Addictions are complex, and they affect people differently. In the last two weeks I’ve discussed some of the mechanisms involved in the addiction process, since greater understanding can help develop a more tolerant perspective of addictions and people who become addicted. In this final article, I take a look at the process of quitting an addiction.
Not only is the development of addiction surrounded by misconceptions, there are myths and fallacies surrounding the quitting process as well. It is commonly believed, for example, that an “alcoholic” has to “hit bottom” before they are motivated to quit drinking. That fallacy has led many people to view quitting as an insurmountable journey up from the gutter, climbing a very high mountain of sobriety. In reality quitting involves stages of change very similar to the way the addiction began, and a person can be almost anywhere along the continuum when they make the decision to quit. The notion that one has to “hit bottom” can have a psychological effect that allows a person who is in the abusing stage to feel they do not need to quit, since things haven’t become intolerable yet. Things do not have to be at their worst for someone to make the decision to quit an addiction. Quitting the use of an addictive substance does not imply that one has lost control either. It simply means they have recognized that the activity or substance is causing unacceptable consequences and are making a conscious choice to change.
Often family members think that once the person has decided to quit an addiction that’s the end of it. Unfortunately it is just the beginning, and the process of recovery may be a long and difficult one with many setbacks. Quitting is a process – a person does not become addicted overnight, nor do they recover overnight.
Most important is understanding the addiction and the withdrawal process. Do not minimize the depth of the addiction. Smoking is not just a bad habit; it is a powerful addiction as strong as cocaine or heroin. Drinking or gambling may represent a lifestyle that is deeply entrenched into the person’s sense of who they are. A person who is struggling to deal with an addiction needs encouragement and support, and their own fear of failure can be daunting. Yet failure and relapse are a reality, and are part of the process. The disappointment and censure of family and friends when one relapses can be an overwhelming blow to person who is trying to conquer an addiction. Relapse does not mean an automatic return to addiction. A common myth around quitting smoking is that if you go back to smoking it will be harder the next time you try to quit. Some even think that if they go back to smoking after having quit it will make it impossible to quit again. The opposite is true. The quit process allows a person to develop skills that make them stronger as they learn coping mechanisms and triggers to avoid. The average smoker, for example, tries seven times before achieving success. Yet it can be done – in Canada there are now more ex-smokers than there are smokers!
For more serious addictions such as cocaine or heroin, relapse can be devastating to all concerned, and a person trying to recover from these addictions needs to be in the care of a physician and/or a structured treatment program due to the extreme physical effects of withdrawal. Withdrawal is a problem for every addiction, of course, but it is very individual. Some become very ill, others have few or no symptoms. Rather than looking at withdrawal as something dreadful, view the symptoms as positive signs. Your body is trying to heal itself by returning to a healthy state, and withdrawal symptoms are all signs of healing, “recovery in disguise” (AADAC, 2002).
Another common myth is that a person with an addiction must quit totally. This is true of some addictions but it is not always the case. A Capital Health program called “Drinking Decisions” teaches strategies that help a person reduce their intake of alcohol and regain control over their alcohol use (Robson, 2000). Remember that addiction is a continuum, and a person can move back and forth in the stages. A person who is abusing a substance such as alcohol or gambling can learn to control their behaviour. A pack-a-day smoker can cut back to only a few cigarettes a day. These strategies are called “harm reduction,” and are built on the philosophy that some people may not choose to quit an addiction or may not be able to quit – therefore it is better to minimize the impact of the addiction by working towards reduction rather than total abstinence.
Harm reduction strategies are not appropriate for every person or every situation, of course, and many individuals do need to completely quit the addiction in order to remain free of the harmful effects on their lives. For some people this may mean completely staying away from people, places and situations that are addiction triggers. Alberta even has a program where a person with a gambling addiction can have themselves voluntarily banned from all casinos (AGLC, 2002). A person trying to quit alcohol or smoking may prefer to avoid bars, and someone with an internet addiction may have to disconnect their online connection.
We hear a lot about the “addictive personality,” a personality trait that is said to make a person vulnerable to developing addictions. While there are certainly genetic and environmental factors that may put a person at risk, this does not mean a person will automatically develop an addiction. When it comes down to it, all of us could be considered addictive personalities – we all exhibit tendencies to overdo things we enjoy, and the line between a passion for something and an addiction is a thin one (Vue, 2002). We all need creative outlets for things we are passionate about, ways to find personal control. Ironically, addiction is a way many people seek to control outside pressures. An important part of addiction recovery is finding a balance in life, a way to cope without wild excesses.
A person who has relied on an addiction for a long time may find their social and communication skills have stagnated – and they no longer know how to enjoy life without the addictive substance. Recovery may require a complete lifestyle change, and it is here that the behaviour of family and friends can have a profound effect on the person recovering from an addiction. I know of one person who was attempting to quit drinking alcohol, yet at every family gathering, alcohol had always been a prominent part of the “good times.” When this person would attend family events, they would all hide their drinks, while exchanging furtive glances at the “alcoholic,” waiting for him to leave so the party could start – hardly conducive to the recovery process.
You cannot force someone to quit an addiction, but you can be a source of positive support to help them once they’ve decided to quit. Remember that they are your loved one or friend first, a person with an addiction second. Change is a difficult process, and when people around you want you to change, it can cause stress. Lectures, nagging, bribes, guilt trips, put-downs, and force do not work. Treating the person with dignity is an important part of recovery. Understanding the addiction and recovery process will help you cope. Relapse is not failure. Do not get angry or belittle the person who is trying to quit and do not make them feel guilty if they relapse. Do not assume that you know best what to do – ask them what would be most helpful, what they want you to do. Be sensitive to their needs and to any withdrawal symptoms they may be experiencing. Addiction is a process through stages of change, and recovery is also a process. Anyone can become addicted – but everyone is capable of change.
Robson, E. (2000). Drinking Decisions Program. http://www.med.ualberta.ca/acicr/pages/abprogs/drinkdes.pdf
Vue (2002). Vue magazine. http://www.vueweekly.com/form_template.asp?form=stories_viewone&StoryID=2304
Debbie is a native Edmontonian, a single parent with four daughters. She has worked as a professional musician for most of her life, and has enjoyed a rich variety of life experiences – with many more to come! Debbie is working towards an eventual doctorate in psychology, and currently serves as the president of the Athabasca University Students’ Union.
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