What does it mean to be addicted? How do you get “clean” and sober? Is it possible to reduce cravings?
Addiction and Habituation
You are physically dependent upon alcohol or drugs when:
- you need the substance to reduce your withdrawal cravings;
- you are not able to control when and how you use the substance;
- you require an increasing amount of the substance to become intoxicated; and
- you spend an increasing amount of time seeking out the substance.
Common signs of addiction include hangovers, blackouts, poor health, tremors, mood swings, alienation from family and friends, and involvement with law enforcement. Depending on the level of dependency, some alcoholics and drug addicts require detoxification. Detoxification from alcohol and drugs requires medical supervision!
When the dependence is on an activity or a ritual, it is called a “habituation.” Habituations include: codependency, sexual and relationship “addictions,” spending compulsions, binge eating, gambling, and raging. Though usually not quite as dangerous or physically debilitating as substance dependence, these rituals are integrated into one’s lifestyle and are as difficult to change.
The Immediate Problem
There is a natural ambivalence when making any change. In particular, giving up addicting substances and habituating activities involves the loss of much that has been familiar. Questions about self-worth and doubts about one’s ability to change are likely to arise. These reactions can shake one’s determination and create strong cravings for the familiar addictive or habituating behavior.
Tasks in a Sobriety Program
Addictions and habituations are formidable! The good news is that their power to influence us lessens with consistent positive attention. Addictions and habituations become less overwhelming as we develop a sobriety program focused on acquiring self-care skills, receiving available emotional support, and accessing necessary resources. Craving and impulsive reactions do lessen over time, but only in response to strict maintenance of sobriety.
Most people require substantial pain to force them to face their self-absorption, their addictive and habitual cravings, and their denial of the negative consequences of these addictions. Such pain might include a life out of control, physical or mental illness, shattered relationships, families in disarray, bankruptcy, violence, jail, and emotional, physical, or sexual abuse. The point at which we are unwilling to tolerate any more pain represents our “bottom line.” Change requires the following:
- Staying sober. Strict maintenance of sobriety is essential. Containing habituating activity is equally necessary. Sobriety requires the recognition that reliance on chemicals or rituals is a form of self-abuse. In the past, this reliance has been automatic and very effective in eliminating emotional pain from the stressful events in our lives. As a result, we have not learned from our life experience, nor developed the skills needed to face life’s challenges. Instead, we have blocked our emotional development. Change requires acknowledging our addictions and habituations, accepting them as previously necessary but no longer fitting, and finding a way to give them up.
- Getting help. Most find that sobriety is hard to attain and maintain alone. Dealing with negative emotional experiences and other situations that pose a threat to sobriety is the primary function of psychotherapy during this critical stabilization stage. Groups are also very helpful. There are recovery groups for many kinds of addiction and habituation: Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Al-Anon, Codependents Anonymous, Adult Children of Alcoholics, Debtors Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and Smart Recovery. Attend one or more regularly! These groups:
- Provide social support to combat isolation;
- Create a positive identity to replace the legacy of shame;
- Puncture addictive pride and self-deceiving pretensions;
- Provide a language where one did not exist to discuss what had not been discussible;
- Offer a cognitive context for self-care; and
- Promote a model of self-governance to replace self-defeating and self-destructive action.
- Admitting our role in the problem. Acknowledge your loss of control, how this loss contributes to your distress, and how it affects you and those closest to you.
- Exchanging the victim role for a survivor’s role. Recognize that you are not responsible for what has happened to you, but you are responsible for what you do about it. Let go of shame and make the attitude shifts you need to move on.
- Developing a disciplined plan. Practice self-care, reach out to others, and access necessary resources. This approach helps to limit cravings and restore hope. With addiction, we tend not to practice self-care. Diminished or absent self-care skills, vague boundaries, and limited access to feelings all allow self-abuse. An active focus on a healthy lifestyle is an alternative to addiction. A disciplined plan includes:
- Self-care activities, including exercise, relaxation, sufficient sleep, and a good diet;
- Relapse prevention identifying “red flags” and dangerous situations;
- Learning how to manage stress; and
- Acquiring assertion skills.
- Using information as an aid to growth. Most addicts miss out on learning things their non-addicted peers learn at an early age. Even in information-rich situations, such as AA meetings, they may fail to listen or they may discount information as irrelevant to them. Reading, listening, and learning about sobriety and the nature of addiction and habituation will help you feel less helpless and more like your peers.
This article was adapted from Growing Ourselves Up: A Guide to Recovery and Self-Esteem, with permission of the author, Stanley J. Gross, Ed.D.