Traveling the Addiction Recovery Highway

This article, written by Roger was published last week on

SALT LAKE CITY — Cunning … baffling … these are the words Bill W. used in Alcoholics Anonymous’ “Big Book” to describe the struggle finding recovery from alcoholism. The descriptors apply to all addictions and compulsive behaviors. The addicts’ behaviors and choices often defy logic and reason and consume the compassion and patience of loved ones at hyper-space speed.

The confusion not only sustains the addiction but also deters recovery. Being able to quantify what recovery involves or looks like can be very useful for not only the addict but also family members and helpers as they struggle to understand.

The map of the road to recovery breaks down into four highway sections:

1. Education about what addiction is

We do not need a doctorate in addiction to recover, but we do need a general understanding of the disorder and how it becomes a part of our emotional makeup. Stephanie Brown, Ph.D., tells us that “addiction is more than behavior. Addiction starts with an emotional attachment or relationship, if you will. An emotional bond is formed to alcohol, prescription drugs, food, gambling, etc.”

Patrick Carnes, Ph.D., further explains that “excessive use becomes compulsive use. The highs become so compelling that the person loses control.” Said another way, the urge to use is greater than one’s will to say no. Therefore, section one of the recovery highway is understanding that the emotional self has been compromised and is being controlled by compulsive urges.

2. Extinguishing the compulsive behavior

The compulsive feature that Carnes refers to is a result of a process called conditioning. Pavlov established its existence with his now-famous dogs. As he brought them food, he rang a bell. Eventually the dogs’ mouths would water at just the ringing of the bell. They were “conditioned” to do so.

Pavlov extinguished the response to the bell by never bringing food when it rang. Eventually, the dogs figured out it was a waste of saliva. For addicts, extinguishing the connection between the urge and acting out is a similar process. Keeping sobriety or not using the drug of choice, even in the face of the emotional centers’ urges, dissipates the urge/response relationship over time.

Finding the ability to achieve sobriety and not use the drug of choice is not always an easy process. Developing behaviors that limit the number and power of urges to use while also strengthening the will’s ability to say no are key. Recovery groups, counseling, 12-step work, sponsors, self- care and spiritual connection are a few examples of beneficial aids that can strengthen the will and help protect sobriety.

3. Address the attendant addictive behaviors

R.C. Engs, in his book “Alcohol and Other Drugs: Self Responsibility,” outlines a host of characteristics found in addicts. Isolation, denial, depression, anxiety, low self-esteem and feeling a lack of control over their environment are common problems for the addicts. In addition, addicts might resist accountability, make decisions based on an “I want what I want when I want it!” philosophy and become disconnected with their emotional selves.

These attitudes and behaviors all help create the petrie dish in which addiction can occur. To find full recovery, these issues must also be addressed, the petrie dish must be “cleaned up.”

4. Addressing underlying issues

SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) estimates that 65 percent of the individuals dealing with addiction also have a co-occurring mental health issue. Their statistics indicate that 10 million people struggle with the double-headed demon of addiction and mental health problems in any given year.

These issues might include childhood abuse (physical, sexual or emotional), depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, abandonment and trust issues, along with the classical personality disorders.

Often these issues serve to pull the individual back into addictive behaviors in seek of emotional comfort. If the underlying issues can be identified and addressed, the need for the addictive behaviors is diminished greatly and recovery becomes more likely.

It certainly isn’t a scenic highway, but the recovery highway does have a very desirable destination. Looking at its map can help addicts, family members and helpers make sense of the recovery process.

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