Internet to Sex: Defining Addiction
Addiction is used to describe everything from the Internet to shopping to sex. So how do you tell when something really becomes an addiction?
The Root of Addiction
At first, Rachel (not her real name) didn't think anything was
wrong with using sex as weapon to get her way in relationships with men -- even
when her plan to turn an unfaithful boyfriend's head meant sacrificing grocery
money for the latest line of lingerie and toys.
"I did feel an adrenaline rush when ... I could turn his
head instead of him cheating with somebody else," says the 47 year-old
school counselor. "It felt like a hit -- like I downed shots of liquor --
when my plan worked."
Her decision to stick with the same unfaithful boyfriend
magnified the problem. She would habitually comb through his wallet, address
book, and receipts, recording the information so that she would know where to
look for him on nights he was missing.
Rachel describes regularly searching bars and his friends'
apartments in her pajamas, pounding on people's doors, harassing them on the
phone, sometimes wearing dark clothes in order to better stalk houses, and
having car chases with her boyfriend once she found him.
Her all-night pursuits and seduction schemes lasted nearly two
decades before she was diagnosed with a sex addiction. By that time, she had
contracted a number of sexually transmitted diseases from her boyfriend to the
point that she may be infertile. She alienated family and friends and became
extremely depressed and suicidal.
How could things get so bad? Experts say people like Rachel
have a medical illness; much like high blood pressure or diabetes is an
In addiction, something is wrong with the brain, explains
Brody. Parts of the brain may become stimulated with some behaviors, he says,
while at the same time, people's habits may change pathways in the brain.
It's the classic chicken-and-the-egg question. Which came
first: the brain chemistry making people susceptible to addiction, or the
compulsive behavior changing brain structures? Scientists are still trying to
figure out the answer.
Nonetheless, biology may play a role in making people feel
good, encouraging the emotionally vulnerable to act out in order to
self-medicate, says Angie Moore, a licensed counselor in the treatment of
alcohol, drug, and gambling addiction, and a spokeswoman for the Illinois
Institute for Addiction Recovery.
Because there is an explosion of dopamine (a neurochemical that
make people feel good) with an enjoyable experience, "the depressed or
anxious may feel relief as a result of engaging in an addicting behavior,"
says Moore. The problem with addicts is that there is some dysfunction in the
part of the brain responsible for controlling behavior.
Biology doesn't work alone, however. Specialists say
environmental factors also have a big role in promoting addictive behavior.
People may follow their parents' or peers' examples. Plus, the availability of
certain substances or the ease in which a person can act out and get away with
it may also encourage addiction.
In Rachel's case, she eventually realized that sex became a
weapon for her, not only because it gave her a high, but it also reinforced the
idea learned from her family life -- that there were no boundaries with sex. As
a child, she was molested by her father.