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Positive Addiction?

I have been using the word ‘addiction’ when talking about tango. (Here’s the first post.) I feel a responsibility to be pretty clear about what what I’m talking about. I’ve been studying, with the help of Josh Rychert, a dancer and poet from Northwestern America.

(Josh participates in an addiction recovery support program
known as Recovery Dharma.
This program uses Buddhist principles and practices
to heal the suffering of addiction.)

There are two categories of addiction: chemical addictions and behavioral/process addictions. There is debate over how different the two categories really are.

Every addiction has a “progression”, a common course of getting addicted, reaching crisis, and, hopefully, getting out.

It’s important to understand that in some sense the choice for the object of the addiction is always in some part rational.

And addiction itself is in some part rational, because there is usually A Wound or Trouble for which the addiction does provide some balm, and more importantly gives the addict some feeling of control over that Trouble.

Addictions are harmful in various ways, but never 100% harmful. In other words, most addictions involve some dimensions that are normal, reasonable, and healthy – such as having a sense of belonging to a community, creating a sense of identity, and having profound and intense experiences. Behavioral addictions usually involve an experience of personal development, building skills and expertise, of which addicts are rightfully proud.

Addiction becomes irrational when the costs are considered.

The fact that tango has healthful and meaningful aspects, including a rich social life, somewhere to go out on your own, engagement with cultural heritage, physical immersion in the music, skills-building, feelings of success (especially attached to gender performance), self-confidence, opportunities for loyalty and generosity, and artistic expression does not obviate dangerous addiction. As we all know, tango degrades us as often as it elevates us. That alone should give pause.

And, it’s not all about you. There are other people around you who may be collateral damage even when it seems the addiction is the best thing that ever happened to you.

Warning signs of an addiction

Regardless of the positives of any addiction, here are some standard warning signs:

  • Does __tango__ feel profound, universal, immense, important – perhaps out of sync to its import/impact on the world? (That’s dopamine.)
  • Do you spend hours of your day when not __dancing__ thinking about your abilities and how to improve your __tango__ performance.
  • Does your commitment to __tango__ have impacts on basic social activities (having dinner with friends and family, dating… ).
  • Do you feel that you have control over the amount of time you spend __dancing__, Do you feel that you can’t miss an episode?
  • Does your involvement with __tango__ affect your job performance or decisions about your career?
  • Does your involvement with __tango__ affect your friendships? Has __tango__ separated you from people in your life?
  • Do you do __tango__ even when you are sick or injured?
  • Have you ever tried to reduce the amount of __tango__ you do and not been successful in that reduction?
  • Do you feel people who are not involved with __tango__ are missing out on life in full color? Do you often hear yourself trying to convince them to try?
  • Do you find other activities or topics of conversation flat compared with __tango__. Do you find that the rules and intricacies of __tango__ are just more compelling and interesting than other things (even things that you can see ought to be equally interesting)?
  • Have friends or family made comments about your involvement with __tango__ being excessive?
  • Is your skills development of __tango__ coming at the cost of development in other things you care(d) about?
  • Are there people in your life who you have treated badly, or let down, disappointed, or abandoned because of __tango__?
  • Can you see that __tango__ is competing with other things in your life, and usually winning? Are those things shrinking in importance? Are those things really unimportant?

The Life-cycle of an Addiction

Most addictions start out as an experience the addict sees as positive, with multiple benefits.

Often the addiction imparts some kind of nourishment – social, emotional, a sense of accomplishment, pride, belonging, intimacy, or comfort…

As the addict’s commitment increases, costs start to appear and even be noticed by friends and family. But for the addict those costs are well worth it.

Then there’s a wake-up call… A drunk driving offense, a financial crisis, loss of a relationship… (In tango the wake-up call is often the aftermath of a tango breakup, when the ex-lovers find themselves negotiating a difficult landscape, dividing up the milongas, or tolerating pain in order to keep dancing.)

Most people don’t quit. They normalize the damage, stabilize it.

It may take a lot of loss and repeated wake-up calls, including interventions by friends and family, before the addict begins to “see” and take seriously that they have a problem.

Even then it may take a lot longer before they decide they want to stop.

They may start to distinguish between authentic peak experiences (like reaching the top of the mountain on a hike) and the cycle of addiction which no longer (or rarely) delivers the peak (or balm) it once did.

Once the decision is made, they still need to break the addiction. This means:

  • Creating new activities and routes through life to avoid the sites of addiction.
  • Replacing the intense experiences with others (sometimes there’s a risk of secondary addiction) or learning to forego intensity.
  • Accepting and suffering loss of the good feelings of identity and belonging.
  • Acknowledging the suffering your addiction caused for others. Taking responsibility. Apologizing. Listening to them.

The decision to stop the addiction is the biggest step, but it’s nowhere near the last step.

Although partners are rarely effective at convincing addicts to want to stop, often what enables addicts to successfully quit is a new relationship which gives meaning, support, and alternatives. Other powerful factors can be spiritual experiences.

Who is an Addict?

Not just people with bad wounds.

We may have the idea that addiction in some way a failure of rationality, intelligence, will, or discipline. And we therefore may imagine that, being a person of high intelligence or willpower means that we cannot really be addicted, or that we can and will easily recognize and stop it if necessary.

But many great historical and contemporary talents and intellects struggle with addiction.

The problem is that for great talents (and even for most of us who are just damn good at what we do) there is no equal exchange. The world does not and cannot give back in equal measure to a Whitney Houston, a Chet Baker, a Hemingway, a Miles Davis, a Janis Joplin, a Jim Morrison, or Jimmy Hendrix …

Today not only talent, but also ethics can be isolating. Combine a little extraordinariness with any kind of wound and you have a cocktail for desperation. An entirely rational desperation for intensity of affection and/or recognition and/or sensation that few things in life offer. Heroin and tango being among the handful of places you can get this kind of stuff.

In fact, the better you are at what you do, the more vulnerable you are to disconnection, hunger for the profound, experiences which offer –even fleetingly– the kiss of God.

At any cost.

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