Addiction and the Reordering of Personal Priorities

“No Room to Live”, the English-language adaptatioimageowenn of the well-known Welsh actor Wynford Ellis Owen’s memoir of addiction and recovery (Welsh title Raslas Bach a Mawr), is a fine book by a fine man. There were many memorable turns of phrase in the book, but I was struck in particular by one that was related quite off-handedly:

In my second year at the Welsh College of Music, the demands of academic work began to interfere with my drinking.

It would by no means constitute a scientifically-validated diagnostic test, but if you relate to the latter half of that sentence, you may have a drinking problem. A normal drinker says things like “I am not going to have a nightcap, because I have an early meeting tomorrow” and “No wine at lunch for me, I have an exam this afternoon and I want to do well” and “I’ll pass on beer because I have to pick the kids up from school in an hour”.

But with addiction, human priorities become reordered. What once seemed the key goals in life become annoying distractions from a new, super-ordinate goal: To consume one’s drug.

This is one of many important insights in this book, which I strongly recommend. And if you would like to help addicted people in Wales find recovery, please consider donating to Wynford’s recovery support organization, Living Room.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

5 thoughts on “Addiction and the Reordering of Personal Priorities”

  1. Take two people who have never tried alcohol. Give them each a both a bottle of the same wine. Assume both drink the whole bottle and enjoy it. Why does one find that consumption becomes his super-ordinate goal in life and the other decide the opposite? Remember, they’ve both taken the same drug in the same quantity.

    To me it seems that something else, besides the drug itself, is causing a reordering of priorities. Maybe the person already had reordered priorities. It’s quite possible. If you’re homeless and hungry with a bleak looking future, regular methamphetamine use makes sense. You can control your appetite and reduce your need for accommodation (it’s probably cheaper to stay up all night on meth than pay for a room).

    The problem with our current approach to drug treatment (e.g. a ‘recovery’ agenda) is that it encourages us to look away from social problems and instead attribute the problem to individuals. This is problematic because it places the emphasis on the individual to change.

    It is society that needs to change.

    1. Unfortunately, you are way off here. A societal approach to recovery will not change the need for people to get high, and some of them to loose their power of choice in doing so. The recovery community has a saying “From Yale to Jail” Addictions cross all social and economic strata. Addicts aren’t addicts because they are poor and or homeless, but they are most likely poor and homeless because they are addicts. Can our view on addiction change as a society? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, the ability to recover must come from the individual.

  2. The line has long been used as a joke, of course – but for the addict, it’s no joke.

    As to Stayan’s point: true in some cases, but there are physiological differences in people that affect their reactions too. Just as one person can eat candy a lot and not get cavities while the next person’s teeth get full of holes, or one person can smoke and live long where many people will die younger because they smoke. Thus some people can drink and not get hooked, and others can’t. Psychologicaly inclinations matter too.

    That said, it’s worth considering all remedies – but one size will not fit all.

  3. Yes, it’s a joke, but it’s also a clue to recovery: figure out some other interest or activity compelling enough to interfere with intoxication.

    1. Suppose it’s not intoxication users seek but emotional pain relief? Then the task becomes finding a healthier way to prevent or relieve the pain.

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