How a guilty pleasure can escalate a dangerous addiction
The small indulgences can turn into full-blown obsessions. Here are the warning signs.
A few years ago, while interviewing fashion designer Alice Temperley, I asked her what her guilty pleasures were. A glass of red wine topped the list, followed by fast cars and an all-night knees-up. So far, so normal.
She then asked me the same question. There was a pause as I attempted to filter my brain for a reasonable answer. A chilled glass of white wine after a hard day's work, shoes, karaoke, dancing without inhibition, the odd 'airport novel'. But did I mention any of these? No, I did not. Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is what I offered - a show about a red-neck family who "cuss", eat roadkill and chase after a defecating pet piglet. She then admitted to watching a stream of vacuous, IQ-sucking TV shows. In that moment, my guilt was tempered somewhat by our mutual love of seriously trashy telly.
The term "guilty pleasure" is a strange one: enjoyment on one hand and something we'd rather not confess to on the other. But, while a week of watching Here Comes Honey Boo Boo may be bad for our reputations, it is not necessarily bad for our health (if you don't count killing brain cells).
We're all partial to the odd guilty pleasure, whether it's a sugary treat, bad TV or an occasional glass of wine. And more often our guilty pleasures are an exception, a small part of a life that's otherwise well-balanced. But for some people small indulgences can escalate into full-blown addictions.
Take Facebook for example; while it may seem less harmful than alcohol or drugs, the fall-out of an addiction to it is often as damaging. As of December 2013, there were 1.23 billion Facebook users.
That's approximately one in six people on earth and a staggering 50pc of them are logged in on any given day with 30pc checking Facebook before they even get out of bed in the morning. There's no denying we all get that tingle of excitement when we hear the familiar ping of a message. But could you do without your digital fix for longer than a day?
"That's an important question to ask yourself along with how much time do you spend thinking about your 'guilty pleasure'," says Siobhan Murray, Director of Dublin Counsellors who is treating a growing number of people with a social-media dependence, many of whom have had to delete Facebook accounts due to the effects overuse was having on their daily lives.
"We are all prone to allowing something to overtake us, whether it's exercise, food, shopping, technology, alcohol or drugs. But it gets dangerous when the need for that desire overcomes the want."
According to Murray, an addiction will change behaviour and that's one of the signs to watch for.
"In terms of technology addictions people become less socially engaged and detached, unable to communicate properly in face-to-face situations."
This in turn feeds insecurity, low self-esteem and depression.
One area that Murray sees as a growing problem is Dr Google - using the internet to self-diagnose medical problems - triggering a spiral of anxieties. You don't have to spend money visiting a doctor, you can surf any dozen helpful websites, scroll through a checklist of symptoms - which will doubtless prompt an awareness of a creeping pain in your head - leading you to the conclusion that you have some rare disease. But fear not, technology itself will no doubt come to the rescue in the not-so-distant future with some temperature-reading mechanism on your phone, which will enable you to avoid the hospital visit with the aid of two paracetamol.
More often than not, modern society's commitment to constant self-improvement, through diet, exercise and media messages promising a 'better you' is inexplicably linked to low self-esteem. You only have to look at the uber- competitive nature of Facebook and friends 'shouting' about how great their lives are when in fact we all know life is, well, messy. But the pressure is there. And, if you are the type of person who is emotionally sensitive or has experienced an emotional trauma in childhood, there's a possibility you may be more susceptible to addictive behaviour.
"Addiction is an insidious disease," says singer Frances Black, whose own experience with alcoholism led her to become an addiction counsellor and founder of RISE, a foundation that helps families of addicts in recovery.
"It can sneak up on you and nowadays there are so many possible temptations it makes the line a bit blurry. It could start as a glass of wine in the evenings and end in a bottle every night or an odd flutter in the bookies to losing your wages every week," says Frances, who believes anybody is susceptible to becoming addicted to almost anything.
"The key is awareness. If there is a nuance of doubt in your mind about whether you are using something in an addictive way, then it should be explored. It doesn't mean you have a problem but if you are finding it hard to stop the activity or it's affecting your daily life or those around you, then it's important to explore, educate and empower yourself.
"There's a common misconception that addiction is about the 'amount' of a substance you are taking when in fact it's about the effects of it."
In her experience, Frances says that a lot of Irish people find it difficult to ask for help.
"They see it as a sign of weakness but it takes great courage and strength to admit you are struggling with something and reach out for support. And we're lucky that in Ireland there is so much help out there."
Ultimately, it comes down to a question of balance. Where do you draw the line between enjoying a substance or activity and having an addiction?
If your life is rolling along just fine and you happen to have an inordinate fondness for buying cheap QVC bracelets or emptying cans of whipped cream into your mouth, knock yourself out.
If, on the other hand, your chosen activity is costing you more than money, causing consequences that you'd rather avoid, or damage to relationships, self- esteem or your health, then perhaps it's time to click the hardest button of all and 'log out'.
The warning signs...
1 Do you feel you no longer have a choice about taking the substance, or performing?
2 Do you obsess about the next time you can use or perform?
3 Is it difficult or impossible to stop?
4 Are you compelled to hide or deny the amount of time spent on this substance or activity?
5 Are there important people in your life who are concerned about your well-being as a result of the substance or activity?
6 Is it affecting your relationships or your performance at work, school, home?
The Rise Foundation.Telephone: 01 764 5131; therisefoundation.ie
Dublin Counsellors. Telephone: 087 619 1804; dublincounsellors.com
The Rutland Centre. Telephone: 01 4946358; rutlandcentre.ie
T: 052 7441166; aiseiri.ie