Andrew Bevan - Voluntary Mentor
Inordinate Desire and Excessive Appetite
Alcoholics can’t stop at just the one drink. Whatever the good intentions, one drink is followed by another until oblivion is reached. It doesn’t always necessarily occur at the first instance of drinking. But relapse is typically associated with a swift return to bingeing, at least it was in my case and in the experience of other alcoholics I’ve come to know.
It is very important to distinguish between what Aristotle called “intemperance” and “incontinence”, as discussed elsewhere in these blog writings. In brief, the former involves a deliberate intention to go out and get drunk for the “pleasure”, whereas the latter entails a compulsive act against one’s better judgment. Both are likely to be harmful in the long-run but it is this sense of compulsion which characterises what we understand as addiction.
This “loss of control” is exhibited not only in regard to substances such as alcohol and drugs, of course. Other forms of compulsive behaviour are widely observed. These include eating, shopping, cleaning, gambling, sex, or yanking on the car door to make sure it’s locked before walking away, for example. Some of these are more harmful, perhaps, than others.
These are telling us something both about “attachment” and “absence”. Attachment is a pattern of behaviour that gives rise to habit, which then becomes necessity. This involves various motivating factors and “rewards”. At the same time, however, this behaviour is telling us about absence of something. We might understand this as filling a gap – “I drink to lose my inhibition” or, perhaps, “I get to feel more fully myself after a drink”.
One is telling us something about why we get drunk. The other is hinting at how we might reorient our intentions and habits through recovery treatment.
Augustine uses the term “inordinate desire” rather than incontinence. He talks about the formation of habit. He says that we don’t use our will as some kind of independent judge when we make choices. Instead, our will is tied-up with the desires embodied in our acts. Our reasoning becomes caught up with our passions and these serve bodily desire. This, then, reveals itself in habit, attachment and, ultimately, enslavement to inordinate desire.
Augustine says that wrongly directed desire is at root of the problem. This relates, in the first instance, to the sense of clinging or attachment. Augustine discussed this in the context of overwhelming attachment to worldly goods as opposed to the spiritual. He says that we ought not to blame the things in themselves. Rather, it is how we use them as a result of our misdirected desire which is the problem.
“The very same things are used in different ways by different people; some use them badly and others use them well. Someone who uses them badly clings to them and becomes entangled with them….Since this is the case, you must realise that we should not find fault with silver and gold because of the greedy, or food because of gluttons, or wine because of drunkards, or womanly beauty because of fornicators and adulterers, and so on…”, (On Free Choice of the Will, Hackett Publishing Company, 1993, p.26).
A similar view is contained in the teachings of Buddhists, who express the view that suffering results from craving. The latter, in turn, comes from false perceptions of the self in relation to others and the world around us. This gives rise to wrongly directed desire and attachment. The Path to recovery - the end to the cycle of suffering - involves a reorientation of our thought and practice.
In modern addiction theory, the model of inordinate desire translates into “excessive appetite”, a term used in the work of Jim Orford. He starts, as with Augustine, by recognising that the concept of addiction should be very broadly applied across a range of behaviours and not only to common forms of substance abuse. The common factor exhibited is lack of self-control, often against our better reasoning.
The features which give rise to this lack of self-control are various. They include socio-cultural factors – the desire to fit in with the culture and be liked (all too prevalent in social media), reward mechanisms – the sense of well-being reinforced by feedback mechanisms in the brain, and the comfort factor from self-medicating to block out suffering. Cues which trigger memories of pleasure feed the habit.
I have no direct experience of these various other areas of addiction or expertise to share. But I’m interested in common features that might shed insights into alcoholism and alcohol treatment. Excessive or uncontrolled appetite is associated with feelings of guilt and shame. This, in turn, leads to hiding away and isolation.
As an alcoholic in recovery, I recognise these feelings and responses. But these other forms of “skewed consumption” are not directly mind-altering, at least as far as I’m aware. Eating the whole chocolate cake doesn’t lead to blackouts or cognitive impairment, albeit there may be negative consequences for both physical and mental health.
We lose freedom when we are attached to the worldly. This is the sense in which we become trapped and experience suffering. This is recognised in Stoic philosophy. Its modern interpretation in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is that we need to downplay the weight we give to the things and events that we cannot control.
What should we do in response to the suffering that results from “excessive appetite” or “inordinate desire”? We need to work with alcoholics and other sufferers from substance use disorders to redirect desire and build up good habits in practical behaviour. This is about the proper exercise of freedom, which is character-building and person-forming.
Let go of the past, don’t worry overly about the future – however hard this may be in practice – re-examine your motivation and ask what gives you lasting enjoyment in life.