Men and Compulsive Behavior: Where Does This Instinct Come From?

Lasting pleasure, it turns out, comes when you successfully battle your obsessions rather than submitting to them.
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I'm an addict. I've been sober for almost 15 years. When I hit bottom, there was little question that I needed help and fundamental change. I had become a one-dimensional man. I had serious problems that ultimately landed me in a church basement, bawling my eyes out. My life was out of control.

I have only recently started to believe that I might actually live a normal life span; I always assumed I would die in a dark corner somewhere, broken and alone.

Insanity has been defined as repeating the same behavior and expecting it to produce different results. We define addictions as those forms of obsession that are most obviously destructive, like booze, drugs, sex and gambling, but any habit can become an addiction when the behavior becomes more important than loved ones, work and life itself. It's slow-motion suicide with the built-in delusion that this time the indulgence will lead to lasting happiness.

In the years since recognizing my affliction, I've spent a great deal of time trying to understand both manhood and addiction. I've concluded that I am not alone.

It seems that at the very core of the American male's predicament is obsessive behavior done with an irrational hope to produce deep and lasting pleasure.

The porn industry is the biggest online business in this country; every month, Americans download 1.5 billion pornographic videos. Ten percent of adults admit to having an Internet porn addiction, and 70 percent of those are men.

Virtual poker is the second-biggest online business in the U.S.; by some estimates, as many as 148 million Americans -- just less than half of the U.S. population -- gamble regularly.

Alcohol and drug addiction affects at least 23 million Americans; men are twice as likely to be affected as women.

The Journal of the American Medical Association recently reported that 32 percent of American men are obese and five percent are morbidly obese.

With this taste for excess in mind, I think it's safe to say that the number of male addicts is large and growing.

But I am not just talking about the category of behaviors defined as addictions; I am really talking, more broadly, about obsessive behavior. As I have looked more closely at my own problem with addiction, I have come to see booze as merely a symptom of a deeper problem in my life and in the lives of many men just like me.


I don't drink anymore, but I still fall into repetitive patterns of behavior as though they were the only safe way to engage with the scary world around me. And everywhere I look I see men, whether or not they qualify as addicts, doing the same thing.

Where does this instinct come from? I have spent countless hours examining this question in therapy, AA rooms, and in my writings. It comes down to the equivalent of trying to define God: the more I think about it, the more I realize that it doesn't matter. What matters is the realization that my addictive personality, and some form of Spirit, both exist; otherwise, I wouldn't have suffered the way I have, nor would I still be alive despite the times I could have died.

An important question is whether obsession is always a destructive thing. Should we all seek the ascetic life and refrain from that extra cup of espresso, the TV remote and the BlackBerry?

In some ways, my obsessions have served me well. Many years, drunk and sober, I sought out wealth and power as ends in themselves. I drove everyone around me insane. Believing I had nothing to lose, I took massive risks. This single-mindedness paid off: I became wealthy and powerful.

But here's the rub: an addict, or merely an obsessive-compulsive person, is never satisfied. Whether the obsession is money or making art, even if it has profoundly positive results, it's not going to produce lasting pleasure.

In my case, the satisfaction was short-lived. All the doing, the running, and beating my head against that same wall didn't change how I felt about myself, even in the moment of glory. By our cultural standard, I was a success. But I was far from happy.

As I talk to my friends, and the guys I meet as I travel the country, I see myself. I see fear. I see the struggle to be satisfied. I see men who keep on running, with no destination in sight.


Thankfully, I've been delivered from the most destructive forms of addiction, but my obsessions persist -- little behaviors that allow me to hide from myself and my loved ones. Luckily, I have learned to recognize my attempts to isolate. So, I seek out the things that make me feel complete, often spending time with my wife and three children. I try to take in the fullness of the good that comes my way. And, perhaps most importantly, I am constantly trying to reach past my habitual patterns of behavior, even when I find it difficult.

For example, I have always been afraid of crowds. In my drinking days, going to a cocktail party meant drinking a fifth of vodka beforehand, just to dull the self-conscious pain. More recently, I have often found my way to the bathroom during social events to hide out and use my BlackBerry.

In contrast, my wife is one of the most socially graceful people I've ever met. She is energized by the connection with new people, often while helping the less fortunate or learning about some breakthrough in medical science. Because of her gregarious nature, I find myself at social engagements almost every week.

Sometimes I fall back on protective behavior that is born of my disease, the belief that I am not good enough just as I am. But I'm getting better at fighting those instincts. These days, I put out my hand to a stranger and say, "Hello, my name is Tom. It is really great to meet you."

Lasting pleasure, it turns out, comes when you successfully battle your obsessions rather than submitting to them.


Click here to read other stories in the special addiction package from the Good Men Project Magazine.

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