The Ambivalence Of An Addict
By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
If you are one of the millions of people who struggle with an addiction, there is a good chance you have (or have had) some ambivalence about giving it up. After all, nobody would be addicted to something if it didn't feel good or serve some sort of purpose. And, since one defining characteristic of an addiction is that it has negative consequences, many addicts are left with ambivalence -- I like how it makes me feel but I don't like how it leaves me feeling. It is only when the consequences of an addiction begin to outweigh the benefits that some people consider making a change.
An addict is someone who has an overpowering need to habitually take or do something. Whether your habit is drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food, computer games, gambling or something else that helps you numb, distract or confirm your pain, it is likely that you get some things out of it and you lose some things from it. This is what leads to ambivalence. To use or not to use, that is the question.
I remember when I began to contemplate the possibility of considering giving up some of my addictions. (I was flexible about the ways I attempted to numb my pain so I had several to choose from.) I remember someone telling me at the time, "If you continue using, it's hard and if you stop using, it's hard. But if you stop, things will eventually get better." I thought, Hmmmm... hard if I use, hard if I stop. I'm not loving my options here. Isn't there a door number three? Isn't there an easier route? I have heard it said that "The only way out is through." I'm just not sure whoever said it was battling alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and an eating disorder!
If you are addicted to something, whether it's a substance or an activity, where do you fall on the scale of ambivalence? Do you tell yourself, "It's not that bad?" Do you have any desire to stop? Are you ready to stop now?
If you are somewhere on the scale of readiness, consider the following:
Write For Insight: It's easy to think, when you are in pain or hungover or bloated or broke, that you need to give "it" up. But how about later when the shame and agony wear off and you want to use again? Not so easy to remember. The inner addict does not always chime in with wise advice.
Consider these writing exercises to help you gain some insight:
• Write a pros and cons list and take an honest look at what you are getting from your addiction and what it is robbing you of.
• Write a specific list of all the areas in your life that have been affected by your addictive behavior, including physical health, emotional health, relationships, work, finances, school, self-care, and future goals.
• The next time you are hungover or bloated or ashamed from the consequences of your addiction, write a letter to yourself that you can read when you are thinking about using again. Put it where you will see it every day. This could be in your wallet, wrapped around a credit card, in the refrigerator or cupboard, on your steering wheel, etc.
• Write a thank you letter to your addiction for all the ways that it has tried to help you through hard times. Include an explanation of how you are going to get your needs met in non-destructive ways.
• Write a goodbye letter to your addiction and include all the reasons you want, need and plan to stop.
Most addicts tend to be as addicted to forgetting as they are to using. It is so easy to minimize the agony of even yesterday and come up with what seem like very reasonable reasons to use again. These writing exercises can help keep you out of denial and minimization.
Heal The Wounds That Fuel The Need To Use: One of the reasons addicts use is to mask certain emotions. Not necessarily every single time. Sometimes addicts use simply because they feel like it, or because they used yesterday, or because they are genetically predisposed. But often times, a person who struggles with addictions, also struggles with tolerating painful emotions. (Even though using in and of itself can cause painful feelings, but that's another story.) I often say to clients, "We either deal with the pain we are using over or we deal with the pain of using." Of course this is not easy to do. If it was, there would be much less addiction on our planet. Tolerating painful emotions and expressing them in healthy ways can be very challenging. But again, so are the negative consequences of addiction. Consider getting support for yourself. There are countless therapists, treatment centers and support groups to choose from. There are people who truly understand and really care. It might seem like your feelings will kill you if you don't numb out and distract yourself from them but I have never seen anyone die from feeling their feelings. Millions of people die from addictions.
Retrain Your Brain: The mind of an addict is not usually a safe place to hang out. Most addicts have a loud internal soundtrack that plays negative thoughts all day long -- whether it's about themselves, others, or the world. Many addicts get high in order to quiet those negative recordings for a while. Many use in order to confirm that the negative messages are indeed true. (Well, if I am such a loser, I might as well use again.) So in order to heal the need to use, we need to retrain the unkind mind that contributes to cravings and learn how to be on our own side instead of on our own back. Consider reaching out to safe people who treat you with respect and kindness. Consider reading a book or listening to a podcast on changing your thinking. We are not responsible for what recordings got put into our minds in the first place but we are definitely responsible for whether we want to start disagreeing with them, deleting them, and downloading new ones!
Meet The Need Addiction Tries To Feed: While addictions can have varying degrees of negative consequences, they do attempt to give us something. I have heard addiction described as, "Looking for something spiritual but going to the wrong address." Overusing and overdoing are often attempts to meet some type of valid need. While they don't usually do the trick, we need to find out what we are truly searching for and meet those needs in healthy ways. Some people are deeply lonely and need more companionship and to learn how to be better company for themselves. Some people are filled with self-hate and need to learn how to retrain their brain. Some people are living in the past and need to learn how to forgive themselves and let go of old hurts. Some people are extremely dissatisfied with their lives and need to make some changes or work on more acceptance and gratitude. Some people are unsatisfied in their relationships and need to renegotiate old agreements and see if change is possible. There are countless reasons why addicts use and once you uncover yours and discover other ways to meet those unmet needs, you will no longer need to use, and addiction will no longer feel necessary.
If you are struggling with an addiction and considering giving it up, you will likely have to deal with some ambivalence. With help, willingness and positive changes, you can learn to feel your emotions fully until they pass, retrain your brain till it's filled with kinder thoughts, and fill some of the spaces that addiction attempts to temporarily fill. You can challenge the powerful voice of addiction until your ambivalence turns into clarity, conviction and compassion.
Andrea Wachter is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with over 20 years of experience working with children, teens, adults, families and groups. Andrea is passionate about helping people who are struggling with eating disorders, body image, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, grief and relationships. Andrea is an inspirational counselor, author and speaker who uses professional expertise, humor and personal recovery to help others. For more information on her book or other services, please visit: www.andreawachter.com