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Are you an addict?

Derek is 40. He’s from Hackney in east London. Apart from a recent spell of voluntary work, he’s never quite managed to hold down a job. Derek was addicted to drugs and alcohol, and his daily diet was once a merry-go-round of excess: beer before breakfast. Weed. Two grams of cocaine. Lager. A nap. More beer.

“My first drink was at 11 years of age,” Derek recalls. “By 14, I remember sitting in lessons with a Volvic bottle filled with vodka. I don’t know if I needed it, or if I was just trying to look cool. Put it this way: I never shared it.”

After nearly three decades of dependence, Derek broke the cycle. At the time of writing, he is 27 months sober.

“Looking back now, I can see it was a problem from an early age,” he says, in a hoarse cockney accent. “Drinking vodka in school – it’s not normal behaviour, is it?”

Then there’s Simon (who, like Derek, has had his name changed for this article). Now 33, Simon is a member of numerous 12-step recovery programmes, owing to an addiction to gambling and sex. “I lost all the money I could get my hands on,” he confesses, “and then became totally dependent on sex, or just being on the computer with my dick in my hand.”

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At just 13 years old, he developed a love of fruit machines and pornography (not together), with the height of Simon’s dependence seeing him squander tens of thousands of pounds in a matter of hours, or “have sex with three different women, then go home and masturbate.” Simon lost count of his sexual partners. He was sacked from his financial sector job. His parents remortgaged their house, desperately trying to clear his debts.

These are but two tales of addiction in the UK. There are countless more; each one poignant, slightly different from the last. And yet, pop your head round the door of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting – or a similar recovery group for drugs, gambling, sex, gaming or otherwise – and a common theme will emerge.

Addiction is genderless, true, but the majority of addicts are male.

PET scans have proved men are twice as likely to become alcoholics than women. The same stat is true for illicit drugs, though maybe even three times as probable. The World Health Organisation estimates one in five men will develop alcohol dependence in their lifetime, versus one in 12 for women. Sixty per cent of AA members are male, with a similar ratio – if not one weighted even further towards men – in treatment programmes for other addictions.

So whether huffing glue in a back alley, hammering an Xbox controller without pressing pause, or notching more hours in the gym than work and home combined, it’s clear that addictive tendencies are greater in males.

The question remains: why?

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To find out the answer, we must step backward in time. Way back. To a time when five-blade razors were tantamount to sci-fi, and fire represented the hottest property in tech.

“In evolutionary psychology terms, men have always been the hunters and women the gatherers,” says Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behaviour Addiction at Nottingham Trent University. “So whether it’s heroin, gambling, sex or whatever else, men are traditionally more risk-taking than women; engaging in behaviours that are risky to start with, and more likely to do it anyway.”

Along with a devil-may-care attitude being somewhat stitched into our DNA, there’s something to be said about man’s fondness for repeat behaviour. Long after the opposite – arguably smarter – sex has grown tired, those with a Y chromosome yearn for another hit.

“Men tend to persist more,” muses Dr Griffiths. “Video games, for instance… research has shown that women who persist in playing are just as good as men, but ultimately when you ask why aren’t there too many female video game addicts, they turn around and say, ‘I’ve got better things to do with my time’.

“Men are more achievement oriented – I’m like it myself,” adds the doctor. “I won’t touch a video game unless I know I have six hours to burn, because I’m so achievement driven that I’ll have to beat not just my high score, but everyone else’s. So my way of dealing with that is to not pick it up in the first place.”

Of course, while an individual’s genetics cannot be discounted – studies claim having an alcohol-dependent parent can raise your own risk three-fold – a major symptom of addiction is modern society itself. Discounting bingo ads, try to name a single TV, web or radio advert for a bookie or online casino that doesn’t spew bants-spiked testosterone in its pursuit of a male customer. Not easy, is it? The same can be attributed to the lion’s share of alcohol brands, porn sites, sex lines and games. Men are a captive audience, and some are just too feeble to resist.

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“I think we’re probably more responsive to that kind of marketing,” explains Dr Adam Winstock, Consultant Addiction Psychiatrist and founder of the Global Drug Survey. “Advertisers try to tap into the male psyche of needing to be more of a dominant alpha male, and I think men respond to that.

“Gaming is centred around competition, combativeness, aggression – they’re testosterone-driven traits. For gambling, you need to have expendable income, and there are still cases in some cultures where men are still the main breadwinner.”

While the arrival of gender equality, the social acceptability of boozing and the advent of pint-chugging ladettes in the ’90s has seen the gap between men and women narrow, outdated stereotypes can still endure.

“It’s more stigmatic for a woman to be an alcoholic,” notes Dr Griffiths. “And in terms of illicit drug taking, there’s still a perception it’s more of a male activity.

“With sex addiction, when a man says, ‘I slept with 100 women last year’, he is perceived as a sexual stud. If a woman says, ‘I’ve slept with 100 men’, they’re a slag or a slut. There’s a sexual double standard there, and I think there’s also an addiction double standard more generally.”

Though the label of addiction may hang heavy upon the shoulders of women – “Sex Addicts Anonymous is very male dominated,” claims Simon, “not because women don’t suffer from it, but because they don’t want to face up to it,” – it would be foolish to overlook the generations-old tradition of men bottling up their feelings. Real men don’t cry (or so we’re told). And problems? Pull yourself together, man.

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“I thought asking for help was some sort of weakness,” admits Derek. “My dad’s from an era where you don’t go [to the] doctor’s, so I think it was ingrained in me.

“That’s what done me, to be honest with you. I couldn’t say what I was feeling, so I’d just drink myself silly instead.” Just like womankind’s perceived shame at being branded an addict, it seems masculinity too is not yet up to speed.

“I s’pose when you fink about it… everything’s drugs, innit?” Neil Sutherland – The Inbetweeners’ dimwit-in-chief – pondered aloud in one episode, reeling off a peculiar catalogue of vices. “Beer, Disprin, coffee, trainers, chicken nuggets, cling film, Elastoplast, plants, clothes, car tyres, calculators, wasps.” It was intended as a wry gag by writers Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, but there’s actually a grain of truth in the comedy.

“If any activity completely takes over, you lose control and it’s something that compromises your life, your job etcetera,” says Dr Griffiths, “then I would operationally define it as an addiction.”

Admittedly, new cases rarely pass the six behavioural components Griffiths looks for: salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal, conflict and relapse. But Nottingham Trent’s behavioural expert believes anything – from chewing gum to a compulsion to scoff Dunkin’ Donuts – can, in theory, bring about dependence. “Even if,” notes Griffiths, “other people say you can’t be addicted to Argentine tango.”

For men, this means more addicts walk among us than we first thought. And you, dear FS reader, might be one of them.

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“Exercise addiction is thought to afflict an estimated three per cent of regular gym-goers,” says Katherine Schreiber, author of The Truth About Exercise Addiction. According to the book, one in four pro runners is an addict, with a staggering 52 per cent of triathletes said to be hooked. If that sounds preposterous, ask yourself: have you (or anyone you know) felt anxious when forced to skip a gym session? Ever cancelled plans with a friend in favour of the squat rack? Or suffered an injury but trained regardless? All of these are potential warning signs for addiction. And, once more, it’s us blokes leading the charge.

“According to several studies, men appear to report more exercise addiction symptoms than women,” says Schreiber. “One explanation for this disparity boils down to each gender’s means of pursuing their desired physique: men may take more readily to exercise, as it promises to confer a more muscular appearance in line with stereotypical male standards of beauty.”

But wait. Before you hurl this magazine at the wall and dash headlong into rehab, bear in mind it’s all about context. There’s a thick line between a humble hobby and balls-out addiction. “I guess that’s where people have to make that judgement,” says Dr Winstock. “I tend to think – everything in moderation, including excess.”

Fear not, that occasional all-nighter on Football Manager does not automatically make you a junkie. Even if you do mark Woking FC’s appearance in the Champions League final by wearing a full tuxedo. And nor if, in said final, you opt for a daring 3-3-5 formation against the mighty Barcelona, in search of silverware. After all, just like the distant Neanderthals that came before, you are a born risk-taker.

Words: Sam Rowe
Images: Getty // Science Photo Library 

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