Staying Sober Without God – What is Addiction?
Staying Sober Without God
Chapter Two: What is Addiction?
Some folk in recovery will have you believe that addiction is a relatively simple thing. It is sometimes referred to as a “two-fold disease,” being an “obsession of the mind coupled with an allergy of the body.” Sometimes it’s simply thought of as a spiritual malady, implying that an intangible, invisible, immeasurable force within you is somehow capable of contracting a condition that affects your mental health. Needless to say, I believe these conceptions fall tragically short of reality, and while I don’t think understanding addiction is necessary in order to recover from it, I reckon it does help.
At its core, addiction is the experience of not being able to stop using a substance or engaging in a behavior despite a genuine desire to stop. People generally discover that they are addicts after they have tried several times to stop or moderate their behavior, only to be repeatedly frustrated by failure. Sometimes, there may be periods of success. For example, a daily drinker may swear off alcohol and go for a few days, weeks, or even months without it. Eventually, however, without major fundamental changes to their lifestyle, they slide back into old patterns and the cycle begins again.
Addiction is the combination of being in a state of emotional discomfort (often discomfort we are not consciously aware of) and having a previous experience with a powerfully soothing substance or behavior. We’ve learned that this substance or behavior works, so we engage in it whenever we feel the need for relief, which can be practically constant if we haven’t dealt with the root cause. To make matters worse, our underlying discomfort increases as a result of this cycle, making us seek even more relief. To put it really simply, we feel crummy, so we crave relief. We know that [insert drug or behavior here] makes us feel better, so we do it whenever we want to feel better, which can be all the time. It stops working as effectively as it did at first, so we do it more or move on to other things that have a stronger effect. In the case of substances, we also can develop a physical dependence, which complicates things further. The drug or behavior becomes so essential to our comfort that we can’t muster the willingness to stop without help. We are addicted.
It’s important to understand that addiction, like most things, exists on a spectrum. Some people have a much harder time controlling their addictive behaviors than others. Some need intensive treatment and some seem to be able to do it with minimal assistance. It’s not black or white. If you’ve had the experience of not being able to fully control a behavior despite wanting to, then congratulations, you’re part of the club. You’ve experienced addiction and can probably benefit from the tools of recovery. Don’t compare yourself to other people with addiction, compare yourself to yesterday’s version of yourself.
People will sometimes argue that a particular behavior or substance is “not addictive,” and therefore impossible to get addicted to. For example, you may hear that marijuana is not addictive or that sex addiction isn’t real. As far as I’m concerned, if you have tried to stop or moderate your marijuana use and can’t seem to, you fall somewhere on the marijuana addiction spectrum. If you’ve engaged in compulsive sexual behavior despite attempts not to, you fall somewhere on the sex addiction spectrum. Don’t listen to the arbitrary rules that others make up about addiction. Look honestly at your experience. That’s all that matters.
That’s not to say that certain substances aren’t more prone to trigger addiction than others. That is certainly true, but don’t confuse that with the idea that there is any pleasurable psychoactive drug or pleasurable behavior that is completely excluded from the list of possible addictions. And even though there may be drugs such as heroin or meth that are more prone to trigger addiction, there are significant variations from person to person. Cocaine may usually trigger addiction more severely than marijuana, but I’ve encountered a few cases in which the addict compulsively smoked weed and hated their experiences with cocaine. Addiction is highly dependent on your individual response to any given pleasurable activity.
Will I Always Be an Addict?
Yes. Well, probably. I mean, we don’t actually know for sure. The signs seem to point to the likelihood that most people who experience an addiction will likely struggle to some extent in that area for the rest of their lives. Some people may improve, and in other cases they may get worse over time, even if they aren’t actively using. Some research suggests that, once a person becomes sensitized to a substance, there are permanent changes that occur in the brain that do not seem to reverse fully over time2. The bottom line is that we are short on conclusive information in this area and more studies need to be conducted before we can say with any kind of certainty how a person’s tendency toward addiction can change over time. If you ask the opinion of most addiction professionals, they will probably tell you that going back to drinking or using responsibly is a pipe dream, and I tend to agree.
The answer to this question is much more complicated when it comes to behavioral addictions, however. Some research suggests that behavioral addictions or compulsions operate very similarly to substance addictions, while some research shows them to be more similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder3. In other words, we’re not even sure it’s the same “type” of addiction that occurs with drugs and alcohol. Most behavioral addicts will report a loss of control that is nearly identical to alcoholism or drug addiction. They can’t seem to control their behavior despite the fact that it has resulted in significant negative consequences.
The biggest challenge when treating some of these behavioral addictions is that the behaviors themselves are necessary on some level in order to fulfill our basic needs (such as eating or having sex). In other words, addicts must learn to control their addiction. It takes a very detailed, specific plan that restricts certain behaviors and allows others. Now, you may be thinking, “If behavioral addicts can learn to moderate their addiction, doesn’t that mean alcoholics could learn to drink alcohol normally?” It’s a fair question, but I think there are some key differences between substance addiction and behavioral addictions that make that a weak argument, and since it’s beyond the scope of this book, I’ll save that discussion for another time.
Am I saying it’s impossible to go from addict to non-addict? No. As you’ve probably realized, I (almost) never like to speak in absolutes. That being said, I have not seen any convincing instances of people with serious addictions becoming completely non-compulsive. I’ve heard anecdotal reports from others, but it’s not scientifically sound to base a conclusion on stories alone. With our current knowledge of the subject, I will say that, even if it’s possible, it’s pretty unlikely and probably not worth the risk. If you are convinced that you will one day be able to fully control a substance you used to be addicted to, then I won’t stop you from trying. If you’re successful, please share your story with me. If you aren’t, there’s always a spot for you in the recovery world.
For an excellent review of the book, click here: Staying Sober Without God.
Jeffrey Munn was born in Southern California where he still resides with his wife and daughter. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist and has been working in the field of mental health since 2010.
Jeffrey works as a therapist in private practice and specializes in addiction, OCD, and anxiety disorders. In addition to his master’s degree in clinical psychology, Jeffrey earned a degree specialty in co-occurring disorders.
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