It is rooted in pain, triggered by pressure and characterized by overindulgence in pleasure. Some use sex, others drugs, food, alcohol -- even work.
But the goal is the same -- to achieve a high to escape reality.
And when the high crashes into an inevitable low -- with problems unresolved and pain revealed anew -- the resulting guilt, frustration and stress again trigger the compulsive dive into pleasure.
Such is the cyclic nature of the addictive process, says New York psychiatrist Lawrence J. Hatterer who has run therapy groups and worked privately with hundreds of people hooked on everything from spending money to shooting heroin.
"This process," he claims, "is rampant in our culture. Ours is a society of polarized excesses that is the essence of addictive life. Billion-dollar businesses sell both gluttony and dieting, smoking and cancer precautions, eroticism and the idea that work conquers all."
The current "pressures to do things faster and better," coupled with "an economic crunch and a public vulnerability to excessive consumerism," he says, makes the '80s an Age of Addiction. "These pressures build to a need for pleasurable release."
He's "not talking," Hatterer stresses, "about one glass of wine or a joint at the end of a long day. There's a difference between using something for pleasure and using something pleasurable as a coping mechanism."
A habit becomes an addiction, he contends, "when there is a significant, consistent destruction of a person's mind, or body, or the mind or body of people in their environment.
"In true addiction there is almost always excessive use of pleasurable activities to cope with unmanageable internal conflict . . . along with a denial of the destructive consequences to one's physical, emotional and social well-being and, in some instances, to economic survival."
Since "we all feel a cloud of concern about becoming addictive," he suggests a simple test. "If you could do without that glass of wine -- or whatever -- you're probably not addicted."
But when someone gambles away all the family's food money, is always too tired from overwork to have sex with their spouse, or has several car accidents while driving under the influence of alcohol or pills -- that's addiction.
He calls these people -- and his book -- "The Pleasure Addicts" (A.S. Barnes, 387 pages, $14.95), a work he claims is the first to study the interconnection of various types of addictions.
A report of a similar study comparing addictions, by the National Academy of Science's committee on substance abuse and habitual behavior, is expected to be published early next year, according to research psychologist and project officer Travis Thompson.
"What it looks like is that there are certain common denominators among different substance abuses and habitual behaviors," says Thompson, "but it's probably misleading to say the process is identical."
Although some theories suggest people become hooked if they have "an addictive personality," Hatterer does not believe "any one addictive personality type exists."
Instead, he feels "people become addicted because they are vulnerable to the addictive process," which he sees as "the common denominator" in all addictions.
"One of the major causes of addiction in the early years," he says, "is when a person doesn't learn to monitor pleasure and pain, work and play. This can happen if one parent is too permissive and the other too strict, or if the child has for a role model one or two addictive parents.
"Addiction may happen later in life as a way to deal with a trauma, such as death or divorce. Someone who turns to an addictive behavior at this time may get hooked by becoming friendly with another person in an advanced stage of addiction whose addiction feeds into and seems to justify his own."
He dubs a person who supports or provokes an addiction "a negative addictive complement. As classic situation is the sex-addicted husband who encourages his wife's food addiction. He wants her to be obese so he has an excuse to run around.
"A work-addicted, nagging parent . . . becomes the complement of a drug-addicted or play-addicted child. Another is the spending-addicted wife who keeps her husband's work addiction alive."
But those close to an addict also can be a "positive addictive complement" by serving as a good example and discouraging the addiction. "My wife has a positive affect on my tendency towards workaholism," Hatterer admits, "by saying she's going on a vacation, whether I'm going or not."
It is "these people who live with an addict," he says, who "can ultimately be the ones to help" and are "the real audience" for his book.
"You can't be angry, put them down or force the person to stop," he warns. "It requires caring, yet being tough.
"You've got to say, 'I love you, but I believe what you're doing is destructive to yourself and to me.' Give the facts -- the number of times they've driven the car into the house or fallen asleep instead of making love.
"Use whatever helping resource that person will respond to -- a physician, religious counselor or peer-addict group."
One reason addicts resist admitting their problem and seeking help is the stigma society places on addiction. "It's a disease with moral overtones," says Hatterer. "The stereotype is that the addict is inferior, weak and self-involved.
"But addiction is a disease. If you get a person early enough you have a treatable patient. However, an addiction that's been going on 10 or 15 years is no way as treatable."