In the mid-1990s my teenage daughter was fluent in the new social language of stress. She was overwhelmed, pressured, and felt that life was too fast. There was too much to accomplish and not enough time. Middle-class kids were building their resumes by middle school, with a growing fear that no college would take them. They couldn’t pile up the successes or live fast enough to make the cut or any cut. Adults felt exactly the same and still do. We feel we have to work ninety hours a week, and it’s a badge of success.
Living in Silicon Valley, the heart of the technology gold rush for the last thirty years, I knew what my daughter knew: our local culture, the pulsing center of computer chips and VC capital, had become out of control. Nobody could keep up, yet we had to try.
In the midst of a major research study on the alcoholic family, I recognized the same dynamics all around me. Society was addicted to going faster and faster and never slowing down. Just like the high of a drinking binge or a gambling run, the exciting promise of never-ending innovation and invention, never-ending start-ups and stock options, and never-ending success had drawn society into a new chronic state of loss of control. By the year 2000, society had become addicted to speed. Not the drug called “speed,” but the insatiable, unstoppable drive to live faster and faster. Just like an alcoholic family that settles into rationalization and denial that the family is out of control, society was altering its values and norms, creating new reasons to legitimize cultural chaos and loss of control.
What happens when society loses control? When society becomes addicted to speed and can’t slow down? What happens when people in addiction recovery become the “normies” that those in so-called regular society were always supposed to be? What happens to the world of treatment and recovery when there is no longer a “normal” culture to rejoin as a sober person in recovery?
Our world is topsy-turvy. Society has become just like an active alcoholic family, locked into unhealthy beliefs and behaviors in the service of always seeking more, better, faster. Society is in the midst of a major transformation organized by the behaviors, emotions, and thinking of active addiction.
In this article, I will sound an alarm: pay attention addiction treatment world and recovering people. The values, beliefs, and structures of treatment and recovery—their safety and solidity—are threatened by the lure of an out-of-control culture. For many people in treatment, there is no place to go home to. Their families, work, and the culture they live in are all out of control and calling it success.
Having learned in treatment and Twelve Step programs to slow down, be quiet, listen, reflect, and exercise restraint, all in the service of recovery growth, individuals are drawn outward, away from self-refection, to the fast pace of a speedy life. We are supposed to have fun and be constantly entertained. People are more at risk of relapse as they lose sight of a focus on recovery and fall into distraction, an anxiety-ridden pressure to keep moving, and the chronic stress of the belief that they are always failing.
What is Speed?
Speed is fast: rapid pace, rhythm, feel, tone, mood, movement, and action! Speed is intensity; that urge to act now. Speed is tension. There goes the train and you should be on it. Blow on the dice, down that shot, press send!
Speed is pressure. Speed is the rush to the future that cancels the present moment. The past is old. The now is out and will drag us down. Look ahead to stay ahead. Move quickly; worship efficiency and shortcuts. How fast can we get through treatment? How fast can we finish the Twelve Steps and be back in action, focused outside ourselves? Progress equals instant results, instant outcome. There is no time to pause or to savor anything. There is only progress; only forward motion. The alternative is failure.
Speed is in our beliefs and in our language. Fast is the gold standard. Make it quick, make it brief, and hurry. We devalue our highest abilities; we don’t stop to think, to feel, to quiet, to reflect. Action is the pace of choice. Slow is boring and waiting is losing. Thinking things through is overthinking, a waste of time, and sure to put you behind. Accepting delay, developing patience and endurance, things that are so necessary for sustaining healthy recovery, are character traits left for losers. Speed has created a society of impulse dominance and instant gratification.
What is Addiction?
Most people think that addiction is a behavioral problem—drinking, eating, smoking, sleeping, spending too much. We should cut back on your drinking, eat less, spend less, and get some control even though we know that’s exactly what we can’t do. We’ve lost control and we can’t get it back.
Addiction is indeed a behavioral problem, but it is much more. Addiction is like a three-stranded necklace of out-of-control behavior, intense emotion, and distorted, illogical thinking that has become tangled up. We tug on one strand to try to fix it, and the knots tighten. We feel panic, we think we can get control, we try to cut back on our drinking, and we end up drinking more.
When Society Becomes Addicted
Society’s addiction to speed is a tangled necklace of out-of-control behaviors fueled by emotions of fear and desperation, entitled greed and grandiosity, and a belief that we shouldn’t have any limits on how fast we can go, how much we can do or how many topics we can focus on at once. Our society believes there are no limits on anything—we can have it all and do it all—while we are frantically living beyond our limits in every way.
There are four key organizing factors that define societal addiction.
1. Loss of Control
The hallmark of any addiction is loss of control. Behaviorally, we can’t stop doing what we’re doing even though we need to stop. We have to keep going and do it again. We are dominated by impulse so it gets harder to delay or endure; we can’t wait. We’ve sacrificed learning through engagement with others and through slow, cumulative trial and error—the paths of normal development—for instant reward, instant answers, and instant gratification. We’ve accommodated to a new norm of constant interruption so we get anxious if we’re not on constant alert and in constant motion. Kids have shifted from active play of all kinds to passive play without intentional action and agency. Eventually it’s not play, it’s robotic, mindless repetition as fourteen-year-old Jason experienced:
Jason screamed at his parents to leave him alone. He refused to come to the dinner table, refused to talk about his growing isolation, and he locked his door to prove he didn’t have to deal with anybody or anything. When he stopped going to school, yelling that his computer gave him all the education and all the company he needed, his parents called for help. Jason finally agreed to talk to a family therapist, and his first words poured out: ‘Tell it to my father. He’s always on his iPhone, and always griping about the stress of trying to keep up. He’s been riding my case since I was ten, shouting about achievement and success. There’s been no future for me except acing the SAT.’
Dominated by impulse, our emotions, the second strand of the addiction necklace, are also primitive. We are prone to instant panic, anxiety, and infantile confusion and chaos as we have no working ability to quiet ourselves or regulate our emotions. Feelings become a danger that we blunt with action. Living in a state of numbed, robotic button-pushing and screen-gazing beats wild emotions. Kids with impulsive behavior and unregulated emotion like Jason will likely be diagnosed with psychiatric problems that can start a misguided intervention of medications prescribed for the wrong problem. Adults too; countless people are seeking and receiving medications to treat the physical and emotional problems caused by their out-of-control lifestyle. Many of these medications are relapse red flags. It is a relapse of addictive chemicals and a relapse into using medication to fix or cover a problem that we need to address directly. Take Sherrie’s situation, for example:
A top TV producer, Sherrie had an arrogant air and demanding attitude. If she could work a ninety hour week, so should everyone she supervised. She didn’t need sleep or quiet, and she didn’t have limits. Riding a fast-track to success, nobody better challenge her. One day she raged at a coworker and couldn’t stop herself. Her tirade spread to all those in sight, who ran in fear. Human Resources recommended a few days off and a psychiatrist. Sadly, Sherrie had one visit, stocked up on medications to quiet her down and treat her mood, and stopped treatment. She missed an opportunity to look at herself and how out of control she’d become in her chase for success.
Thinking or cognition, the third strand of the addiction necklace, is arrested and distorted with speed. Swamped by primitive emotions of anxiety and urgency, our thinking is pushed into regression. We function at a concrete level, seeing the world in two dimensions that simplify our lives with an all-or-none, dichotomous view of the world.
Everything becomes a contest. We are winners or losers. We can’t think with reason that embraces complexity and could provide restraint, because we tell ourselves if we’re not moving, not in motion, we’re failing. Concentration, contemplation, and higher-level cognitive and attentional skills are sacrificed to adapt to the new norm of constant interruption and short attention span.
Our thinking becomes primitive and muddied by defense. We rationalize our crazy behavior as necessary for success. We deny that we are out of control—we can slow down anytime; we just don’t want to. We tell ourselves that action is everything. We think we’re on the fast track to success when in fact we’re rats in cages, wondering why the scenery keeps looking the same. We’re going nowhere fast.
2. A Belief in No Limits
You can be anything you want and do anything you want. There are no limits on what you can achieve. Many young people have grown up hearing these codas of American privilege, embedded in American character as the principle of manifest destiny. A creed of entitlement that began with the pilgrims, manifest destiny defined and justified Americans’ belief in their God-given human power that was obvious (manifest) and certain (destiny). The key beliefs of entitlement and exceptionalism permitted Americans to expand and take, by any means, all the land of North America.
These beliefs formed a core of American character. People should work hard, compete hard, and maintain self-control. They should also play hard and believe in the power of self and self-will. As manifest destiny decreed, Americans could have whatever they wanted, without limit, if they attended to hard work and self-control. There was no room for acceptance or tolerance of a loss of control in any way.
These deep beliefs kept Americans moving westward for two centuries. But with geography all taken, Americans hit a wall in the mid-twentieth century. There were limits. Then along came cyberspace, a new territory with no boundaries and unlimited space. Manifest destiny of the late twentieth century paired progress and speed with a goal of controlling and conquering cyberspace. A modern mantra for manifest destiny was born: progress equals fast, which equals success. You can still have it all. Just keep moving faster and faster, don’t slow down, and don’t stop.
Society elevates impulse and instant gratification to first-line action and reaction. “I want it now!” or “Do it now!” are valued affirmations for the with-it person, young or old, in today’s culture. Writer Wendell Berry noted that our present society is founded on the delusional assumption of “limitlessness” by stating that “Once greed has been made an honorable motive, you have an economy without limits” (2008). Berry urged society to confront its “customary delusion of more.”
3. A Belief in the Omnipotence of Human Power
Addiction, and our age of loss of control, is driven by a belief in the omnipotence of human power, ability, and capacity. There is nothing we can’t control if we put our minds to it. We believe deeply in human power—the right and the ability to control our own destinies and our own lives. We believe that addiction is a moral failure, and the acceptance of limits a sign of personal weakness, just like James in the following example:
James cringed as he grappled with his human limits. He really believed he shouldn’t have to stop each day, he shouldn’t have to eat or sleep, and he should be able to keep going just like his computer. He believed in the power of his will to go after what he wanted and not give up, but this core of his American identity had turned him into a robot who couldn’t slow down and couldn’t feel anything except fear. Every night when he had to turn off his computer, go home, and go to bed, he felt a wave of failure. Why did he have to stop? Couldn’t he will himself to keep going?
We are lost in a false belief in human power, the false belief that the world is limitless. As a culture, we then worship our capacities to defy limits, which requires that we reject complexity, ambiguity, and anything that requires thoughtfulness. A need for self-reflection and contemplation is a problem to be fixed. Thinking things through is the path to failure. We cultivate a gambling mentality—go for the win in everything we do, act on impulse and don’t stop. This is addiction. It’s the false belief in the power of human will that is driving our culture out of control. It is just like a false belief of alcoholics who maintain they are not drinking too much and they can stop anytime, they just don’t want to.
4. Dichotomous Thinking
Many people believe it’s possible and worthy to always know the right answer; to never be uncertain. In fact, it’s been a highlight of American will to divide the world into “right” or “wrong,” winning or losing, high or low.
We live in a business-model, fix-it culture dominated by a singular focus on outcome. There is only forward movement; there is only progress. You are either winning or you are losing. A move out of dichotomous thinking to embrace greater complexity, uncertainty, and ambiguity is viewed as a backward step instead of an advance to higher level, abstract thinking. With our historical embrace of the virtue of certainty, we reject any notion of a middle ground. As a patient once put it to me, “A middle ground is a graveyard for losers.” We can’t be wishy-washy; we can’t not know.
Yet the pressure to always be moving forward, and the demand to act on impulse, to win at any cost, sets in motion the rats in the cage. We keep circling on the wheel, waiting for the reward until we collapse from exhaustion, a pause that has to be temporary. If we really slow down or stop, we’re done. We’ve failed. This is addiction.
In the summer of 2000, I spoke at a conference called Speed.com, designed to address the fast pace of life that was already creating chaos and confusion in people’s lives. Sneaking into the auditorium, business participants told us they were not allowed to speak of burnout in their corporate world. They had to speak in secret, just like members of an alcoholic family craft a secret language to tell the truth.
Speed.com declared that the culture was out of control. It’s taken fifteen years to open up this reality to a cultural conversation and there is still massive resistance. The idea of limits as a source of freedom, instead of a restriction of freedom, is radical, though it is fundamental to recovery within Alcoholics Anonymous. The binary frame drives cultural thinking to oversimplification, with a rejection of detail and complexity. The dominance of impulse, coupled with concrete thinking, pushes the culture to behave like four-year olds on the playground, immature and driven to win by greed and power.
Speed, Treatment, and Recovery
What is the concern for people in treatment for addiction and for those in recovery? What is the worry for professionals who treat them? Why should societal loss of control be a danger for anyone?
The family dominated by active addiction becomes dangerous to everybody in it. A society dominated by chaos and a drive for nonstop action becomes toxic for everyone in it as well. How do we grow up, live, and work in a community that presses us to embrace the norms of speed? How do we invest value and time in developing a recovery foundation? How do we accept loss of control, a need for self-reflection, and action towards healthy change? How do treatment centers provide the structure, containment, and limits to technology use during treatment, and guidelines for limits to all aspects of speed in the early months of recovery?
How do the staff of treatment centers model limits to a fast pace and compulsive tech use if they are caught in the throes of speed addiction themselves? Many treatment professionals talk in secret about burnout. They feel out of control with work demands to go faster and to produce positive results in a shorter time, even when they know this isn’t possible.
Many in society know it isn’t possible to keep going faster and faster, but it’s hard to say “Stop!” and hard to get off the bandwagon. Yet, it is essential that treatment centers maintain their structures and create realistic, yet clear, limits for technology use. Lectures on relapse prevention must include guidelines for coping with a society caught up in chaos and speed addiction. Society, including work, family, school and friends, has become a slippery place, just like the bar. But unlike the corner bar, an out-of-control society is everywhere. How do recovering people maintain inner calm and a focus on recovery principles in the face of a constant pull to become out of control with technology and speed?
Facing Societal Speed
Is it possible to face the reality that our society is out of control, to step outside of perceived and real demands to join the chaos, and to maintain our beliefs and values of recovery? Can we slow down while we still value and pursue progress and success? I believe the answer is yes, but it is a difficult challenge. Three core principles set the foundation for change.
First we need to be aware and to stay aware. We need to be willing to accept that society has lost control. This is the society in which we work, live, and identify as citizens. It’s like coming to terms with the truth that our parents are out of control with alcohol while they are the source of our identity and everything about us. It is especially hard for people in recovery from addictions of all kinds, as we must constantly challenge our culture’s norms and operating principles. Megan, a young professional woman, wife, and mother recently said to me:
“It’s a crazy world. I constantly tell myself I don’t need to get on board. I don’t have to check my phone, I don’t have to stay on social media, I don’t have to join the race. I can stay calm, listen to my kids, and create a family space that is quiet and engaged. I grew up with these values and I don’t want to throw them away for a bandwagon chase to nowhere. A lot of my friends look out-of-control to me, yet they seem to think they’re on top of the world. It’s a weird clash of values and perception now. We want to stay slow and we’re working hard to do so. We are not a recovering family, but we feel like one. We’ve strengthened our friendships with our recovering friends who have learned to live calm and pay attention.”
Accepting Loss of Control and the Need for Limits
As we become increasingly aware of society’s loss of control, we must also accept the validity of that truth. How can we live and work and educate our kids in this culture that has turned a belief in no limits into chronic chaos and an ever-faster pace of life?
Now we see the need for limits in our social and work lives. We accept that we cannot do it all—we cannot keep going until we drop and then keep going some more. We begin to say no. We begin to set limits that will open up and create spaces for quiet, and for deeper personal engagement and interaction.
Megan says she is shocked to see three-year-olds playing together on their iPads for hours at a time:
“What happened to playtime? To games and sports that don’t involve technology? We are now the outsiders, the old-fashioned parents who are holding our kids back! It’s hard to hold onto our values with this kind of pressure. But we do. We set limits. We set rules and hold them. We maintain parental authority.”
Change in society, just like change for people in recovery, will occur one person at a time in small, incremental steps. Megan described it: she stays aware and accepts the reality of loss of control all around her and the need for limits. Then she sets about to create a space for her family that will be slow. She knows that slow enough is also rich, though her friends tell her that slow is boring.
Megan also challenges the idea of “big.” Speed is chasing the biggest and the fastest and never settling for less. Speed is success. We should only think big or we’re failing. No, small steps get us started, and small steps accumulate. If we want to slow down, we need to set one small limit and let everyone adjust. Then we set another one.
If we are already slowed down—maybe we’ve got a solid, healthy recovery—and don’t want to be pulled back into the frenzied culture, we practice maintaining awareness, just like we’ve done for relapse prevention with other addictions, and craft a plan for speed recovery. How do we maintain our addiction recovery and transfer it to our lives and lifestyles?
We will redefine success. Instead of figuring out a way to go faster and faster without any limits, we will define success as an untangled three-stranded necklace of behaviors, emotions, and thinking within limits. We will value structure and set about to create it in our lives. This is what happens for people in recovery. Now it’s their job, and the job of treatment centers and professionals, to help people hold onto recovery when they return to a culture that calls them to become out of control once again.
Berry, W. (2008). Faustian economics: Hell hath no limits. Harper’s Magazine, May, 35–42.