Addictions

"My body's falling apart," says my father. Crumpled into the couch, the hot glow of the muted television casting a woozy pallor on his skin, Dad looks older now than I've ever seen him. Of course, he is older now, each day one step closer to the inevitable; but he's more resigned these days, more graven and hollow: a soldier slowly giving up his struggle. He moves slower, talks slower; his once-thick shock of hair now alabaster and thin. Into his cheeks the years have carved long lines, even on the left side of his face, where a spate of Bell's palsy long ago artificially relaxed his flesh.

"I don't have much longer," he says. I scoff, but he waves his hand so patiently and sadly that a spark ignites inside me. Suddenly I'm enraged, and I don't know why.

"It's true," he continues. "I've always known when I was going to die."

Thankfully, he doesn't elaborate. But I can tell he wants to. I can see so many things left unsaid percolating behind that weak smile, corroding him from the inside out. Maybe he thinks he's doing me a favor by holding it in. Maybe he simply doesn't know how to let it go.

Last week my uncle Eddie died. The detectives found him in his trailer, baking under the Arizona sun, alone except for his dog and his liquor bottles. He'd been dead at least five days.

I never knew Eddie, and my father hadn't talked to him in over thirty years. But silence doesn't mean anything. Not anymore.

Eddie's not the first family member to die, but he was the most sudden. At least with my uncle Bill, my dad had time to get used to the idea of his brother passing. Cancer does that: It gives you time to make your peace, to make amends, to say goodbye. Diagnosed with late stage pancreatic cancer, Bill had less time than most, but it was enough, I think, to bridge the gap between him and my father. Maybe not completely, but enough.

I only met Bill once. He came to our house when I was a little girl, because he needed a warm place to sleep for the night. While I can't recall his face, I do remember he stubbed out a cigarette in our couch, and his dingy khaki pants smelled like the sidewalk. My father kicked him out for shooting crack in our bathroom. I never saw or heard from him again.

Eddie was an alcoholic. Bill was a junkie. I didn't know either man, only their addictions. Two long and complex lives, each boiled down to a single, lonely adjective.

My father flirted with drugs and liquor in his youth, especially after he returned from Vietnam. But these days, he only has his cigarettes – no less deadly an addiction, and one that's killing him slowly, surgery by surgery, organ by organ. A triple bypass. Several stents. A mini stroke. Dad never did do anything half-assedly.

I watch my father watch me expectantly, and I don't know what to say or what to do. To see him so quietly broken over two men I never really knew – indeed, never even heard him talk about –leaves me without any compass to get my bearings. I'm left unmoored, afloat on misery I cannot share, only spectate.

"I have a doctor's appointment this Friday," he continues, looking away to stare at the mute television screen. "They found a spot on my liver. It's just a spot, but they want me to come in for a CAT scan."

"It's probably nothing," I say automatically. But I don't know that. I can't know that.

"Yeah, whatever," he says, still not looking at me. He says that a lot these days.

A long moment passes. "Watch yourself," he adds finally. "Our family's got a gene in them, that addict's gene. I'm just happy you never seemed to get it."

I say nothing. He's said this before, of course. In the past, he's blamed our Cherokee blood, although frankly, I think his and his brothers' struggles had more to do with broken Appalachian homes, endless tours in Vietnam, and childhoods spent in foster care. But I don't know that. I can't know that.

He unmutes the TV and we sit and stare at it for awhile without really watching. It's late, so late the commercials have switched over to infomercials. Eventually, I stand up, kiss my father on the cheek, and go to bed.

Upstairs, under the hot glow of the lamplight, I reach for my DS. Yawning and rubbing away the sting in my eyes, I open the clamshell. Dragon Quest IX. I've put 230 hours into it. I bought the game just three months ago.

I pause, handheld half open. My mouth tastes cottony; my head pounds. I think of the other games, and other nights just like this, and eye the DS like a half-empty bottle. I place it back on the nightstand, ashamed.

Turning over in the cold bed, I stare at the walls, wide awake and a little bit afraid.

Comments

Ghostship wrote:
Planetary wrote:

Nope. Gaming does not "weigh in on the same scale."

I didn't think so either, but having listened to a few of the podcasts, I wonder if the author didn't actually start the article with something other than gaming in mind.

Ouch. Bit of a low blow, but I guess I deserved that one.

Wow, there is some very narrow thinking going on.

Maybe it's possible that the author was reflecting on her use of gaming to distract or distance herself from the reality of an uncomfortable situation. She realized that doing so is similar in point to these other, arguably more destructive habits. Which in turn made her reflect on the topic of addiction and how it had brought sadness and grief into her life and therefore felt worse. Thus, maybe her use of gaming to gain relief from reality was the prompt to think about her family's issues with addiction.

That's just *one* possible reading of this very personal story from among many other valid readings.

KaterinLHC wrote:
Ghostship wrote:
Planetary wrote:

Nope. Gaming does not "weigh in on the same scale."

I didn't think so either, but having listened to a few of the podcasts, I wonder if the author didn't actually start the article with something other than gaming in mind.

Ouch. Bit of a low blow, but I guess I deserved that one.

I don't think it was meant to be a low blow, more of a concerned love tap. :p

KaterinLHC wrote:
Ghostship wrote:
Planetary wrote:

Nope. Gaming does not "weigh in on the same scale."

I didn't think so either, but having listened to a few of the podcasts, I wonder if the author didn't actually start the article with something other than gaming in mind.

Ouch. Bit of a low blow, but I guess I deserved that one.

Hey, there's nothing wrong with loving scotch. In fact, I'd argue that the emotions you feel are perfectly normal and natural. But like anything else, it's important to make sure it's a healthy relationship.

Sorry Katerin/Lara, and thank you Mr DeVil.
It was the article image which put my mind there.
And I was struggling w/ the gaming ending.
I thought that it was sort of intended.

[added after Wordsmythe]
I hope it's the ability to stop and ask yourself the hard questions that keeps it a healthy relationship. I feel terrible that my comment was delivered as a low blow. I usually forget that I'm the only one that experiences the world my way. I know that I check myself, look for feedback, or ask for help in the most disguised ways. I think I intended it to be kudos for doing all or any of those. I pulled the punch in my first post, that was too far, and I probably should have left it there.

@KaterinLHC

Thank you for taking the time to pen this article. It was as moving as it was thought-provoking. I think I understand what you were suggesting at the end. For those with addictive personalities, a new way to ruin one's life is just a one new interest or one poorly-chosen new friend away.

There were some post in response to your article that were - in my view - unreasonably vitriolic, but I understand the distinction some people sought to make between addictions to pharmaceuticals and alcohol and being hooked on video games. However, I'm sure that many of us have allowed our love for games to go just a touch too far (reading wikis on the company dime; leaving work early to go play; ditching an evening with the partner in order to play; insane all-nighters fuelled by Lord-knows-what). That was certainly my summer with Demons Souls last year...

@Dynaes & DarkEmporer

Your posts present the classic addict's dilemma/delusion. Is active management a viable alternative to abstinence? I'm really, really struggling with the former at the moment. I find myself stacking my vices on top of each other. As a result, I'm now thinking the cold turkey route might be the one to try, but I can't face quitting everything. Sadly, I feel I have to have at least one crutch to lean on, and figure that gaming - if I can disentangle it from the others - might be the best one. *hangs head*

Anyway...

Not sure what made me read this post as I usually skip the posts about game addiction, but I am so glad that I did. Thank you so much for sharing this with the GWJ community. You are not alone.

Upstairs, under the hot glow of the lamplight, I reach for my DS. Yawning and rubbing away the sting in my eyes, I open the clamshell. Dragon Quest IX. I've put 230 hours into it. I bought the game just three months ago.

I pause, handheld half open. My mouth tastes cottony; my head pounds. I think of the other games, and other nights just like this, and eye the DS like a half-empty bottle. I place it back on the nightstand, ashamed.

Turning over in the cold bed, I stare at the walls, wide awake and a little bit afraid.

It's taken me a while to figure this out as it's rolled over in my head over the past month, brought back to the forefront of my mind when the article gets teased on the front page through whatever mathematics they have here for rotating content, but I wonder if you truly eyed the DS the same way someone addicted to alcohol eyes a half-empty bottle.

I wonder if the problem here isn't one of...well, semantics. If you don't have the right word to describe what you are experiencing, and so you're shoehorning your wordless emotional experience into an intellectual, verbalized understanding where the verb that springs to mind--addicted--doesn't capture what you really felt, and brings along with it concepts that are not applicable.

I wonder if the better way to verbalize your feelings is to label your relationship to Dragon Quest IX and gaming in general as obsession. We used to use that word all the time: "Johnny is obsessed with baseball statistics" and we didn't necessary mean anything negative by it, certainly we didn't mean anything nearly as sinister as we do when we talk of something as an addiction. In fact, we kinda used to admire someone obsessed with something that wasn't itself suspect.

Maybe there's a big difference between being addicted to a habit and obsessed with a hobby.

This whole discussion gets even murkier when you realize that reward indicators in games, such as victory sounds and flashy cutscenes, actually trigger a dopamine response in the brain.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to make more coffee.

wordsmythe wrote:

This whole discussion gets even murkier when you realize that reward indicators in games, such as victory sounds and flashy cutscenes, actually trigger a dopamine response in the brain.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to make more coffee.

For all the frustrating and high-falutin' things Jonathon Blow has said over the years, I really liked this interview he gave to 1Up a couple of years ago where he talked about reward systems in games. His position was that games that reward you with the next virtual pellet so you'll keep running on the treadmill isn't great game design and, in his words, "immoral". A little strong, but if you find the interview it's interesting. There is something to the idea that games provide little rewards that tickle a part of your brain the way other chemicals, exercise, etc. do.

wordsmythe wrote:

This whole discussion gets even murkier when you realize that reward indicators in games, such as victory sounds and flashy cutscenes, actually trigger a dopamine response in the brain.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to make more coffee.

My favortie part of Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer: Listening to the reward guitar riff.

mrtomaytohead wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

This whole discussion gets even murkier when you realize that reward indicators in games, such as victory sounds and flashy cutscenes, actually trigger a dopamine response in the brain.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to make more coffee.

My favortie part of Modern Warfare 2's multiplayer: Listening to the reward guitar riff.

That's actually a pretty cool message ring tone.

Hmmm...

As someone with the FFVII victory fanfare as my ringtone, I need to think about this a bit. For me, most of the reward is a sort of metagame where I try to guess who around me would recognize it and who wouldn't.

I'm with 'smythe on the coffee thing, though.

DSGamer wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:

This whole discussion gets even murkier when you realize that reward indicators in games, such as victory sounds and flashy cutscenes, actually trigger a dopamine response in the brain.

Now if you'll excuse me, I need to make more coffee.

For all the frustrating and high-falutin' things Jonathon Blow has said over the years, I really liked this interview he gave to 1Up a couple of years ago where he talked about reward systems in games. His position was that games that reward you with the next virtual pellet so you'll keep running on the treadmill isn't great game design and, in his words, "immoral". A little strong, but if you find the interview it's interesting. There is something to the idea that games provide little rewards that tickle a part of your brain the way other chemicals, exercise, etc. do.

Then you should look into Blow's latest lecture, where he extended the analysis to Facebook games. I listened to it while playing Minecraft.

A superb post. WOW. Very well written aswell.

Excellent post Lara, thank you.

I do think addiction CAN run in families largely due to the developmental environment it can create. As an example if you grow up in a home where excessive alcohol consumption is the only way you ever see adults dealing with stress and life then that is probably going to impact you. It doesn't mean you are doomed to follow suit (indeed it may scare you away from ever touching the stuff), but it's a factor in your development. How individuals handle themselves given those factors as they mature varies by person.

As for gaming specifically -
230 hours over 3 months -> 230/90days=2.56 hours/day. Provided responsibilities have been attended to then 10.6% of your time is hardly an unreasonable amount to invest in a non-harmful leisure activity. It's easy to look at the big /played number and feel shame but rather than dread this number it's far more meaningful to ask "did I ever skip on a responsibility to play?" It may help to keep a journal or check list which you can quickly fill out when you sit down to play so that in hindsight you'll have something written down to reflect on "okay no, this gaming truly is just my free time, I'm still okay".

I notice is that gamers are quickly and readily labeled addicts by non-gamers who themselves spend the same amount or more time reading/watching movies or tv/whatever hobby or escapism happens to float their boat. I'm not sure why gamers in particular get so much flack about this, often without anyone looking at whether any harm is actually being done.

Amazing article. Very well written, you are a talented writer. Everyone has their vice(s), we all need some form of escapism at some point. The spectrum of addiction is endless, and any activity known to man can be performed in an unhealthy, habitual manner. Whether it's shopping, eating, gaming, smoking, exercising or anything in between, it is natural behaviour for humans to cling to whatever makes them feel normal and part of a larger group as a whole. I know I can never completely escape these addictions that surround me on a daily basis, I just try to do them in a balanced way whenever possible.

I think people get worked up when you lump gambling or video games in with alcohol because they assume addictions means putting a chemical into your body and then your body relying on that chemical. Actually it's far more complex than that. Generally it has to do with chemicals created in your brain by everything from playing games to alcohol. Thus, yeah, like you said, addiction has a wide spread of possible triggers. Talking more frankly about the underlying mechanism and triggers is the only way as a society we're going to get better.

I come from Asia, where people die playing videogames (actually they die from dehydration, lack of sleep, and hunger, but that's beside the point).

Specifically, I come from the Philippines, where no one has actually died from gaming, but where people get addicted to the gnarliest stuff you can imagine. Last time I looked, people were this short of mainlining paint thinner into their veins for a high.

I'm in a profession with a high risk for dying through addiction. Two of my colleagues went through addiction to demerol, fentanyl, and morphine. Several of my subordinates went through the same problem. One of my seniors is dead from overdose. We were all tested. We are supposedly not prone to addiction or addictive behaviors.

I cannot imagine what it must be like to be addicted to a drug, but it's not the same thing as being addicted to a game. Having not been addicted myself, I can talk about it dispassionately, but I have watched addicts go through withdrawal symptoms. It's somewhat like watching someone being tortured with conventional devices. If an addict has been through that particular brand of earthly hell, I can understand if they get somewhat heated about their experience being compared to a video game (particularly if they're not gamers).

That said, obsession with various activities is a way for normal people to relate to addicts. It takes a bit of description, and comes with a lot of caveats, but if the alternative is for people to think of addicts as "them" instead of "us," then I would rather that they think that it's similar to obsession with games.

It's brave of you to share such a personal thing on such a public forum. It was an amazing read.

A beautiful piece, Lara. Really honest, and even lovely, thank you.

Awesome piece. I use that word a lot but it's definition is rarely more true. I am honestly left in awe.

I assume recent comments bring threads to the forefront under "Articles"; I'm new here. It's fantastic that a gem like this can resurface after so much time. I'm touched.

theschap wrote:

Awesome piece. I use that word a lot but it's definition is rarely more true. I am honestly left in awe.

I assume recent comments bring threads to the forefront under "Articles"; I'm new here. It's fantastic that a gem like this can resurface after so much time. I'm touched.

I think they're actually set to rotate on their own. New comments do bring them to the top of the Recent Threads list or your personal tracker though.

I am more sorry now than I was then. In every way that it could be interpreted.

I come from a family with addiction issues, my father and brother are alcoholics, I drink but my problem was drugs. I would take pretty much anything but in the process of experimenting I became addicted to heroin. Opiate addiction nearly killed me multiple times (overdoses), I also lost many, many friends, became homeless, went to jail (it was almost prison for 6-7yrs) and became the family pariah. I've been off opiates for a number of years now, but it is still a struggle, the urge to get high never goes away and some days are a lot harder than others. Not sure where I was going with this but anyways here's the definition of addiction from the American Society of Addiction Medicine. (you can read the long definition here: http://www.asam.org/for-the-public/d...)

Short Definition of Addiction:

Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations. This is reflected in an individual pathologically pursuing reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors.

Addiction is characterized by inability to consistently abstain, impairment in behavioral control, craving, diminished recognition of significant problems with one’s behaviors and interpersonal relationships, and a dysfunctional emotional response. Like other chronic diseases, addiction often involves cycles of relapse and remission. Without treatment or engagement in recovery activities, addiction is progressive and can result in disability or premature death.

Thank you very much Lara for the article