“so what’d you do today, T?”
my DC BFFs and i were standing in their kitchen, convening over a glass of wine to digest the day. i was in town visiting for the week and was at the height of my ‘live-life-to-the-fullest’ vacation philosophy. given past experiences, they didn’t know what to make of my sly smile.
“fell in love. what’d you do?” their eyes rolled in unison.
“you didn’t fall in love, Tara, give me a break. you’ve hung out with this guy for like two hours.”
“so what, i’m still in love.” i had spent the Spring afternoon drinking happy hour Peronis on a posh patio in Dupont Circle with an old friend turned newfound love interest. charming, quick-quitted, just the right amount of shy to keep me interested. looking at him now, i regretted overlooking him in college; we’d be married with a two-year-old by now. it was a three-city romance and we were only in city number two. it’s Spring in DC and he’s a writer and he laughs at my jokes and one time he drove his mini-van all the way from Venice Beach to drop me off in the valley. of course i was in love.
“you’re not in love, T. you’re just addicted to being in love.”
zing: reality check. the kind only lifelong friends can provide. i glared at her above my long-stemmed glass, wishing she was wrong.
super nintendo, ‘N Sync, surfing, spinning class, dark chocolate, impossible relationships, Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution, traveling, playing clarinet, Spanish, booze and partying, yoga, writing, Stairmaster, jumping off tall things into water, tanning, live music, Marxism, romantic conquest, food in general, the death of capitalism, indigenous spirituality, surf trips, facebook, detoxing, rebelling against authority, and now apparently, being in love. and i’m sure friends and family could remind me of a few more i’m forgetting.
“you have what’s called an addictive personality.” while i was hesitant to accept his label, the free psychologist i saw twice made the obvious observation i had refused to acknowledge in myself. i had always wanted to see it as more of a blessing than a curse, a valiant sense of drive toward accomplishment and passion for the things and people i loved most in my life (interestingly, they say that great leaders exhibit the very same character traits found in people with addictive personalities; our biggest weaknesses are also our greatest strengths). i still have trouble admitting it’s even a problem, and i imagine addicts with substance-abuse problems, in AA and rehab and stuff, they’d probably look at my issues and laugh in my face.
in my case, my supposed addictive personality has never been cause for serious concern, since luckily my addictions have thus far been (mostly) positive as opposed to life-threatening or drug-related. rather than being addicted to substances or self-inflicted physical pain or any one thing in particular like some drug addicts or alcoholics, people with addictive personalities have a range of things to choose from to get their fix, finding solace in a different activity, behavior or gluttonous practice of consumption beyond that which is considered normal on any given day, or in any given hour for that matter. this makes addiction to certain things difficult to recognize in oneself, easy to hide from others, and even easier to perpetuate indefinitely. it also makes your addictions harder to overcome, since there are so many of them and it’s less about the thing you’re addicted to than about the way you’re wired as a person: your personality is the problem. witha ‘predisposition to addiction’ built into the very essence of your being as the defining characteristic of addictive personalities, the world is your oyster, and everything in it that attracts you or peaks your interest becomes fodder for addiction. it is said that one thing separating addiction from just loving something a whole lot or pursuing as a hobby that which brings you pleasure, is that people with addiction problems spend excessive time and energy on a certain activity, behavior, object or relationship because they feel like they have to, not because they like to. It’s not an “I want to…” or “I love to…” it’s an “I need to, I have to, I must…” and it’s always ‘right now this very instant’.
lucky for me, my main addictions are for the most part self-balancing, allowing me to disguise them as activities that bring me joy and keep me healthy and sociable, making me appear driven and passionate toward meaningful goals and allowing me to fit in as normal in most social situations. for example, balancing my compulsive overeating addiction with my exercise and surfing addictions keeps me fit, and if for some reason i get out of balance and gain a few pounds when i don’t find the time to burn enough calories running to make up for a serious stint of binge-eating, i get to re-balance by simply turning to my detox addiction, getting back on track with a colon cleanse or juice fast people admire as an example of living a healthy lifestyle. tell that to the three chocolate bar wrappers hiding in the trash can.
“can you think of a few things you might have been addicted to in the past?” while i fired him shortly after asking it (something a little too creepy about your shrink’s constant mention that he loves your name because his dead wife loves (note: present tense) Gone with the Wind, especially when he points to her picture staring at you from the coffee table), this question inspired the list i created above, and has allowed me to get in touch with deeper psycho-emotional realities i could have otherwise continued masking under the guise of living my life’s passions. and i think some of these new realizations extend past the realm of addictive personalities into the spheres of our shared experiences as social and socialized beings, which is why i’m taking the time to write this.
my answer to his question in the moment, though, came to mind quickly and simply: “i’ve been addicted to everything and everyone i’ve ever loved.”
after studying ‘my condition’ in the resources i could find in a simple google search, i found the information interesting and revealing, not just because i could relate to the associated character traits and behavior patterns, but also because i could see how my addictive personality may have less to do with me as an individual possessing an innate character flaw, and more to do with my subjection to and socialization within the society of which i am a part. it’s not necessarily me as an entity in and of myself, but rather the combined result of me + me subjecting myself to the sociocultural norms of my society, which have contributed to the creation of my personality as both a social actor and social subject. i knew i had work to do on myself, but i felt somehow relieved to know that it might not just be me or others like me with addictive personalities, but rather that many of us suffering in modernity or consumer culture or whatever we want to call the experience of life we share today, may very well be experiencing similar problems as a result of our socialized and subjectified selves. the following is an exploration of this idea, connecting the addictive personality with other manifestations of our lives as social subjects in the pursuit of happiness.
addictive personalities, from where i’m sitting
for those of us with addictive personalities, we have the privilege of bouncing from one addiction to the next or being addicted to many things at once instead of relying on one substance or activity to keep us high, like some addicts who don’t necessarily fit the addictive personality prototype. here’s an example from my own life to give this some context: i walk to the beach with my board to get my daily surf fix, only to find the waves are flat. panic sets in so i go on a run instead to get that runner’s high feeling, then i meet friends for dinner to celebrate life with a feast, a few glasses of wine and four ‘shared’ desserts (of which i scarf down the most and any possible leftovers), then i feel guilty, fat and ugly for eating so much so i go out and buy a pretty new dress, giving me a shopper’s high (followed by ensuing consumption guilt), yet still making me feel good about myself physically because damn, i look good in my new dress, giving me the emotional strength to write a heart-wrenching email to my long-distance non-boyfriend who has just attempted to end our codependent relationship for the seventh time in four years; wiping the tears and swiping on a fresh coat of mascara, i go out and party to welcome my rebound phase in style, having the time of my life drunkenly flirting with men who make me feel like ‘i’ve still got it’ in slurring speech and stinking breath, getting home late and passing out in my clothes, waking up horrendously hungover until i can paddle out for a few waves to get my head straight again, followed by a heaping breakfast for three consumed by one, at which point i begin re-evaluating my life (what am i doing?! this isn’t me. i don’t need this party lifestyle with strangers to make me feel 'good enough'. i’m going to get over getting dumped by being true to ME for a change!) and i make new promises to self: from now on i’m consuming no carbs, no sugar, no dairy, no caffeine and no alcohol – FOREVER! rinse and repeat to infinity.
for an addictive personality, there’s always a new high to avoid the low, and the longer you’ve been at it, the better you get at perfecting your own personalized bag of tricks, drowning yourself in one addiction to get over the pain of the loss or ending of another. it becomes predictably cyclical really, and it means that living in extremes is your only option, because moderation in any of the things you are addicted to is by the very definition of addiction, impossible, no matter how many times you’ve convinced yourself otherwise. so you’re either eating only chocolate cake or none at all, you’re partying your face off or staying home with a strict 10pm bedtime, you’re surfing every day twice a day or not at all, you’re marrying your non-boyfriend or never speaking to him again. no in-betweens, no maybe just a little bit; you’re all or nothing at any given time whether you like it or not. because that’s just how you are, whether you like it or not.
experts and pyschologists say it’s because we with addictive personalities have low self-esteem, are prone to anxiety and depression, seek to avoid pain at all costs, cannot delay gratification, are uncomfortable in social situations, feel that we’re ‘not good enough’, believe that we do not fit within societal norms, and are unable to handle stress, and as a result, we end up chasing experiences or indulging in behaviors that give us an escape from those issues, allowing us to experience a sense of joy or high by using our addictions to avoid feeling low. thus, as soon as the enjoyment of one addiction wears off, or if we are for some reason deprived of it, we swiftly switch over to another addiction promising a similar sense of enjoyment. however, when we use our addictions as a coping mechanism in this way (which is of course what we do), the joke’s on us, since our addictions do not actually soothe us in any sustainable way; rather, they perpetuate deeper and deeper addiction by providing only momentary relief from feelings of anxiety, frustration or discomfort, making us feel like we need to feed our addiction more and more in the hope that if we do it enough, we will be able to feel that sense of relief and enjoyment permanently and escape our problems once and for all. Unfortunately, this is not how it works, so at the end of the day we are still left with our feelings and insecurities, and all of our addictions to boot. Speaking as a clinically diagnosed addictive personality, i resonate with these descriptions and there isn’t a single one i would deny in myself.
i can’t help but wonder, though, are these ‘personality traits’ so exclusive to us addictive personality anomalies or are they more common than we think? i imagine if you’re still reading this, a lot of it might be resonating with you, too. and that’s the part that grabs me, that in one way or another, we all might resonate with the identifying factors commonly associated with addictive personalities. and i think the aspects that we most identify with are telling of our experiences as socialized subjects of modern society and the norms of our inescapable consumer culture: 1) seeking escape from the confines of our increasingly homogenous yet overwhelmingly stressful reality; and 2) the desire-driven fantasy of achieving lasting satisfaction through the pursuit of the things or activities that, by their very nature, bring us only fleeting moments of joy and happiness -- a fantasy created and perpetuated by consumer culture’s promise of satisfaction by way of material accumulation, consumption and living the (increasingly unattainable) American Dream.
consumer culture, at the heart of capitalism, persists in tricky ways, despite a growing recognition that owning more stuff or even collecting countless exciting experiences is not what contributes to lasting happiness or overall wellbeing. psycho-analytic interpretations offer a useful explanation for relentless consumption, interestingly quite similar to the behavioral processes experienced by us addictive personalities. The overwhelming staying power of capitalism in general, and consumer culture in particular, rests on its ability to produce in its subjects a useful cycle of desire and fantasy based on the Lacanian pursuit of jouissance, a state of fleeting excitement or a momentary sense of fulfillment which ‘promises a satisfaction it can never deliver’. As consumers, we get a glimpse of this jouissance by way of our ‘material or affective’ practices of consumption – feeling that twinge of joy by purchasing or indulging in something that makes us believe we will eventually feel permanently satisfied once we consume enough of the thing or experience that provides that sense of fleeting joy; if only we might ‘get enough’ of that which will never give us the satisfaction we believe it will, we create the illusion in our minds that we will eventually get to a point of true satisfaction. sadly, as in the case of addiction, this is a game we will never win, and as the psycho-emotional effects of consumerism demonstrate, we may very well exhaust all consumptive and/or addictive avenues seeking to attain a neverending jouissance, which, by its very definition, is an impossible fantasy. the ensuing low is then even more unbearable, prompting us to perhaps try a new consumptive approach or seek to escape our hopeless predicament through other avenues and experiences, maybe through mind-altering drugs, travel abroad, or going for a surf.
Zizek’s comments on the subject date to 1989 in the book The Sublime Object of Ideology, where he wrote the following regarding the relationship between jouissance and consumer behavior (as cited in Rob Fletcher’s 2013 article in Human Geography, titled “Bodies do Matter: The Peculiar Persistence of Neoliberalism in Environmental Governace):
an opportunity for further accumulation is created as [consumers] seek to re-experience the desired emotional stimulation in search of an illusory satisfaction. As the object of this process is an ephemeral affective state that passes quickly with little residual impact on the body, the accumulation process can be virtually infinite, facilitating continual capitalization without readily discernable limit or consequence…. compelling increased consumption of the products and services through which jouissance is pursued.
this perpetual yearning for an impossible satisfaction fits nicely in the capitalist framework whereby we, as an entire global society, will continue over-consuming, out of feelings of angst and emptiness, all that is being over-produced, therefore fulfilling our role as consumers propelling economic growth through accumulation, the very core of the global economic system.
when we think about it this way, are we not all on the same hamster-wheel, perpetually seeking an unattainable yet promised satisfaction by way of consumption, ill-fated addictive personality or no? might it be, then, that the addictive personality is not such an anomaly after all? could the addictive personality, in fact, be the personality prototype of modern life in capitalist society?
as capitalist subjects coming to terms with the depressing nature of our fantasy-driven pursuits, we’ve been seeking ways and means to overcome consumer culture’s grasp on our lives and begin transforming our systems toward non-capitalist alternatives. but how do we surmount the contradiction in terms that is our own subjection within a system we aim to invalidate and abandon? how do i transform my addictive personality, which is reliant upon the unattainable promises of consumer culture, to accommodate a post-capitalist reality? society has grown rife with anti-capitalist sentiment, yet capitalism persists; our self-subjection to capitalism keeps us trapped – trapped in ourselves through addiction and consumption, and trapped in our ensuing self-enslavement to the economic and sociocultural dynamics of the capitalist system, alternatives to which we are still unable to imagine as the capitalist subjects we are today.
J.K. Gibson-Graham, in their book A Postcapitalist Politics, refer to the ‘pain and possibility’ in unraveling our self-subjection to capitalism, a preliminary step wrought with perturbing existential challenges vital to envisioning other economic and social realities. this is the same psycho-emotive scenario experienced by addictive personalities coming to terms with the need to change self and transform personality in order to overcome addiction; indeed, no easy task. it’s painful to try and change ourselves from a reality we’ve always known, yet if we wish to experience a post-addiction and/or post-capitalist world, waking up to our own self-subjection within capitalism’s requisite consumer culture is a difficult, yet necessary first step. for addictive personalities, this unraveling stage begins by convincing ourselves of the harsh reality that our addictions, no matter how much we feed them, are never going to provide us with the lasting satisfaction we think they will. from there, it’s a matter of overcoming deep-seated insecurities at the heart of our actions and transforming psycho-social behavior patterns we’ve relied on as coping mechanisms for as long as we can remember. for the rest of us living in modernity, the unraveling stage is quite similar and has already begun, based on a waking-up through recognition; that is, recognizing that neither material nor affective/experiential consumption makes us happy over the long-term, because its promise of a satisfaction or jouissance it can never deliver leaves us wanting more in perpetuity; the more we consume, the greater the lack we feel. from there, beginning to reconstitute ourselves in previously unimagined ways, we explore the possibilities of our unraveling, a coming-into-being of post-capitalist actors and subjects in a concomitantly emerging post-capitalist reality: becoming ‘other’ so that ‘other’ social and economic realities may finally come to fruition.
i find this entire reflection at once fascinating and humbling as i think about what it means in my own life, in how i’ll even begin to transform my addictive personality into something i cannot yet fathom. ironically, i’ve embarked upon an academic career devoted to killing capitalism (one of my many addictions, as it were), yet it’s only now that i’m coming to realize that i must also kill capitalism in myself by overcoming my addictive personality. the irony there is my pain and my possibility: the unraveling of my self-subjection to capitalism will hurt, and i will, as a result, have increasingly fewer addictions at my disposal to pick me back up again, yet i find solace in hoping that in unraveling i will create a space for my as yet unimaginable post-capitalist self to emerge as part and parcel of the simultaneously emerging post-capitalist society.
and in that hope i dare to believe that the unfathomable is indeed possible.
*much of this story is inspired by Robert Fletcher's work on materialist, post-structuralist and psycho-analytic trends in late capitalism and modernity.