Mental Illness: Addictions vs. Obsessions

I answered this question briefly in the comments to another post, but it’s such an intriguing (and important) concept that I wanted to treat it in an actual post.

SarahB asked what the difference between an obsession, such as OCD, and an addiction is, and I have many thoughts on the subject. A secondary question is why is one a mental illness and the other not. Before we begin, note that this is my opinion. I’m not a trained psychologist, but I do my best to ground my opinions in reason, logic, and the gospel. Take from it what you will.

The idea of obsessions in relation to mental illness is one that obviously sits close to me. As an OCD-sufferer, I can certainly attest to the effects that obsessions have on my life. However, they are distinctly different from addictions (granted, I’m basing this off my limited addictions… Can anyone say chocolate?).

This is how I see it: Obsessions are nature-driven feelings beyond our realm of control. I did not make me OCD. My genetic makeup, triggers, God, whatever made me OCD. In a very real way, OCD defines, at least in some measure, who I am. It is part of me.

Obsessions are also real needs to do something in order to prevent something from happening. At one point with my OCD, I counted every step I took unless I took measures to occupy my mind in other ways. Why did I count? I don’t know if I can ever explain why, but there was always the thought in the back of my mind that I needed to count, and I don’t think the word need really says what I’m trying to say…. I absolutely NEEDED to count. Something would happen if I didn’t. And it’s important to note that I am fairly mild in my OCD. Others are much, much worse.

Addictions, on the other hand, are self-driven feelings. While they are also beyond our control when they become addictions, we place ourselves in the situations that cause addictions. Heroin addicts once chose to use the drug. Same with cigarettes and pornography and other addictions. And while addictions can certainly become the dominating characteristic in someone’s life (if you don’t believe that, go talk to a serious heroin addict some time), the addiction itself does not define the person.

Addictions also, at least as far as I’m aware, don’t lead to the absolute need that OCD does. Let me clarify, while an addict would certainly suffer withdrawals and needy feelings without the addictive thing and while they’d certainly long for it quite deeply, the driving reasons are different. Addicts need to satisfy a need within their bodies (typically chemical); OCD demands certain things or else…. Again, I don’t think that’s strong enough. OCD demands certain things OR ELSE…. OCD involves a very real feeling of consequences for inaction.

The end result, often times, is somewhat similar in appearance, but the methodology of getting into it, and out of it, is different. There is always a cure for addiction no matter how difficult. The same cannot be said for mental illness and its related obsessions.

Moving on to your next question, I believe that addictions could be classified in the realm of mental illness. They share many effects, especially when the addiction becomes life-dominating. However, I choose not to define addictions wholly as mental illnesses simply because of the personal choices involved with addiction and, probably more importantly, the potential for misunderstanding. Addictions are treatable, curable, and avoidable. Mental illnesses are treatable (manageable might be the best word), they might be curable (overcomeable is probably better here) in some cases, and they are not avoidable. Certainly you can avoid things that trigger reactions, but mental illness picks victims seemingly at random and with an outright disregard for your own preventative measures.

I would hate to lead anyone to believe that personal choices caused a mental illness, as is the case in addictions, just as I would hate to lead anyone to believe that mental illness is resolvable by using the same treatment methods as addiction.

Certainly the effects of both are equally damaging, but I can’t place the two wholly together because it would be an injustice to the victims of mental illness.

On an interesting aside: Why is that alcoholism, drug use, cigarettes, and pornography are all recognized dangers with hosts of treatment programs available, but mental illness still largely occupies a back corner in the public spectrum?

I have my thoughts on that one, but I’m not sure there is any answer that truly satisfies the disservice rendered to the mentally ill.

This entry was posted in Mental Illness. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to Mental Illness: Addictions vs. Obsessions

  1. Sarah Bailey says:

    “Obsessions are nature-driven feelings beyond our realm of control. I did not make me OCD. My genetic makeup, triggers, God, whatever made me OCD. In a very real way, OCD defines, at least in some measure, who I am. It is part of me.”

    Genetics and a trigger hooked my uncle on alcohol and narcotics. Addiction is a part of him.

    “Addictions are treatable, curable, and avoidable.”

    I disagree that addictions are curable. Once an addict always an addict. My uncle can never have -caine medications again. That means all dental work and some surgeries have to be done without pain killers. He will be clean and sober for 19 years in August, but he is still a recovering addict. He still fights the urge to drink – “by avoid[ing] things that trigger reactions”.

    Studies show that you cannot successfully treat addicts without also treating their mental health which leads me to believe that addiction is an expression of mental illness. In cases, such as my uncle, I believe mental illness existed prior to the addiction.

    I honestly no nothing on this subject though so I’ll be quiet now.

    • deafbluiegurl33 says:

      I see that you have spoken about chemical addictions
      Would you please explain the difference between OCD and other types of non-chemical addiction such as sex, internet, cable, phone, eating, etc…?

      • daveloveless says:

        Hi blue…

        I’ll do my best to talk about your question as I see it.

        I think that a key distinction that is missing from your question is that the non-chemical addictions you listed (sex, internet, cable, phone, eating, etc.) are actually chemical in nature. Sex and, I’d imagine, any other pleasure-inducing activity (eating, socializing, and so on) produce a chemical reaction in our bodies, namely the release of serotonin. This chemical is the “happy” chemical, a chemical that makes us feel good. While I have no resources, I’m almost positive that I’ve seen reports where serotonin was listed as an addictive thing, and why wouldn’t it be? Anything, at least in some measure, is addictive.

        Another thought on addictions is that our subconscious minds are incredible machines. When we do something, we actually train our brain to respond to certain stimuli in certain ways. To put it another way, the 5% of your brain that is actually conscious does all it can to learn the repeated activity by rote and pass it off to the 95% of your brain that is subconscious. Basically, your conscious brain is uninterested in spending its limited resources doing and redoing things that can be passed off. This is called habit, but in a negative since, we’d call it an addiction.

        To give you an example of the subconscious habit, describe to yourself your morning routine. How often does it vary? Do you typically do the same thing each morning? Do you have to think about it? You just do it, don’t you? It’s a habit that has been passed to your subconscious, and only when you step outside of the normal routine does your conscious brain engage.

        Non-chemical addictions function much the same way as a habit. If you do addiction X for so long, your brain eventually hardwires itself to perform that action. You’ve heard the old adage that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, right? Well, all you are doing there is training your conscious brain in the new routine you want to do so that your conscious brain can pass it off to the subconscious.

        I hope that helps provide some light on your question.


  2. Sarah Bailey says:

    “know nothing” sorry.

  3. daveloveless says:

    I guess the only real thing I could say is that genetics and triggers might make an addiction more difficult or likely, but the point I was trying to make is that addictions are the result of choices. Despite any predisposition to anything like that, a choice was made somewhere along the line that created an addiction. Mental illness does not involve a choice.

    Curable is probably a relative term and maybe the better term for both is “manageable.” Personally, I have trouble doubting the non-curable nature of anything when placed in the context of the Atonement, particularly addictions. Again, however, I think the disagreement is more a manner of meaning than the actual word.

    And I agree with your last statement (not the knowing nothing part… You are quite the knowledgeable person) except I would be inclined to _generally_ reverse those two. I would be more inclined to state that mental illness in certain circumstances is an expression of addiction, but, as with most things, that is not a hard and fast rule and the direct opposite is certainly out there.

    And all this is to say that I’m very carefully weaving a two-faced answer here that leaves the truth somewhere in the middle because, like you, I know only what I know from my limited study, personal experience with mental illness and addiction, and what I feel is right. 🙂

  4. aleisha says:

    I think there is a correlation with those who suffer from mental illness and how many addictions they also have. I don’t know one person with a mental illness that doesn’t also have an addiction. However, of those same people many of them don’t “give in or practice” their addictions. That is the healing power of the atonement. Like Sarah’s uncle, there is a reason to always be wary of the favorite addiction, and aware of future replacement addictions. has some interesting new studies about how addictions are linked with chemicals in the brain and connect your ideas of the closeness of mental illness and addictions.

    love your guts, dave (and family) and the practical way you live and approach the gospel. thanks specifically for help in getting us moved and all that drama.

  5. nosurfgirl says:

    “addictions are the result of choices”

    I agree to a certain point. Yes, I think ultimately it is poor choices, poor coping in the face of personal difficulty, that leads to addictions. But what if you don’t have any healthy methods of coping in place? What if, for instance, you are a young child with parents who are narcotics addicts, and you are often beaten and berated, and you find some of your daddy’s stash and try it (after all, why wouldn’t you… you’re simply modeling your parents’ choices) and it makes you feel better. you learn that pattern, that association, and suddenly you’re in the middle of an addiction, at an age where impulse control isn’t developed and possibly even the age of accountability hasn’t occurred. I guess you could say that this addiction stemmed from the parents’ poor choices.

    Here’s what I think (and ehcoing Sarah B… I’m no professional so take my opinion with a grain o salt, haha) Addictions stem from both mental illness (or mental strains, such as grief and loss, or poorly managed parenting etc) and poor choices… but those poor choices could also be because of lessened functioning due to the mental illness… etc etc.

    I’ve mentioned before that I have an addiction of sorts, to buying things. It’s very odd. When I’m in a foul mental and emotional state, if I buy something (even something as small as a new lipstick) I immediately feel better. I manage it pretty well, but it’s always there, always a possibilty when I’m feeling irreconcilably sad or down or blank. And this started during a period of intense personal difficulty, a time where I felt “numb” for a good six solid months, when I could arguably be said to have poor impulse control and decision making capacity, simply because of what I was going through. Luckily I had the gospel, too, and found some comfort from that as well, so I didn’t end up in an unstoppable cycle of bankrupcy and excess. But I came away from my personal trials with a bit of a weak spot. I think that a great deal of addictions start in exactly this way.

    The biggest help in these situations is emotional support from friends and community around them… perhaps this is the way to forestall a lot of addictions. ?

  6. nosurfgirl says:

    BTW… I just watched a hliarious onion clip that i wanted to post here, but it has a really bad word in it so I won’t. “despondex”…


  7. daveloveless says:

    I looked up the video. Hilarious, but unfortunate that they felt the need to use language.

    And just to comment on your “young child” scenario above, I have trouble understanding oh counseling and psychiatry can truly be effective without incorporating the atonement of Christ and the gospel. I get that much of what is done in those fields is effective in and of itself, but I always see so many gaps, so many special circumstances, and so many unique scenarios that aren’t necessarily covered or effectively explained without using the gospel.

    Aleisha–You are most welcome for the help. Like I told Travis, it’s been a while since I’ve had a good argument with someone, and listening to that lady spout nonsense was about as good as it got. 🙂

  8. Sarah says:

    Well, I guess you could say that for an addiction to occur, there has to be exposure to the addictive substance, which could be no fault of the addict’s own or it could be a choice they made.

    I am very hesitant to take any kind of prescription meds that are habit forming because of my family’s history with alcoholism. I am probably predisposed to become addicted, so when docs offer narcotics, I decline. Makes me grateful I’m allergic to codeine because it could have become a problem when I was put on it as a child. I became violently ill and have been scared to touch any pain meds since then.

    I think it could be a genetic mental illness that causes people not to have healthy coping mechanisms and the tendency to become addicted to something. It’s only a matter of time before they are exposed to something additive.

  9. Jack hammer says:

    Hi,Very informative post.Having gone through very hard times fighting OCD, I can relate.Thanks,SandraPlease visit my blog at:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s