WHY IT’S SO HARD TO QUIT AN ADDICTION, EVEN WHEN YOU REALLY WANT TO

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Many clients I see usually come to counselling for addiction when they are concerned enough about their problem to want to do something about it. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ve probably heard me talk about the “stages of change” model by Prochaska & Di Clemente. If you want to you can familiarise yourself here but for those that hate within article links, here is an ultra-brief rundown. The model shows that people move through stages when they are making a change, and that could be any kind of change, from quitting a substance to embarking on a new career. The changes are pre-contemplation (not thinking about change), contemplation (obviously, some thinking about change), preparation (deciding to do something), action (actively making the change/s) and maintenance (engaging in the new behaviour regularly) and finally, we have lapse/relapse – a return to the pre-change behaviours.

It is important to distinguish at this point between a lapse and a relapse. A lapse is usually considered a one-off detour where one engages in the old behaviour, but it doesn’t continue. A relapse is when you slip back into the old pattern of use that existed prior to the 1st change attempt. According to Prochaska & Di Clemente, lapses and even relapse are part of the journey. On average, it takes a person approximately seven attempts to make real and lasting changes. It is all part of the process, and it’s important to see lapses as opportunities for growth, rather than signs that you are failing or worse, a failure.

Often this information is helpful to clients who present with the best intentions to ‘do something’ about their drinking, drug use, or porn habits but find that their decision to control or reduce their addictive behaviours is often in itself not enough to make it stop. They are often filled with shame, remorse and self-defeat when they come to realise that it is not as easy as just completing a detox or having some ‘strategies’ prepared. Don’t get me wrong, both those things are important and helpful, but what I try to stress to my clients is that they should not underestimate the power of their habit and that they are engaging in a battle with a very worthy opponent. One that has bested many before them and will continue to win many more battles to come. After all, why are there so many treatment centres, services and books written on the topic of substance use and addiction if it was that easy to just ‘stop it’.

I often point my clients to an excellent article which explains the science behind why people develop addictions (in this case to alcohol, but it could translate to almost any addiction) and how the process happens gradually, over time. The point is no-one wakes up one day and decides to have a problem addiction. It is often a process which involves several systems working in concert to create the brain and body of a person with an addiction. It is an incremental and inter-dependent process that involves your brain chemistry, your neurobiology, your physiology, your psychology, and your attachment system all working together. Each playing a specific and important role in making it super difficult to quit that behaviour/substance without real effort.

There is no sugar coating this. Changing a behaviour, any behaviour is not easy. Although the steps are simple, the effort required is significant. You are fighting against an army of adversaries that are all working together to keep the status quo. Your mind will come up with several reasons why you need to keep drinking, why you can’t stop today, why it is not worth the effort, why you cannot cope without it. Your limbic system will rise up with fear, anxiety, and trepidation at the idea of letting go of your addiction. Fear of change, uncertainty of what life will be like if you make this change and fear of having to face any underlying trauma or unpleasant reality that your addiction has helped keep hidden will attempt to sabotage all your good intentions.  You will argue with yourself, your family, your partner, even your therapist as your amygdala fires up with anxiety, even when you know that your substance use has caused you nothing but pain, trouble and drama.

This quote from Eckhart Tolle on addiction summarises it well:

Every addiction arises from an unconscious refusal to face and move through your own pain. Every addiction starts with pain and ends with pain. Whatever the substance you are addicted to –alcohol, food, legal or illegal drugs, or a person — you are using something or somebody to cover up your pain. That is why, after the initial euphoria has passed, there is so much unhappiness, so much pain in intimate relationships. They do not cause pain and unhappiness. The bring out the pain and unhappiness that is already in you. Every addiction does that. Every addiction reaches a point where it does not work for you anymore, and then you feel the pain more intensely than ever.

~Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now pg152-153)

The difficulty in changing a behaviour is rooted in fear and pain. Fear of the original pain returning, fear of the pain of withdrawal in some cases, and fear of a future where pain must be endured raw, without the perceived buffer of the substance or behaviour.

So what is the answer? I encourage my clients to move through their recovery with a focus on self-compassion. Be kind to yourself and don’t buy into those critical voices that tell you it is hopeless, you are not worth it or that you have somehow failed just because you have not managed this transition perfectly. Change takes commitment, effort and support. But just because you have slipped up, doesn’t mean the game is over. Nothing worth doing has ever been easy. With courage, the support of a counsellor or peer support group and self-compassion you can make the changes your heart truly desires.

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