Princess Diana is soaking up the sun on a super yacht in the south of France. “It’s a little mad, if I’m honest,” she tells her worried therapist, Susie Orbach, who’s on the other end of the phone. Diana’s voice is slow and sloaney. She idly waves at her lover Dodi Fayed in the distance. It’s a rare moment of calm in episode three, season six of Netflix’s The Crown.
In the episode, which unfolds like a panic attack, Diana (Elizabeth Debicki) has the paparazzi on her tail constantly. She’s competing for press attention with Charles (Dominic West) and Camilla (Olivia Williams) – but at the same time resenting it. Dodi (Khalid Abdalla) has declared his undying love to her with a cheesy poem he wrote and engraved on a silver plaque. There is also the dysfunctional dynamic between Dodi and his Machiavellian father Mohamed (Salim Daw). And the unpleasant breakup of Dodi’s engagement – his ex is suing him. The world is watching Diana’s every move.
“Is this really taking care of yourself in the way we’ve been discussing?” says Orbach, bringing Diana back to earth. “We’ve been working on weaning you from your addiction to drama. Let’s face it, this [affair with Dodi] is just drama again. Drama is adrenalin. Addictive. And in many ways, the opposite of adult behaviour.”
I’ve had this exact same conversation with my own therapist and 12-step sponsors, since I got into recovery more than 20 years ago, more times than most people have had hot dinners. But is drama addiction really an actual condition, as The Crown claims?
I’ve experienced it first-hand, as have countless others who thrive on intensity. While some dismiss addiction to drama as just attention seeking, Dr Scott Lyons, a holistic psychologist in the US and author of Addicted to Drama: Healing Dependency on Crisis and Chaos in Yourself and Others, says it’s “the most accessible and contagious of all the addictions” because “it’s free and can be produced at any time”.
“Everybody in the world knows somebody addicted to drama,” he says. Why do they do it? “They chase the drama to avoid the trauma.” Dr Lyons argues that addiction to drama is essentially “a dependency on stress” – so it has significant health consequences. “It creates a buzz of energy every time you get a hit of drama. It rises above the threshold of numbness or depression, momentarily. It’s pretty intoxicating. It is a distraction from internal feelings and emotions... and it‘s actually one of the most natural pain relievers we have… does that sound like any other drugs you know?”
Tell-tale signs of a drama addict include using exaggerated language, making mountains out of molehills, needing to be the centre of attention, and catastrophising. They pull people into their drama. They relish deadlines. They over-schedule.
I’ve been hooked on all that. I’ve been the type of person who, if my boyfriend didn’t answer the phone, would hold a crisis meeting by calling 10 friends to discuss what was going on in his head.
When I had an eating disorder in my early twenties, like Diana did, the act of bulimia was a total drama. Was anybody watching as I snuck off to the bathroom? Had I gained weight? Lost weight? Did I feel emotional lighter? Had it fixed me?
Scoring substances is a drama – not scoring substances is a drama. Once I put down the drink, drugs, or eating disorder – the intensity within me was still waiting to jump to another addiction. And what is better than a bit of drama to take you away from yourself? The results might not have been as glamorous as they often were in Diana’s case, but I still got a high from it – the same as you do from a drug.
I still often think to myself, oh no, I’m going into drama mode – even with something as mundane as losing my keys. Inside me, it feels like my world has ended. Everything flashes in front of me and my heart starts racing; the adrenaline actually feels quite good. I feel alive again. The other worries dissipate. Instead of thinking rationally about calling a locksmith, I’m throwing things around in a mad panic and envisioning myself and my two kids out on the street for the night. Then I find them; relief.
It takes hard work – recovery meetings and meditating daily – or I just can’t help but fall back into the drama trap. I could be dating one guy and be in love with another unavailable one. I’d treat relationships like an intense roller coaster ride. There’d be a family argument, and I’d end up buying into the madness rather than detaching with love.
*Matthew, a former member of SLAA (Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous), can relate. “I was drawn to relationships because of the push/ pull,” he says. “And I got so addicted to the drama and passion of it all that when I dated people who were more calm and less predictable, I would end up trying to cause drama. If that didn’t work, I would break up with them, without explaining that was the reason.”
He says that even knowing about his addiction to drama in relationships didn’t change things for him for a long time. “I would say something a little provocative just to get a rise,” he says. “I broke up with someone because she just agreed with me the whole time. The pay-off for me was that the intensity was strong if we were arguing – and that’s what I craved.”
Dr Lyons says that drama addiction is now affecting people on a mass scale, thanks to social media. “There is a lot more drama instead of reality being presented on the stages of social media – it’s exaggerated lives,” he explains. “We used to have gossip magazines. Now we have Instagram. All the world is exaggerated and intensified to capture people’s attention and so we get used to that, and we even do it ourselves. We keep watching the news even when we are overwhelmed by it. We are flooded by information, but we keep going back for more.”
I wonder how Diana would have felt if the drama had been taken away from her – as the therapist seems to advise – and she just sat calmly in peace and quiet with a cup of tea in Monte Carlo? Invisible? Lonely? Sad? She might not have had the tools to cope with a tidal wave of emotion. I needed rehab and other recovering addicts who understood me. Now all I crave is peace of mind. Sometimes it’s a drama getting there, but it’s a hell of a lot easier than living inside one.
* Name has been changed