I am a member of The Federation of Drug and Alcohol Practitioners (FDAP) and I have almost twenty years’ experience of helping people recover from addiction and I have two decades of recovery from addiction myself. I know that addiction is a difficult problem to tackle and I combine my life experience with my professional training to provide therapy that is tailored to suit addicted clients. I understand addiction from the inside and I know there is a solution.
What is Addiction?
Those of us who have experienced addiction know that it can be confusing, humiliating, difficult to put into words and hard to convey to others – particularly family members who we have hurt by our words and actions. It can help to get clarity around the issue of addiction and to understand that addiction is a psychological and physiological problem, not a moral issue. The NHS website supports this view:
Addiction is defined as not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point where it could be harmful to you. Addiction is most commonly associated with gambling, drugs, alcohol and nicotine, but it's possible to be addicted to just about anything.
But why would someone lack control over a particular behaviour? Surely willpower is what we use to stop us doing harmful things? Where addiction is concerned, the problem is that most of the time, the satisfaction that we immediately and easily get from addiction outweighs any thought of consequence and any amount of willpower. This view is explored in greater depth in an article on the Psychology Today website, which starts with the following quote:
Addiction is a condition in which a person engages in the use of a substance or in a behaviour for which the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive to repeatedly pursue the behaviour despite detrimental consequences.
(You can read the full article here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/basics/addiction).
Note the language used in the quote above: “the rewarding effects provide a compelling incentive”. That means it is anticipation of satisfaction that makes us engage in addictive behaviour. For the moment, there are two key points to remember about addiction:
- The anticipation of euphoria is usually stronger than willpower.
- Euphoria comes immediately with addictive activity.
But there are plenty of things in life which can make us feel satisfied, so what is it about the satisfaction that comes from addiction that makes it so irresistible? The answer is threefold: addiction comprises mental component, a social component and a physical component (I’ll come to the definitions of these components shortly). You may remember learning about the fire triangle at school: a fire needs fuel, air and heat, and you can extinguish a fire by removing any one of these. You can think of the three components of addiction: mental, social and physical as an addiction triangle - when all three are present, the fire of addiction burns. Remove one or more, and addiction can be extinguished.
Briefly, here’s how we can think about each of the three components in the triangle of addiction:
The Physical Component of Addiction – Dependence
When we engage in any pleasurable activity, regions of the brain associated with reward are activated. The brain’s reward regions are activated more by some activities than others, which varies from person to person. The more an activity activates your brain’s reward regions, the more you will enjoy that activity and there are some substances or activities which activate some people’s reward regions much more than others. For example, most people experience being drunk as moderately relaxing and satisfying, but there are some who experience it as extremely relaxing and satisfying, to the point of euphoria, and are likely to get drunk much more often than most. Of those who often engage in an activity which they find euphoric, some have brains whose reward regions are prone to becoming much less responsive to the activity, therefore requiring much more of a particular substance (e.g. increasing amounts or more frequent consumption of alcohol), or more extreme behaviour (e.g. gambling more and more money) to produce the same euphoric feeling as before. Crucially, when the brain’s reward regions have become desensitized, then the absence of the euphoric activity produces the opposite of euphoria, which is called dysphoria and is characterised by feelings of low mood, discontentment, bleak thoughts, irritability, etc, that can be immediately relieved by engaging once more in the euphoric activity which often becomes addictive because constant, unrelenting compulsion for relief outstrips natural human willpower.
The Social/Spiritual Component of Addiction – Isolation
Addiction often starts off as a means of helping people relax and socialise. You may have heard alcohol described as a “social lubricant”, for example. Think too of the ways in which alcohol, gambling, eating, etc appear in the media – associations are often made with partying, having a good time, sharing special moments with loved ones, the intimacy of love-making, etc. For most people, this is exactly the function that pleasurable activities serve. For some, the activity stops becoming pro-social and becomes anti-social. Consider the drinker who begins to get drunk alone, for example, or the gambler who begins to hide his spending from his family, or the person who is unfaithful for the sake of a sexual thrill, or the person who eats compulsively behind closed doors. Those people connected to the addicted person often suffer consequences of the addiction, even though they are not addicted themselves. For example, the frugal and financially responsible partner of a compulsive gambler may nevertheless find themselves facing bankruptcy as the direct result of the compulsive gambler’s actions. The addicted person often feels stigmatised, alone and deeply ashamed of themselves, feelings which drive them to greater secrecy, shame and dysphoria (as described above), therefore a greater compulsion towards addictive activity.
The Mental Component of Addiction – Obsession
Nobody wants to be addicted. Nobody wants the label ‘addict’. Nobody wants to be ashamed of themselves, or stigmatised. As one author puts it:
Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, ‘I think I’ll become an addict today’. Yet why does it prevent so many people from speaking out? Is it because they’re worried that other people will judge? Of course. Is it because people are worried that others will think they’re an addict? Perhaps. Does it mean that anyone has failed? Absolutely not. Does wider society realise the anguish that comes with having someone who is addicted in the family? No.
(Source: Drink & Drug News, ISSN 1755-6236, p6).
The peculiar emotional states precipitated by addiction, combined with stigmatisation, isolation and lack of wider understanding, produce a feeling for the addicted person that there is no way out of their predicament. They feel they are left with the only relief they know: addiction. It becomes their obsession. They order their lives around it, making sure they create opportunities to secretly engage in addictive activity as often as possible. Paradoxically, the thing that is destroying their lives and those around them becomes the only way they know to switch off the nightmare their lives have become. They do it even though relief is short-lived and has drastic consequences (even death) because they don’t know any other way of living.
If what you have read so far resonates with you in some way, if you are thinking, “Yes, perhaps that sounds like me”, or, “May be that’s my wife/husband/son/etc”, then the next section will help you clarify your thoughts and reach an informed conclusion.
Are You Addicted?
Addiction tends to creep up slowly and steadily. What was once a manageable part of life can become a debilitating addiction without you realising it. The set of questions below are adapted from the Red Rock Recovery Centre and they apply to all addictions because they relate to patterns of behaviour that are common to all addictions. Have in mind something you think you may have a problem with (e.g. overeating, compulsive working, drinking, smoking, etc). Now take a look through the questions and make a mental note of how many times you answer “Yes, that’s me”, or, “Yes, that’s someone I know”:
- Have you ever tried to stop but found yourself starting again, even months later?
- Have you promised yourself or others that you would stop, but did it again anyway?
- Have you experienced consequences because of it?
- Have you done it anyway, despite consequences?
- Do you feel ashamed of yourself afterwards?
- Do you need more and more for the same high feeling?
- Do you feel low or bleak when you’re not doing it?
- Do you feel increasingly irritable, restless or discontent when you’re not doing it?
- Is it taking up more and more of your time and energy?
- Is it costing you more than money?
If you found yourself answering “yes” to three or more of these questions, it’s possible you, or someone you know, may have an addiction problem – well done for being honest with yourself.
There is a solution
I know all too well the sense of despair and hopelessness that comes from the idea you may be addicted. I do not like to tell anyone that they are addicted – I believe you have to come to that conclusion yourself. Why? Because if someone else tells you that you are addicted, you might find yourself rejecting it. “That’s not me, that label doesn’t fit”, you might say to yourself. But if the realisation comes from you, when you look deep within yourself if you decide honestly that you are addicted, then you give yourself the opportunity to do something about it. This could be just the start of your journey to a completely transformed, happy life, even if it doesn’t seem that way right now. The problem many addicted people face when trying to recover is that they cannot imagine life without addiction. I know that life without alcohol/gambling/cannabis/overeating/etc probably seems hollow. Think of it like this: there wouldn’t there be millions of contented ex-addicts in this world if their lives stayed the way they were forever. Counselling with someone who fully understands what you’re experiencing might be the answer.
How Might Addiction Counselling Work For You?
The first thing I will do is arrange an initial session with you. If the session will be for someone you know, I will be happy to arrange it provided you have their permission to do so – there is no point in me seeing someone who doesn’t want counselling. If the person does not want to come, it need not be the end of hope: counselling might give you the strength you need to manage your life in relation to the addicted person.
The first session is for us to get to know each other and to decide whether we’re a good fit, to talk about what you feel you need from counselling and what I can offer you. If you’re not sure whether or not you’re addicted, we’ll talk about what addiction means to you, and how much it applies to you. I want to help you decide whether or not you’re addicted.
I tend not to use the kind of treatment plans that you may have experienced in rehab centres or medical centres because I find them depersonalising. I don’t want to talk about how often you get drunk, or how many times a week you gamble, or how often you binge-eat. If you are coming to me for addiction counselling, I know all that. I know what addiction feels like, I know what addicted people do. What I want is to get to know you. That’s possibly more daunting than engaging in a treatment plan, because it means you have to let me know you properly, to let me know what’s really going on for you. I know how uncomfortable that particular kind of vulnerability feels. I’ve been there. I know it gets better when we let someone trustworthy in, even just a little bit.
How Can You Help Yourself Right Now?
To recover from addiction and stay recovered we need to do things differently – recovery requires action. Here are some simple things you can do right now to help yourself and, although they may be simple, the can be very effective:
- Keep things in the day. If you have decided you want to quit addiction, decide just for today that you will not engage in addictive activity. Tomorrow does not matter. If you can get your head on the pillow tonight without acting on addictive urges, then you are one step away from addiction. Well done!
- Don’t kid yourself that you can have ‘Just one’. You can’t. If you’re addicted then you know there’s no such thing as ‘just one’. If you’re addicted to alcohol, when was the last time you had ‘just one’ drink? Or if gambling is a problem, when was the last time you put just a few pence in an arcade gambling machine and left it at that? Or when did you last have just one small spliff and nothing else? If you find yourself having to think about it, even briefly, then you have a problem. Non-addicted people don’t have to think about it. For example, this morning I had just one cup of tea. I always have just one cup of tea in the morning. I don’t think about it, I just do it. I am not addicted to tea. Vodka, on the other hand ... well that would be a completely different story ...
- Talk to someone whom you trust and who understands what you’re going through. Instead of acting out addictively, talk to that person. Tell them how you feel. Tell them you how much you want a drink/drug/flutter/etc. It will change your thoughts and feelings. Who knows, you might even end up helping them too. The old adage ‘a problem shared is a problem halved’ couldn’t be more applicable here.
- Remember that you are not your feelings. Whatever you’re feeling, remember that you are bigger than it. No matter how strong the urge to act out your addiction, remember it is just a feeling. It will change. Instead of behaving addictively, take a moment to H.A.L.T and really notice how you feel – are you Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired?
- If you’re genuinely hungry (rather than just feeling a compulsion to overeat), then have a small snack.
- If you’re angry, ask yourself the question, “how much does this really matter to me?” Perhaps it matters a lot, but if you really think about it, most things don’t. E.g. if you’re getting impatient with the car driver in front for going to slow, does it really matter if you get to your destination two minutes later?
- If you’re lonely, talk to someone and ask how they are. That’s guaranteed to start a good conversation.
- If you’re tired, take a rest. That’s not always easy I know, especially if you have young children. If you can’t take a rest right now, make sure you get the time later. You might need to ask for it. That’s OK, you deserve it. Everyone deserves a break.
Recovery from addiction may take more than counselling. If you can find a group of people who have been addicted just as you are now, who know how you are feeling, and who can support you in your journey, it could make a huge difference to your recovery. There are many such groups around the UK and the whole world, full of people waiting to meet you and help you. Here is a list of just some of the support groups out there:
For those with an alcohol problem.
For families of problem drinkers.
For people whose childhoods have been affected by a parent’s alcohol problem.
For people with a gambling problem.
For those affected by another person’s problem gambling.
For people whose relationship with food is problematic - including restricting food intake.
For people who struggle with food addiction in any form.
For people who want to stop smoking.
For those with a drug use problem, including prescription drugs.
For people who have a problem with the compulsive use of cocaine.
For people who have a problem with the compulsive use of crystal meth.
For people who find themselves addicted to marijuana. Pot is a widely-used recreational drug, but for some people it is a real problem.
For families of people who have a a drug addiction problem.
For people who want to stop compulsive sexual behaviour.
For people who want to stop compulsive sexual and love-related behaviour – e.g. covert polyamoury.
For those who have been adversely affected by another person’s sexual behaviour – e.g. infidelity, sexual assault, etc.
For people who want to recover from co-dependency and form healthy, functional, loving relationships.
For those who struggle with compulsive emotional and mental problems.
For people whose lives have become unmanageable through debt.
For those who find themselves powerless over work or work-like activity.
A support network for people seeking recovery from any kind of addiction.
Resources for addiction treatment via the NHS.
Support service for families affected by drug and alcohol problems.
If you are a member of a group or organisation that you would like to see on this list, please click here to contact me with your group’s website and details.