Addicts are often very hard workers despite their addiction. Alcoholics, drug addicts, sex addicts, gamblers and over-eaters are sometimes “over-achievers,” driving themselves in order to overcome fears of being unworthy or unlovable.
This is not a new idea. Think of the stock image of the “functioning alcoholic” who pours his energy into doing one thing (work) really well but is a practicing alcoholic the rest of the time leaving no room for anything else in his life.
Working, building a career and getting ahead are not bad things and as sex addiction therapists we believe that meaningful activity is essential to people’s well-being. We encourage our patients to keep busy believing that this will help them prevent relapse.
So how can work itself be a problem? Here are some ways in which work can be counter-productive to getting and staying sober.
- Work can be addictive
On the most obvious level, work can be a way of numbing out, of escaping reality. Working all the time can be a way of staying permanently distracted and avoiding addressing feelings and conflicts in your life. As an addict you may give up your other drugs but then use work to stay stuck and stop growing. This is easy to do because work is so compelling. We need to earn a living or keep up a household or both. We can become so immersed in work that we feel like something is missing when we have a day off.
- Work can be a set-up for addictive acting out
Some addicts drive themselves into the ground with work (whether productive or not) to the point where they then feel justified in relapsing into their addictive behavior. To complicate matters, over-work, success at work, and failure at work all become occasions for using your drug of choice. For the sex addict whatever happens at work can be the excuse to “give himself the gift” of indulging in behaviors like internet porn, massage parlors, prostitutes, etc.
- Work can represent extreme lifestyle imbalance
Recovery from addiction, long term sobriety and mental health in general are dependent on achieving a balanced life. This means a life that includes human relationships, social life, entertainment, recreation and other meaningful activities besides work. When work gobbles up most to your available time and energy there is nothing left to devote to spiritual and personal growth. Even physical health is sacrificed in the process. Addicts need to be careful to make space in their lives to continue to grow emotionally and creatively.
It’s important to be both an “introvert” and an “extravert”
It is normal to go through periods of high output, but it is also healthy when these periods of high productivity alternate with non-productivity. It is during these periods of less work output that we take our energy out of the outside world and re-focus on our inner world. This is when we take the time to really focus on our own growth and recovery. This is also the time when we take stock of what really matters to us, pay attention to healing old wounds, and sometimes change the direction of our lives entirely.