The Truth About Being Cross Addicted

The Truth About Being Cross Addicted


You may have heard the term “cross addicted” in your recovery journey, and maybe you have an idea of exactly what people are referring to when they say it.

Let’s take a closer look at the concepts involved with cross addiction.

First of all, Narcotics Anonymous has an interesting take on this particular term: They don’t like it. They prefer the label of “addict” as being all encompassing, and they caution people not to be confused about this because if you are addicted to one drug then, as they say, you are addicted to all drugs.

Now in my own experience, I can tell you that I largely agree with this idea. However, you have to draw the line somewhere, and I think that line can differ depending on the person. Let me give you an example.

Before I really got clean and sober, I tried to do the “marijuana maintenance program” in order to quit drinking alcohol. So I smoked marijuana every day in order to try to avoid alcohol, which was really my drug of choice. I quickly reached a point in which I could not smoke enough weed in order to get myself emotionally medicated in the way that I wanted, nor could I really afford what has happening. It took more and more marijuana each day in order to medicate myself, whereas I knew that I could just go buy a cheap fifth of liquor and “get to where I wanted to be” very quickly and cheaply.

From that experiment I learned that I could, in fact, substitute one drug for another, so long as that alternative drug medicated my emotions. In other words, if you are really upset with someone and you are angry and stressed out, maybe you normally turn to alcohol in order to medicate those emotions. But let’s say you decide to try something else, like painkillers. So you start taking painkillers instead and you realize that if you take enough of them, or if you take strong enough painkillers in the right quantity, that it does, in fact, medicate your mood to the point that you want it to.

So to me, addiction eventually becomes about medicating your mood. No matter what substance you are addicted to, eventually you come to rely on that substance in order to medicate your negative emotions. Anything that you do not want to feel is something that you medicate with chemicals.

Therefore, in my experience, any drug or substance of abuse falls into one of two categories: Either it medicates my mood, or it does not. Or, to put it more accurately, either that substance “reawakens” my active addiction, or it does not.

So if I take some caffeine, or some nicotine, those substances do not suddenly make me crave alcohol. However, if I were to smoke some marijuana or snort a line of cocaine, that would lead me back to drinking very quickly. Those substances would awaken my alcoholism. To me, that is what the term “cross addiction” is really driving at. I am definitely addicted to alcohol and I have a long history of abusing alcohol and generally using it to medicate my emotions and ruin my life. I am alcoholic for sure. And certain substances will lead me back to drinking, and certain substances “awaken” that part of my brain that craves alcohol, that craves the escape of addiction, that wants the chaos and the misery and the madness of active addiction.

At one point I quit smoking cigarettes. Nicotine is interesting because it can somehow live alongside of these other addictive drugs, but obviously it is not connected with alcoholism or, say, opiate addiction. In other words, if I smoke a cigarette today I will not suddenly start drinking booze and looking for crack cocaine. The drug nicotine seems to live its own little box, separate from other drugs.

I have met several people who got confused about cross addiction in their recovery journey. I knew one guy who was a crack addict, and he claimed that alcohol had no special effect on him, and that he could take it or leave it quite easily, arguing that it had no bearing on his crack addiction.

He maintained this stance for months, and eventually he left the program I was in with him. Later I caught up with him and he told me that he had been wrong about alcohol. He explained taht he had been fooling himself, and that eventually a casual drink led him back to his drug of choice.

I mentioned, at one point, that every addict has to draw their own line when it comes to cross addiction. In Narcotics Anonymous, they mention the idea that the drugs were merely a symptom of the disease, and that the addiction itself is the problem, and that this problem can manifest itself in other ways too: Gambling, alcohol, sex, food, video games, and so on.

If this is really the case, then every addict sort of has to figure out what they are susceptible to and what they are not. In other words, if you are in recovery because of alcoholism, and you also were partial to pain pills, then you have some idea about what you need to avoid, right? But what about gambling? What about sex addiction? Are you automatically addicted to food and over eating, just because you are alcoholic? It seems the answer is “not necessarily.” But there might be more of a tendency towards these “side addictions” if you are already a drug addict or alcoholic.

So it is an important discussion to explore, I think, and everyone should definitely be aware of the concept. I know one guy who was in AA for decades and he got a shoulder injury from softball and ended up addicted to Vicodin. He was really blindsided by this addiction, but that was simply due to a lack of knowledge. Had he found NA instead of AA, he probably would have been much more cautious when the doctor was offering him pain pills, right?

And perhaps that is the main takeaway: Be cautious. Talk to your peers, use your sponsor and your therapist in order to protect yourself from these possible “side addictions.” Be aware of the potential for cross addiction, and just know that you are not immune from the idea that your disease may manifest itself in other ways.


  1. I think we might do better to jettison the term “addict” (and “addiction”), and instead refer to an individual’s need to self-medicate in some way. My favorite substances are chocolate and sugar, so I obviously don’t have any particular pressing needs, though I will say that if I had to go even a few days without them, I would not like it. I think the main point, though, is that people often have brain chemistry imbalances, and they will turn to whatever helps them out. I’ve known a number of bipolar people who self-medicate with a combination of alcohol and cocaine, and I don’t condemn them for doing so, or call them addicts. Some people can be moved, step by step, from chemical dependencies, but for others, the deficiencies are so strong that it’s not possible, which is not to say that you shouldn’t try, but I think we as a society would do better to recognize the problems at the root of drug dependency. Oh, and I have a book called “Expecting the Broken Brain to Do Mental Pushups” written from a caregiver perspective (info at

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