Overcoming Addiction is a Process
I have overcome two major addictions, and neither one of them was trivial. I was heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol, and I was also a heavy smoker for over ten years. It seemed that I could not quit these addictions on my own no matter how hard I tried, until I finally found a process that worked for me.
Successfully overcoming addiction is a process. Recovery is an ongoing, learning experience. This does not necessarily mean that you will relapse several times before you “get it,” because many addicts do stay clean and sober for the rest of their lives. I am currently in the process of doing so myself–going on 7 years of continuous sobriety. While there are several different methods and tactics to achieving a life of recovery, I’d like to share with you some insights into the process itself.
I can assume that the process is similar for all addictions (overeating, sex addiction, gambling, etc.) because I have overcome two addictions: drugs and alcohol, and cigarettes. I know that sounds like 3 addictions: drugs, alcohol, and nicotine–but actually I only classify it as 2 separate addictions. The reasoning goes like this: alcohol is a drug, and gets thrown in with all the other drugs I was doing during my active addiction. But nicotine–even though it is a drug–is a very different addiction to battle with compared to the drugs and alcohol. There are a number of critical differences between the two, and it seemed to take a much longer time for me to overcome my nicotine addiction. On the other hand, overcoming drugs and alcohol required more drastic measures, including a 20 month stay in a long term treatment program (most people wouldn’t do that just to quit nicotine, although maybe they should). So while there are tremendous differences between quitting cigarettes versus overcoming “harder” addictions, we can learn a lot from the similarities between the two, and use these similarities to reveal a rough outline for overcoming any addiction:
1) Made a decision – In both cases, I had to make a decision before I could make any progress in overcoming my dependencies. In one case, I made the decision to go into a residential treatment program, and I quit using drugs and alcohol. In the other case, I decided to quit smoking (for the millionth time, but the decision was still important).
2) Wanted it for myself, not others – Failed attempts to overcome an addiction in the past might have involved a decision, but the motivation was for the wrong reason. For example, I tried to quit using before for the sake of my parents, and at their request. It didn’t work. That’s another lesson to be learned right there: you have to want it for yourself.
3) A Zero-Tolerance Policy – for relapse, tucked away in the back of my head. I had to have this for both quitting drugs and cigarettes. Another way of looking at the zero tolerance policy is to examine your level of conviction. How committed are you to quitting? Get it straight in your head that there is no possibility for relapse, then figure out how to deal with the world after that. The decision to quit, the conviction to quit, the absolute stubborn attitude that you aren’t going to use/drink/smoke no matter what…that is what must come first. Dealing with life on life’s terms can come after that decision. It is secondary to that decision.
Let’s take a moment to examine what isn’t on the list, because that can clear up a lot of confusion. I did so much searching and seeking the first couple of years of my sobriety, that I wish someone would have provided me with the following list. So many people in recovery and in AA meetings–while having the best of intentions–don’t really have their priorities straight. A lot of useless information, tactics, strategies, and ideas are out there that supposedly help people to stay clean and sober. Keep in mind that the following things might work for you, but they didn’t work for me, and I don’t think you should be putting too much energy into any of these following things:
1) Twelve Step Meeting Attendance – I know that this will sound a bit sacrilegious to some, but consistent meeting attendance has proven to be a poor indicator of success in overcoming addictions. The reason I point this out is because people in the twelve step fellowships push meeting attendance so hard that it is ridiculous. If you’ve ever noticed, there are an awful lot of chronic relapsers at AA and NA meetings, as well as a horrible percentage of success rates in general. This doesn’t mean that meetings are bad, or that they don’t work. There is a ton of support to be had at meetings, and I encourage you to try to take advantage of that support. But understand that meeting attendance is not a critical piece of the puzzle.
2) Drug replacement therapies – this would be like using nicotine patches to quit smoking, or a Methadone maintenance program to kick heroin. While these techniques might work for some people, my experience has shown me two things: replacement therapies don’t work well for me, and they also don’t seem to work real well for other’s I’ve known in recovery. Using drugs to overcome addiction is one thing, but using addictive drugs to overcome addiction is something else entirely. Just never worked for me, but your experience might differ.
3) Support system – This one is a bit tricky, because I definitely needed lots of support for quitting drugs and alcohol, but I tried to go the support route for nicotine and it never worked. When I finally quit smoking and made it stick, I did it ALONE. No help. No quitting buddy (they always relapse anyway, which gives you permission to do the same). Just an interesting twist really–some addictions seem to require more outside help and support than others, but don’t fool yourself into thinking you absolutely need a self-help group for every little problem in your life.
Remember that the zero tolerance policy for yourself is critical. This is the key to overcoming addiction. Don’t even allow yourself to go there! You can find a way to deal with things without self-medicating.
There were times when I was feeling low and I said to myself “If I don’t get drunk right now (or use drugs, or smoke a cigarette) I will just die. I will be so miserable that I will kill myself. This was an outrageous bit of suicidal nonsense that wasn’t really “suicidal” at all…..I was just telling myself that I would kill myself in order to justify my using/drinking/smoking. It was just a poor rationalization.
In conclusion, to overcome an addiction:
1) Make a decision.
2) Create a zero-tolerance policy with yourself for relapse.
3) Figure out what you need to deal with life in spite of your zero tolerance policy.
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