For many, the word “addiction” brings to mind images of sallow faces, empty pill bottles, and suspicious powdery substances. In Beijing, however, it’s actually alcohol consumption – a generally-accepted social behavior – that makes up the reason most people seek treatment for addiction.
We speak with Clinical Health Psychologist Dr. Stephen-Claude Hyatt from International SOS Beijing clinic about alcoholism and another lesser-acknowledged but common addiction: sex addiction. Dr. Hyatt has been living in China for eight years and is currently head of the Mental Health Department at International SOS, where he primarily treats expat patients. He specializes in chronic mental illnesses and family counseling.
It’s no secret that a strong drinking culture exists in Beijing. Walk past any chuanr restaurant on a weekend night and you’ll find the proof on the ground in the form of countless beer and baijiu bottles. This culture extends to the business world, where alcohol is commonly passed around the dinner table to strengthen ties, a practice known as ying chou (应酬).
“Like so many other international cities, the reality is that Beijing is very much a pro-drinking environment,” says Dr. Hyatt. “Many feel they can’t avoid it, that they have to drink to be able to engage. People tend to experience a lot more pressure in a foreign environment.”
The pressures of a foreign environment are not gender-exclusive. Expat women often also turn to drinking, though their reasons may be different than those of their male counterparts. “It’s not uncommon for expat wives who have children in school and husbands that travel often to find comfort in it, because they are feeling lonely,” says Dr. Hyatt.
The rise of sex addiction in recent years can also be blamed in part on Chinese business culture. It’s not unheard of for deals to be made at clubs or bars where women are often hired as the evening’s “entertainment.” It’s also common for foreign men to receive phone calls to their hotel room during a business trip with the offer of a “massage.” Access to sex services is easier in Beijing, as in other major cities around the world.
In addition to the abovementioned factors, moving overseas – and out of familiar territory – makes people more likely to experiment. “There are checks and balances in our home countries in terms of family, friends, and social standing,” says Dr. Hyatt. “In Beijing, no one is really taking you in that much. [Expats] feel free to take risks. Guards are down; there is a sense of ‘I can do what I want.’”
While some aspects of Chinese culture coupled with a more carefree attitude obviously don’t “create” addicts, those with a tendency for addictive behaviors will probably have a harder time here. As Dr. Hyatt puts it, “in any culture that is more relaxed in that it that embraces drinking or has easier access to sex, there is a likelihood that persons with addictive personalities will succumb to it.”
Who’s at Risk for Addiction?
To determine who is vulnerable to addiction, it’s important to understand what is considered an actual addiction and not just a tendency toward addictive behaviors. An addiction is anything that alters a person’s state of mind, behavior, or creates a pull that they find difficult to control. “Glue, eating chalk, pornography, online gaming – anything that is preventing you from being in control is an addictive item,” explains Dr. Hyatt. While this definition is simple enough, what causes people to be susceptible to addiction is more complex.
Current research recognizes that addiction as a disease similar to any other chronic or progressive condition like cancer or cardiovascular disease. It’s also generally accepted in the scientific community that some people are born with predisposition for addiction. “As a disease, there’s something biological about it,” says Dr. Hyatt. “A lot of addicts will tell you that before they began exhibiting addictive tendencies, they had a void – something missing – just as many who have been diagnosed with depression or an anxiety disorder would say.” When introduced to a particular drug or addictive action, the person experiences pleasure and the void is filled – at least temporarily.
Besides hereditary factors, addiction is influenced by a person’s environment. Not surprisingly, those exposed to addictive environments from an early age are more likely to develop a propensity for addiction.
While genetics and environment are the main factors that cause a person to be more vulnerable to developing addiction, it doesn’t always mean that they will become a full-blown addict. “Some people just have an easier time breaking the habit,” says Dr. Hyatt. “For some, a drug addiction can lead to death from overdose while others can go on for years. It doesn’t matter the substance or the practice though – all addictions are potentially equally dangerous because they can destroy lives.”
Luckily, expats seeking treatment for mild to moderate forms of addiction can find help in Beijing. Some hospitals have treatment programs available, such as the outpatient program at International SOS in which patients meet with doctors twice weekly. A new program at the clinic also offers treatment for alcoholism. It starts with a physical and mental health check; based on the patient’s specific issues, the doctor then tailor-makes a program by looking at both physical and psychological challenges, and works with the patient to meet treatment goals.
For most addicts, it is very difficult to control addictive behaviors without appropriate treatment. Group work is considered an essential component to recovery, which can be problematic despite the presence of both Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) in Beijing. “People tend to shy away from group meetings,” says Dr. Hyatt. “The expat community is small, so some worry about who they might see.”
Residential programs, which feature extended stays, are considered to be the most effective method of treatment by many doctors – Dr. Hyatt included. Unfortunately, there are currently no residential facilities that exist for foreigners in Beijing. Expats with chronic addiction are often referred to other facilities in Asia and some return to their home countries to seek help.
Dr. Hyatt encourages those who may have a friend or family member battling addiction to find help for that person. “People need to recognize addiction is a disease, not a choice. People don’t choose to be an addict,” he says. “You have to patient and realize that people are struggling with getting their lives back in order. Like any other sickness, they can’t do it by themselves. They need love and support from their loved ones.”
10 Signs of Addiction
1. Obsession with obtaining the addictive substance or compulsive behavior
2. Problems performing at work or doing normal daily activities like cooking or grocery shopping
3. Loss of interest in activities and hobbies
4. Keeping activities secret from friends and family
5. Changes in demeanor, including risk-taking behavior like driving or operating machinery
6. Changes in appetite, sleeping habits, and appearance including weight loss/ gain or bloodshot eyes.
7. Borrowing or stealing money
8. Using substance or activity as a way to “relax”
9. Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when user tries to stop
Addiction continues despite awareness of health problems.
10. Person still uses it (or engages in the addictive activity) though they recognize the negative effect
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) Beijing Chapter
Rm 2308, Bldg 4, 18 Xinzhong Jie, Dongcheng District (152 1003 3757, firstname.lastname@example.org) www.aabeijing.com 朝阳区新中街18号4号楼2308室
Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA)
Email email@example.com for information on meeting times and venues.
International SOS Beijing Clinic 北京国际救援中心
Mon-Fri 9am-6pm, Sat-Sun 9am-6pm.Suite 105, Wing 1, Kunsha Building, 16 Xinyuanli, Chaoyang District. (Clinic: 6462 9112, 24hr hotline 6462 9100, firstname.lastname@example.org) 朝阳区新源里16号琨莎中心一座105室
Photo: Dylan Hartmann (Flickr)