The word “addict” comes from the Latin “addictus,” combining the prefix “ad-” “for”and the verb “dicere” “to speak.” Originally “addictus” meant “spoken for”, but its formal use in ancient Rome denoted a person being handed over by a judge to a greater authority, usually a creditor, the army or the penal system.

The Roman “addict” was spoken for — meaning his voice was no longer his own, so completely had he been bound over to the control of another.

The contemporary drug-addict too is spoken for — by his drug. He is forever straining to hear  his master’s voice, till he hears nothing else and loses his own.

A cocaine addict once described racing around “looking for white things on the ground,” clutching at shreds of paper and ash in the deluded hope that these fragments of nothing would turn out to be cocaine. This is the foraging system on an endless loop. It is what happens when the goal grabs hold of the steering wheel. The Egyptian symbol of infinity, a snake biting its tail, is the perfect icon for the meaningless, self-perpetuating nightmare of addiction.

Whether through sex, gambling or drugs, most addicts talk about an initial need to rebel, a desire to escape from something. But even at the time of first use, the addict senses this quest for freedom might end not just in slavery but in automatism. Yet he is willing to ignore this vaguely imagined, future horror-show for a definite high this second. He chooses the certainty of feeling better now over the uncertainty of a worse — or a better— future and he makes this choice continually,
over years and decades.  As Howard Rachlin put it, “The alcoholic does not choose to be an alcoholic. Instead he chooses to drink now, and now, and now, and now.”

But where did the first impulse to escape come from, so urgent it over-rode all considerations of past and future?  And why this distrust of the future? How did addiction get its first finger-hold?  How did it gradually take over?  What is it like now to strain under its authority?  It is by telling his story that the addict gives up the endless cycle of seeking momentary relief in the problem itself, begins to feel part of a meaningful human narrative and ceases being spoken for.

I have worked extensively with people in recovery and currently head the Special Interest Group on Addiciton for the San Gabriel Valley Psychological Association.

Daniel Goldin, LMFT Therapist in South Pasadena Therapist