Addiction is often characterized as irrational and compulsive behavior related to a particular substance or habit. The substance is so compelling that, given the opportunity, a person with a substance use disorder can’t help using. This helps to explain why many people with substance use disorders are aware of the damage their addiction causes but continue to use anyway.
However, this conception of addiction is oversimplified. If a substance use disorder is merely a compulsion, or a lack of willpower, like the kids who can’t pass the marshmallow test, then how is it possible that many people with substance use disorders are so cunning when attempting to get drugs or alcohol? After all, buying heroin or cocaine is not like making an impulse purchase at the grocery store. You often have to deploy a bit of ingenuity to get the money and make the buy. Someone with a substance use disorder might show more initiative in getting drugs than most people do at their jobs. It doesn’t quite fit with the idea of addiction as a compulsive, unthinking behavior.
Part of the answer may be that people with substance use disorders are acting on the basis of faulty beliefs. Most of us try to do what’s best, but our beliefs about what’s best for us and others are subject to many errors. Here are some of the erroneous beliefs that drive addictive behavior.
“I’m no good.”
Perhaps the most common and pervasive faulty belief behind addiction is the belief that you’re no good. At some level, you believe you’re a bad or worthless person. This is often a result of abuse, trauma, neglect, or depression. This sort of deep shame is painful and always with you. If you can’t escape it, you may feel like your only option is to numb it with drugs or alcohol. In this sense, addictive behavior is just the best available solution to a serious problem. However, there are much better solutions available. Addressing shame is one of the most important parts of addiction treatment. A good therapist can help you get rid of those feelings of shame so you don’t need to numb them with drugs and alcohol.
“I can control my substance use.”
People with substance use disorders often want it both ways–they want the good career and happy family life and also they want the pleasure or relief they get from substance use. However, for people with substance use disorders, these are mutually opposed. The idea that you can have a happy and fulfilling life and use drugs and alcohol whenever you feel like it is delusional. People often hold onto this delusion in order to avoid making a change they know will be difficult. It may cause them to overlook the damage their addiction does in their lives. Once they acknowledge that the the two cannot coexist and they would rather have a happy life, they are moving in the right direction.
“I can’t tolerate life without it.”
A classic cognitive distortion is that something would be intolerable. It would be just awful and catastrophic if some particular thing came to pass. This is rarely true. Some circumstances are unpleasant for a while, but then they get better. This is true of quitting drugs and alcohol as well. Many people feel like they can’t imagine life on the other side of addiction. First, there is the withdrawal, which is often unpleasant. Fear of withdrawal keeps many people using long after it has stopped being enjoyable. They fear the pain of quitting, so they keep going. Second, there is the fear of living life without a trusted coping mechanism. Drugs and alcohol have numbed the pain and anxiety for so long that the thought of going through life without them is terrifying. It means you just have to live with the chaos in your head.
That may be true if you extrapolate from where you are before you quit, but things will look different after you quit. The view from every position is different. No one expects someone with a substance use disorder to just abstain, even if it means enduring anxiety, depression, and shame indefinitely. Addiction experts know that “white-knuckling” your way through sobriety is sure to fail sooner rather than later. A solid recovery requires addressing the issues that drugs and alcohol help you cope with. Although living without the old coping mechanism will be hard at first, it will eventually be replaced with healthier coping mechanisms that work much better. These include emotional regulation strategies, better relationships, and sometimes medication.
“I can’t quit anyway.”
One of the defining characteristics of addiction is trying to quit and being unable to. It’s likely that most people with substance use disorders have tried to quit several times, found they couldn’t, and now believe it’s impossible. This is reinforced to some extent by popular beliefs, such as “once an addict, always an addict.” It’s true that for some people, a substance use disorder is a chronic condition that will require a lifetime of management, but it can be managed. Treatment is more readily available now than ever and there are more and better methods of recovery than there have ever been.
Many people who have failed in the past either weren’t ready to quit or they may have tried a method that didn’t work for them. Everyone is different and a method that works for one person may not work for another. For example, some people swear AA is the only way to stop drinking, while others have found it didn’t work for them at all. The people it doesn’t work for aren’t hopeless cases; they just need a different approach. If you have tried to quit before and it didn’t work, try something else, and keep trying until you succeed.
Hanley is a well-known care provider offering a range of treatment programs targeting the recovery from substance abuse, mental health issues, and beyond. Our primary mission is to provide a clear path to a life of healing and restoration. We offer renowned clinical care for addiction and have the compassion and professional expertise to guide you toward lasting sobriety.
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