Overcoming Addiction: Why It’s Not Just About Stopping

Relapse. It’s a dirty word.  You’d probably like to not think about it.  Whether you are embarking on overcoming your own addiction or watching a loved one in their battle, the word relapse, at the very least, leaves a bad taste in your mouth, but may even grip your heart with fear and anxiety.

Here’s what I tell people — you have a greater chance of relapsing than you do of not relapsing.  I know, it’s super awesome when your therapist stomps all over your hope.  But I’m all about being realistic and I promise that if you prepare yourself for this reality, you’ll be better able to bounce back from the relapse.  And if we can tone down the shame of relapsing by normalizing it, you’ll be better able to reflect on it for what it is — a learning experience.

Stay with me here.

I want you to think about this — how long have you been using/drinking/gambling/other addictive behaviouring for?  Your brain has learned to do this behaviour just as solidly as it has learned that you have to get up and use the bathroom when you’ve got to pee.  When do you use? Is there a routine? Are there emotional states when you use/use more? You are essentially Pavlov’s dog. But not to worry, you CAN teach an old dog new tricks — it takes time, patience and an acknowledgement that you’re going to make mistakes along the way.

The first ingredient in overcoming your addiction is the desire to change.  I don’t ascribe to addiction as a choice, moral failing or weakness. No one chooses to become addicted. But it is up to you to decide that it’s time to change.  To bravely do the hardest work you’ve ever done and face what lies beneath your addictive behaviour. You don’t have to know how to change, you just have to want it.  

The second ingredient is retraining your brain.  Gabor Maté offers a Five Step method (adapted from Dr. Schwartz’ model in his book Brain Lock) for changing the way you respond to triggers and urges.

  1. Re-label: label the addictive urge or thought for what it is, not mistaking it for reality.  You are not trying to make the urge or thought go away — that’s not going to happen for a long time because your brain has been hard-wired to respond that way.  You are acknowledging the urge and calling it out. So “I need to have a drink” becomes “I don’t need to have a drink, this is an obsessive thought and a false sense of urgency.  There is nothing urgent happening right now”.
  2. Re-attribute: you learn to place the blame on your brain.  This is my brain sending me a false message about need. It is only a belief.  In this step, you approach yourself with compassion. Instead of blaming yourself or feeling intense shame, you recognize how deeply ingrained this addictive response is and how easily it is triggered when you are tired, stressed, bored, etc.
  3. Re-focus: in this step, you buy yourself time.  This urge needs time to pass, so you need to do something else.  Instead of doing the addictive behaviour, go for a walk, have a shower, call someone.  Figure out what works well as a distraction and you teach your brain to respond to triggers in a different way.
  4. Re-value: in this step, you will remind yourself of why you are working so hard to make changes.  The addictive behaviour “hijacks” the brain and makes the rewards seem more lucrative and desirable than the pain of the consequences.  So in this step you take an inventory of sorts of all the damage the addictive behaviour has caused. You do so without judgement or harshness, but just as an observer collecting information.  Make sure to write these things down — maybe even on a regular basis. Writing is a way to make learning more solid in our brains.
  5. Re-create: in this step, you create a new path.  You are releasing the old patterns because you don’t need them anymore.  You have values, passions, interests that will guide you in writing the next chapter of your life.

                                                                                  (In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts, 2008)

The third ingredient is what I call “unpacking the stuff”.  If we want to change our behaviour patterns and create new ones, it’s helpful to understand why we had them in the first place.  This may mean exploring and healing traumatic experiences, healing attachment wounds, or learning how to live with the symptoms of a mental health problem.  It seems daunting (because it is!) but I believe that understanding yourself more fully, helps minimize replacing one addictive behaviour with another.

Which leads me to the fourth ingredient — find your people.  You don’t have to do this on your own and in fact, you shouldn’t.  The people who do the best in overcoming addiction, have support. You decide what this looks like.  Maybe it’s 12-step meetings or other self-help groups, maybe it’s church, maybe it’s a therapist, maybe it’s telling a friend what you’re really going through.  And maybe it’s all of those things. The scariest and most overwhelming place to be is up in your own head all by yourself.

I’ll leave you with this final thought from my favourite book on addiction…

“If the brain region that allows us to imagine the future is synched up with the brain regions that propel us toward our goals, and if that linkage is practiced and reinforced, so that synaptic highways become smooth and efficient, then addiction need be no more than a stage in the development of self”.  (Marc Lewis, The Biology of Desire)


Leave a Reply