they aren’t playing the same game.  The Addict wants to persist the Addiction; the wife regards the payoff of using painkillers as her top priority.  The man hates the painkillers and sees them as the enemy of his life.  But they are not acting within the same structures — she is driven by a logic that dictates, “I want what I want and I want it now,” while he’s acting on a logic that says, “Her behavior is killing her and I can’t understand why she wants it to continue.”

If the husband would try to understand the physiology of her addiction along with the mechanics of Addiction itself, he would come to see that the payoff value for her to use is extremely high.  That payoff creates a motivational drive that defies reason, he cannot approach her addiction using his payoff structure.  If he could learn about her specific Addiction, he could then at least relate with his wife on an even playing field, just as I would have to take tennis lessons before I tried to take on someone in a real match.

Some may think I’m minimizing the life and death struggle that is the disease of Addiction by comparing it to a game, but as I said, most human life is governed by rules and payoffs.  Failure to recognize that basic fact is to probably struggle to understand situations in which we find ourselves.

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