Breaking the addiction

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
Today’s attention economy feeds into our worst desires to overstress everything. But a new theory reveals that it doesn’t have to be this way. We can, in fact, choose a calmer life, writes Elle Hunt.

Do you know someone who is "addicted to drama"? A name and face may spring to mind — the colleague who treats gossip as if it is in their job description, the neighbour hellbent on turning molehills into mountains, the relative who can be counted on to stoke tension at Christmas, that one friend who is never not in chaos.

These are the people who keep social media groups turning, who might routinely claim on Twitter to be "screaming, crying, throwing up" — who seem, on being mildly inconvenienced, to feel more deeply about it than you can ever remember feeling about anything.

Many of us can comfortably identify at least one such "drama addict" in our lives, and likely more than one. The question is, what’s driving them — and how can we engage without being swept away?

In his first book, Addicted to Drama, clinical psychologist Dr Scott Lyons describes and attempts to define this "dependency on crisis and chaos" so that we might recognise it in others — but also, potentially, in ourselves. "Nearly everyone I speak with can identify others as addicted to drama," Lyons writes, "and yet few people identify themselves as such".

When we meet over Zoom, Lyons tells me how he pitched the book to his publisher’s marketing team "with a very straight face, as the passive-aggressive gift book of the year," he says. "Everyone should be giving this book anonymously!"

Lyons’s glint of mischief betrays his own penchant for drama — in small doses. It wasn’t always thus, he says. Addicted to Drama, and even Lyons’s career as a psychologist, was born of a desire to help others through the chaos, much of it self-inflicted, that had defined his own life, well into his 30s.

Before Lyons retrained as a psychologist, "drama was my life", he writes. After a "chaotic" childhood, which Lyons characterises as bringing together generations of parental neglect and dysfunction, he worked as an actor, director and choreographer. His personal life, meanwhile, "felt like a constant series of break-ups, betrayals and losses".

Lyons thought that he was unlucky, "that bad things just happened to me". It wasn’t until his tolerance for chaos itself reached crisis point, landing him in hospital, that he realised he might be part of the problem.

Meanwhile, halfway through reading his book, it dawns on me that I may be partial to a little drama myself.

I’m often late, routinely over-committed and I habitually tell stories about other people — for my job, yes, but also just for gossip. I thrive under pressure and struggle to just be in the moment. According to Lyons’s 33-point questionnaire, this and other traits may indicate a "moderate" addiction to drama.

However, when we speak to each other, Lyons is reassuring — it’s hard not to get swept up in the whirlwind of modern life, but even the most committed of storm- chasers has the potential to find peace.

"When it becomes the norm, we don’t notice it any more — we only see the people who are more extreme," he says. "But we’re all a little addicted to drama and it’s not our fault, actually."

As familiar and instantly recognisable as these human tornadoes seem to be, Lyons was surprised to discover — as he began unpicking what might underlie an apparent "addiction to drama" — that it had been little studied from a psychologist’s perspective. "It’s so hard to have language around, because it is a primal experience, a visceral process," he says. "We all know when we are in someone’s drama, but it’s hard to define."

In the gap, Lyons says, suffering has gone untreated, and stigma left to flourish. (Just try being a straight woman on a dating app: men only seem to want one thing — and it’s "no drama".) His book aims to remedy that by painting a compassionate picture of the factors (often including trauma) that might lead someone to develop such a "dependency on crisis and chaos", and provide practical strategies to help.

Lyons writes from experience. He began therapy when he was a child, after telling his parents that he felt like "a walking ghost". "I would say, ‘Mom, Dad, I have these little moments where I feel like I have a shape’," he says. This, Lyons understands now, reflected him being in some crucial way undeveloped, "a two-dimensional, flat character". He learned to look externally for the colour, energy and definition that he felt himself to be so lacking in, by picking fights with his sister and spreading gossip among his friends. His parents chalked it up to his being simply naughty and attention-seeking. But, for Lyons, growing up gay and with a learning disability, it was proof of his own agency and potential for impact.

"For me, the moments I felt power were when I was in a heightened state of stress," he says. "There’s all those hormones rushing to give you power to act in the world. But when that becomes our source of life, because we are so absent, so depressed, or repressed, then we become dependent on it. It fills the void. It literally filled a space in me where I was absent."

At 13, Lyons faked a suicide attempt, "meticulously" setting the scene with flung-around pills and a note, leading to stints in and out of hospital. As he got older, it became easier to find socially acceptable outlets for this impulse, first with his career in the performing arts. Lyons used to do insult comedy, sparring with hecklers and coming up with quick retorts. "I performed in front of thousands of people per night — that was my rush," he says. "I kept finding relationships that were toxic."

Today there are endless ways to satisfy that desire for self-definition, even — or perhaps especially — through conflict. The most obvious place for this is social media, which is, literally, kept turning by drama. Far from a "digital town square", Twitter/X resembles a high school with all the point-scoring, bad-mouthing and gleeful bullying that one might have hoped to leave behind with adulthood.

Even grown-up institutions, entrusted to keep the peace and make sensible decisions on our behalf, have been derailed by drama. Politics is covered like celebrity gossip, while news headlines compete for cut-through with reality television.

"Here’s the bigger issue," says Lyons. "Why do we all find it so wildly entertaining?" Our "addiction to drama", he argues, is no longer an individual failing, but a cultural affliction, whereby any internal sense of lack or dissatisfaction can be magnified and turned on the world at large.

Why do we all find it so wildly entertaining?

Drama addicts, he writes, "often view the world as though they are a character in their own movie, watching themselves living out the scenes of their real and imagined life". Now we have the platforms and profiles on which to act it out, and audiences to provide positive reinforcement. In this attention economy, driven by metrics, even criticism can boost someone’s self-concept as "the main character".

Society is now so permissive of chaos that often, Lyons suggests, when we’re in it, we may pile on additional, "unnecessary" layers ourselves. He used to do so himself, he says.

"It’s like, why, if I’m feeling bad about myself, do I go and scroll through all my text messages from friends who have pissed me off and replay those stories?"

Now he notices people doing similar things every day, jumping to the worst-case scenario or the most dramatic explanation possible, when the truth is banal and even obvious.

Lyons gives the example of a friend who took a cancelled appointment as a personal affront. "She said: ‘Ugh ... they clearly don’t want me.’ Honey, there was a snowstorm outside," Lyons says, exasperated. "Why are you feeding yourself with these scripts that make you feel worse than having your appointment cancelled in the first place? Why are you doing that to yourself? You’re contributing to your own suffering in that moment."

For Lyons, his tolerance for day-to-day drama continued to escalate through his 20s as he piled on more commitments, more crises — until, eventually, it reached a point where it was no longer tolerable. When another toxic break up coalesced with a health crisis, Lyons was hospitalised for a week with cardiac distress. It was a sobering wake-up call. The stress that Lyons had been carrying — indeed, in some ways, heaping upon himself — took an unignorable toll. "It wasn’t really until my break up and all my life had imploded that I lacked the energy to reproduce the behavioural patterns — to blame my ex, or stir things up," he says.

Having hit rock bottom, in the parlance of addiction, Lyons began what he calls his "recovery". He caught himself falling back on old habits — picking a fight with his sister when he needed an energy boost, for example, or "I’d call my ex," Lyons says, with horror. "For a brief amount of time, I’d feel empowered — then, 20 minutes later, I would be depressed again. That was a big learning curve — realising that I was going back to my drug of choice, drama, to get some energy, to get a hit, and I started to notice all the ways I was revving myself."

"Revving" is the name Lyons gives in his book to the tactics developed for "fuelling the proverbial whirlwind", whipping oneself into an agitated but energised state whether by external means, like seeking out conflict or over-emphasising bad news, or internal ones, such as obsessing over our failings or replaying past mistakes.

This activates the body’s stress-response cycle, providing a temporary high, but it soon wears off and, as with most drugs, the effect lessens over time. For those for whom chaos has become "a baseline way of being," Lyons says, it may lead them to seek out and even create larger, more all-encompassing dramas so as to keep their cortisol levels high.

I’m reminded of times when, feeling overwhelmed by work, my response was to seek out more of it — even as I complained to friends about how much I had to do. Lyons nods in recognition: "We can take these little snippets and just assume that someone overscheduled themselves, that they’re workaholics, but if we keep looking at what is the purpose of the action and the behaviour, and what it is doing to them physiologically, it all filters back to this cycle. What is happening within that overscheduling is that they are getting a hit of cortisol and stress, and using that as a way of avoiding themselves."

It goes to show just how many paths we’re presented with, to keep ourselves charged up and distracted from our discomfort. Sometimes an apparent drama addiction may be a factor of mental illness that would benefit from treatment. But the fast pace and constant theatrics of modern life gives us plenty of means of distracting from distress — and even reinforcing it. One of Lyons’s patients realised he’d replicated the turmoil of his upbringing by choosing to live in New York, the "constant underlying tension" of the city making him feel at home. It’s not lost on me that my career as a writer rewards me for telling stories about my own life, as well as other people’s — and that my stress levels plummeted after I left London for a slower pace of life.

When chaos has become the water we’re swimming in, charting a course towards peace can feel counterintuitive and often uncomfortable, even intolerable. But it is in that inner quiet and spaciousness, Lyons says, that the historic traumas or unprocessed pain that we’ve been seeking to distract ourselves from can eventually come to the fore.

Lyons himself experienced it, after months of self-imposed monotony following his cardiac episode, like "slowly waking up". At first, he would go to a yoga class "and literally have a fight with my ex in my head for an hour and a half," he grimaces. "That’s not the point of yoga!"

He started wearing a rubber band on his wrist, which he’d snap whenever he caught himself revving. Over time, as Lyons became accustomed to the boredom and relaxed the habit, he began to feel more present, responsive and alive.

He recalls, in his 30s, having a holiday in Greece after an intense period of work, study and necessary sleeplessness. "I was watching the sun set and it was the first time I remember going ..." — his voice drops with awe — "There’s a sky, holy shit! And a sun!’ I had just been so consumed."

Eventually, Lyons resolved to retrain as a researcher, therapy workshop facilitator and psychologist. The crowning moment of his recovery was, appropriately enough, staging a funeral for his inner drama addict. "That part of me that felt like drama was the only way to be seen. My inner victim really sought the conditions that reinforced its identity." In a therapy session, Lyons bade farewell to that part of him with a spoken eulogy.

On Zoom, Lyons rolls his eyes, acknowledging how it sounds. "It was very performative and dramatic. But it was so powerful, because it’s not just about dealing with your trauma — it’s dealing with the identity that’s been formed around this addiction to drama, and the way you have changed how you see the world."

These days, Lyons is not immune to drama — he’s not above gossip, or feeling wounded by petty slights, or acting out of ego — but he no longer seeks it out or stokes it. He notes the irony of his rollercoaster ride to peace and stability: in his case, too much of a bad thing did prove the cure. "I wouldn’t have been able to get to this place of feeling embodied, to this degree, had I not had a severe drama, to get me out of the drama." He laughs. "I hope that’s not the case for everyone." — The Observer

 - Addicted to Drama by Scott Lyons is published by Hachette Books