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Facing up to addiction

How do you break the destructive cycle of addiction?

When someone is in the grip of addiction it becomes impossible to reason with them.  Everything they say is coming through the filter of active addiction.  The conversation goes nowhere.  The only thing that matters to the addict is where and when the next drink, drug, or fix is.

How does anyone find a way to break the cycle of using and addiction?  You cannot do it for them, they have to find the will to do it for themselves.

Until the addict stops using everything moves on a relentlessly downward trajectory.

12 step programmes

Some people don’t like the idea of becoming involved with 12 step programmes like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.

People object to the idea of a higher power which is part of the 12 step programme approach. You can get yourself tied up in knots over this. In my psychotherapy practice when I am working with people in the grip of addiction I will often suggest they try a 12 step meeting;

  • the meetings are free.
  • they are set up to welcome to new comers
  • one-to-one peer support (or sponsorship) will be offered to you

I advise that people try the meetings and that rather than going and thinking that the people are nothing like them, that instead, they try to listen for the similarities in the stories they hear.  Addicts stories are similar, and if you go to a meeting you will meet people who will have battled with the same problems as you.  For me this is a key benefit.

Addictive thinking and reasoning tends to be highly misleading

It is a cliche to speak of the denial addicts tend to be in regarding the seriousness of their using, but it tends to be true.

Addiction tends towards dishonesty.  12 step meetings and the kind of support and sponsorship that is available through them, can help someone in the grip of addiction to drop the bogus talk and face up to the facts.  This is very hard to do on your own.

People reject the programmes often citing the dislike of the idea of a higher power.  But the fact remains that these programmes are very effective at helping people to concentrate on breaking the addiction one day at a time.  ‘Just for today’ as the saying goes.

Some addicts get caught up in trying to understand the reason behind why they are compelled to use their drug of choice.

They will explain that they can’t stop using until they know why they do it.  While they go round this rumination they continue to use.  This thinking goes nowhere other than to keep the addict using.

The key thing that has to happen is that the addict finds a way to be sober today.  If they can stay sober and clean and start to get into the habit of being clean day-by-day, then in time they can start to get to grips with the emotions that drove them to want to use in the first place.  But until they stop using nothing constructive can progress.

First the cycle of using has to be broken, then the emotional unhappiness or traumatic experience that underlies the behaviour can be faced.  You can’t face your emotional demons while on mood altering drugs.

With addictions, people ‘use’

  • alcohol
  • sex
  • porn
  • drugs
  • gambling
  • food

whatever their drug of choice, to cover up painful and difficult feelings.

What is an addiction?  How do you measure it? In vodka bottles?

Often the key indicator is the degree to which using the drug is making life unmanageable.

It isn’t to do with the amount you drink, or snort, or gamble, or watch internet porn, it’s to do with the damage and unmanageability you are creating around you.

Using addiction to deal with difficult or painful feelings

The trouble is that the difficult feelings don’t go away when you use, they may get masked for a short while, but then they come back and often they are worse when they return.

You can ignore them but they will be waiting for you when you sober up.

Furthermore the use of drugs and drink creates unmanageable patterns of behaviour. So where there are addiction based problems it is more likely that:

  • relationships will fall apart
  • loss of job and income
  • debts will mount up, and
  • possibly that these things will lead to trouble which will involve the police, courts, criminal records and so on.

If you are lucky you will address these feelings and the problems that the addiction is being used to cover up before a catastrophe happens.  Or as they say in 12 step meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Gambling Anonymous, before you hit rock bottom.

Addiction and avoiding a rock bottom experience

A lot of people recognise they have a problem but try to deal with it without getting appropriate help.  All too frequently this only leads to greater disaster.

They think they will be the exception, the person who won’t have to hit rock bottom.  But generally they are not.

If you go to an AA meeting the room will be full of people who felt they could deal with the problem on their own, without help.  Then they found they couldn’t. 

Perhaps they drove over the limit and caused an accident which resulted in a custodial sentence, loss of job etc. 

Perhaps they thought their dealer really didn’t mind them building up debts with them.

Perhaps they kept gambling believing they would be the person who won all of their losses back.  But they didn’t.

Breaking the addictive pattern – 12 step meetings

Somehow it is necessary to break the destructive pattern and the chaos that goes with it.

12 step meetings, be that Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous can be very effective and they are free.  Going to meetings to help you stay clean and sober can then be followed up by psychotherapy.

12 step meetings provide a framework, all you have to do is get to a meeting, listen to the stories you hear, and listen for the similarities with your own story.

Where to find a meeting?

Just Google: Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous to find meetings in your area.

Facing up to addiction

Toby Ingham

Toby Ingham is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist and supervisor based in High Wycombe in England. Toby works on both a short and long-term basis with people who are trying to work through a variety of situations. Sometimes these relate to a specific event such as CPTSD, bereavement, divorce or redundancy, sometimes relating to a more general problem or behavior. He blogs on a wide range of psychological themes.

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APA Reference
, . (2018). Facing up to addiction. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 10, 2020, from


Last updated: 4 May 2018
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