You’ve given up one addiction and you’re feeling good, but as you work to eliminate the grip of one compulsion in your life, perhaps you find yourself gravitating toward something else. Maybe you gave up drugs, but now you’ve picked up smoking. Or you’re glued to the Internet for hours a day. Or you’re eating more sugar than you ever have. What’s going on here? It seems it’s the lesser of two evils, a way to take the edge off of the tough cravings and minimize withdrawal symptoms. Is there anything wrong with this? Is using a “less harmful” substance to get over a more dangerous addiction a bad thing? If it’s helping you to quit your primary addiction, is it so wrong? It might be. When you look at the thing that has been ruining your life, which is to say, the primary addiction, your new crutch seems comparatively harmless. This makes it easy to justify. But it doesn’t make it healthy.
The Addict Pattern
While debate exists around whether there is such a thing as an “addict personality,” we know that when we get sober for one addiction we leave a void. The idea is to fill this void with the working of the 12-step program, with fellowship and with personal growth. But in weaker moments or in times of challenge, that addict brain pattern convinces us that we need something more—anything that will help take the edge off. And while we may be committed to staying away from our primary addiction, we can find ourselves slipping into habits and patterns that couldn’t be described as healthy. The fact that the chosen behavior or substance is less dangerous or volatile than the primary addiction doesn’t make it safe. Our new fix can lead us right back to the old one. Addiction begets addiction.
You’re not just choosing a safer drug; you are perpetuating your belief that you need a drug or a fix and solidifying the practice. The purpose of recovery is to help us learn why we felt we needed a high and then to help us live soberly without it. When we continually pick up a new addictive substance or behavior to take the edge off, we don’t learn what it means to live free. We don’t grow. And there are many behaviors and substances that will masquerade as normal, socially acceptable and safe. But as we recover it won’t take us long to see what is behind our attraction to them. Recovery holds for us the promise that we can live without constantly being led around by our cravings and insatiable need for comfort and escape.
Transfer of Addiction
The pattern of pursuing a new fix, even a seemingly less harmful one, is referred to as transfer of addiction. It is not a step on the road to recovery; it is a step back into addiction. Though it parades as a way to get over the problem, it brings us deeper into it. In the end we may find ourselves with not one addiction to overcome, but several. This is not a pattern or practice that promotes recovery.
Evading the Real Problem
Transferring addictions and fixes keeps us from getting to the bottom of the addictive problem. The alcohol or the drugs are not the problem. What we have is a life problem—the kind that keeps prodding us to soothe, escape and get high. When we are continually picking up a new fix, we never solve the life problem. We never really grow. Recovery is about becoming the kind of people who can handle life, who know how to live without a fix. Total sobriety is total freedom.
In recovery from substance abuse we find that the best habit is to have no habits. This is hard for the newly sober addict and surely we will find a million ways to justify our attempts to satisfy our needs for comfort and to take the edge off of our cravings. But there is a better way. In recovery, if we are willing to be honest and to submit to the process, we will find that we no longer need this kind of chemical soothing. We learn how to pacify ourselves and deal with the upsets of life. We learn to use the program and the working of the 12 steps to manage our hurts, disappointments, stresses and challenges. We learn what it means to live free.