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)


Coping Through the Holidays

It seems that as soon as we’re finished gorging ourselves on Hallowe’en candy and have thrown out the rotting pumpkins, Christmas throws up all over everything.  Sparkling lights, jolly elves and reminders of how we should all be merry, bright and grateful for the season.

But what if the holiday season is anything but merry and bright?  Because let’s face it, the more accurate reality is that a heck of a lot of people struggle the most during the holidays.  This season of expected good cheer can stir up so many strong emotions compounded by guilt for not sharing in the joy of the season that so many others seem to experience.

If it’s not the most wonderful time of the year for you, here are 15 suggestions to help you cope through the holidays:

  1. Don’t compare your insides to everyone else’s outsides.  People get really good at faking it or embellishing or hiding their true self.  Remember you are only seeing what they want you to see.  There are others struggling right along with you.
  2. Take a social media break (see point 1).  Scrolling through others’ happiness is hard.  Limit the time you spend on social media each day.  Stay away on days that are particularly hard (I promise, you won’t miss anything).  Block the people you find especially triggering.  You can “take a break” from someone on FB for 30 days — this was created for a reason!
  3. Limit your use of alcohol/drugs.  It might feel like it’s helping and in the short-term, it might have a feeling-numbing benefit, but it’s a temporary fix and your feelings will still be there the next day.  Also, remember that intoxication to get through events like work parties and family gatherings can result in big regrets and embarrassment.
  4. If you are overcoming an addiction or are in recovery, plan ahead.  Don’t get caught in the trap of “crossing that bridge when you get there”.  It will be harder to make good decisions when you are feeling triggered because your brain is in go-mode.  You know what will be difficult this holiday season.  Plan for the things that you know are coming which also gives you more energy to combat the things that sneak up on you.
  5. If there’s a party or event that just seems impossible to go to, don’t.  Seriously, don’t go.  You know you best and if you just. can’t. do. it., then don’t.  Take this year off, it’s okay.  Be kind to yourself and lay off the guilt.  Would you expect a loved one to do the same if they were suffering?  Remind yourself that it’s just for this year and quite likely, it won’t always feel this hard.
  6. If you have to go to that function/event, make modifications so you can tolerate it.  Plan to stay for less time and/or have an exit plan (this is when little white lies are perfectly acceptable).  Take someone with you for support or have them on stand by so you can call them.
  7. Just say no.  That’s right.  You are allowed to say no.  Limit the stress you are willing to take on.  Put your needs first this time without feeling guilty about making someone else feel bad.  You take care of your feelings and let them deal with theirs.
  8. Make time for self-care.  Get a massage.  Treat yourself to calorie-rific latte.  Take a walk in nature.  Get to the gym/yoga/zumba.  Nurture you.
  9. Make time to feel.  Give yourself permission to experience the sadness, loneliness, anger, regret, whatever.  When we allow ourselves to truly experience the weight of our pain, it actually takes away the intensity created by numbing/avoiding/running  away from those feelings.
  10. Practice self-compassion.  If you slip with your goals, don’t throw all your hard work out the window.  Start again tomorrow and get back on track.  No one gets it right all the time and neither will you.
  11. Reach out — you don’t have to hold onto those boot straps alone.  Allow yourself to be vulnerable and seek out support from loved ones, church, counsellor, go to a meeting — you know what you need.  Having a space to speak about your pain will allow you get out of your head.  The very act of telling the story to someone will provide some relief.
  12. If you are grieving, do something to recognize the loss.  Allow yourself to sit in the grief.  Remember that grief often comes in waves — sometimes so strong that we come crashing down.  Consider a special ornament or ritual to honour who/what you’ve lost.
  13. Write a new holiday story.  Nostalgia can make you go blind.  Sometimes we need to let go of the “shoulds” and roll with what is.  If you are ready, redefine this season in a way that brings meaning for you, even if it means letting go of deeply ingrained ideals.
  14. Remember that the way you feel right now is not how you will always feel.  Feelings change with time and often become less intense/more tolerable.  And the holiday season will end and January will come, I promise.

And because 14 seemed like a weird number to end on…

15. Watch YouTube videos of cats.  Because cats are awesome.