The season for overindulgence is finally past. Now is the winter of our discontent with all of that intemperance, and our desire to make commensurate life changes.
- This year I will stop overeating and bingeing on junk food, and I will lose at least 20 pounds.
- This year I will cut down on my drinking.
- This year I will limit myself to $50 per week at the casino.
- This year I will stop smoking pot and taking other drugs.
Do these resolutions sound familiar? In all likelihood at least one of them probably does. In fact, you or someone close to you has probably made at least one of these pledges at some point in life – possibly quite recently.
Unfortunately, many (perhaps most) people who resolve to make drastic changes are unaware that the things they wish to either cut back on or quit altogether might have a surprisingly strong grip on them, making long-term changes more difficult than anticipated. In such cases, particularly if an addiction (or a “pre-addiction”) is present, the use of willpower is simply not enough. In such cases, regardless of how sincere a person’s commitment to behavior modification may be, the individual will almost inevitably backslide into old patterns until he or she becomes willing to rely on something more than just personal determination.
Exacerbating matters is the fact that many people who have (or potentially have) an addiction don’t feel that it’s a problem. Often, they don’t see what they are doing as potentially harmful to them and/or their loved ones. This is particularly true with behavioral addictions (sex, romance, eating, spending, gambling, video gaming, and the like). Most likely this misconception is caused by the fact that for most people, most of the time, these behaviors are natural and even healthy facets of life. And, let’s face it, even drinking alcohol and using recreational drugs is enjoyable and non-consequential for the vast majority of people. Nevertheless, anything that causes the experience of pleasure can potentially spiral out of control, whether it’s ingesting an addictive substance or engaging in an intensely enjoyable activity.
So how does one know if a New Year’s resolution is indicative of addiction or simply the result of temporary, holiday-driven excess? And what are the chances for successfully making and keeping a New Year’s resolution based simply on willpower? The answers to these questions depend primarily on whether one’s actions qualify as casual, at-risk or addicted.
The Casual User
Casual drinkers, drug users, overeaters, gamblers, porn users, etc. are men and women who find these things fun and possibly distracting. They enjoy these substances/activities intermittently, depending on their life circumstances, but not on a regular basis. They see these things as an occasional form of escape and/or relaxation, or as part of healthy socialization. For instance, a casual drinker might unwind with a cocktail after a difficult day at work, even though he or she doesn’t typically drink except for social events. Similarly, a college student may smoke marijuana at parties to fit in with the crowd and because it helps him or her enjoy the music and the silly jokes of friends.
- Casual use is intermittent and occasional, and only rarely to excess.
- Casual use is usually driven by curiosity, novelty and/or socialization.
- Frequency of casual use may be driven by life-stage events, such as more drinking/drugging in late adolescence (when late-night partying is more common and more accepted).
- Casual use may temporarily increase during stressful periods (the holidays, for instance) or after a personal loss of some sort (ending a relationship or losing a job, for instance). This increased usage diminishes when life gets better.
- Casual users have stable, long-term friendships and an inherent sense of belonging (to a family, a community, etc.)
- Casual users typically do not have a history of profound early-life neglect or trauma.
- Casual users have numerous interests and activities, and they willingly and easily allow themselves to relax and have fun.
- Casual users are not shame-based. When bad things happen to them, they don’t turn on themselves, and when good things happen to them, they can tolerate the pleasure and excitement.
The At-Risk User
At-risk users may experience periods of intense engagement with an addictive substance or behavior, typically using it as a distraction from stress and emotional discomfort. Many at-risk users have addiction-like periods of substance use and/or escapist behaviors, but they can (and typically do) limit or stop these activities if/when they start to experience adverse consequences. For instance, an at-risk drinker may find himself or herself driving while intoxicated, perhaps scraping his or her car on the sides of the garage a few times. Then, realizing that it’s only a matter of time before a drunk driving arrest or a serious accident is added to the current list of minor consequences, the individual either cuts back or stops drinking altogether. Similarly, a gambling addict may notice an abrupt and alarming decrease in his or her bank balance and alter his or her gambling habits accordingly.
- At-risk users may keep secrets about what they are doing, sacrificing potential support from friends and family in an effort to “look good.”
- At-risk users may be impulsive in many areas of life.
- At-risk users often struggle to cope effectively with difficult life circumstances. Instead of turning to others for assistance, they may use a substance or behavior to temporarily escape what they are feeling.
- At-risk users often have drama-filled primary relationships – friendships, family attachments and romantic entanglements that lack intimacy, empathy and healthy vulnerability.
- At-risk users may escalate their escapist activities – taking more of a substance (or a stronger substance), or engaging in addictive behaviors for longer periods of time or by upping the intensity level of a particular behavior (for instance, switching from “vanilla” porn to “kink” porn).
- At-risk users may avoid conversations about their behavior, or become irritable if/when they are openly confronted.
Though at-risk users are not full-fledged addicts, they can look that way at times – using a substance or behavior as a way to escape and dissociate, keeping secrets, experiencing consequences, escalating the nature and extent of their usage, etc. What differentiates at-risk from addicted users is at-risk users can stop on their own and addicts typically cannot. In short, at-risk users retain control and choice; addicts do not.
The Addicted User
Addicts are people who compulsively use addictive substances and/or behaviors regardless of the consequences, both actual and potential, to themselves and others. For most addicts, the substance or behavior is used as a way to avoid feelings of stress and emotional discomfort, including the pain of underlying psychological issues – shame, low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, attachment deficit disorders, unresolved trauma, etc. In general, addicts are unable to stop their addictive activity without assistance, even when they experience negative consequences and a desire for change. For example, a drug addict begins stealing from work as a way to pay for drugs, gets fired, and then overdoses while self-medicating the shame he or she feels about his or her bad behavior. Then, after a brief hospital stay, the addict heads right back to his or her drug dealer without any ability to halt this process.
- Addicts often live a double-life, keeping secrets about the nature and extent of their addiction from family, work, friends and everyone else.
- Addicts often have a family history of addiction (any type) and/or mental illness (depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety, etc.)
- Addicts often have a personal history of depression, anxiety, neglect, abuse, unresolved childhood or severe adult trauma, etc.
- Addicts often lack empathy for those they have harmed (including themselves) while in the addiction.
- Addicts typically find their relationship with a substance or behavior more reliable and less threatening than relationships with other people.
- Addicts often display a pattern of being superficially engaged but emotionally distant in friendships and other relationships.
- Addicts experience negative life consequences that are directly related to their addiction.
- Addicts tend to escalate their escapist activities – taking more of a substance (or a stronger substance), engaging in addictive behaviors for longer periods of time, or by upping the intensity level of a particular behavior (for instance, switching from “vanilla” porn to “kink” porn).
- Addicts try to avoid conversations about their behavior, and they become irritable and defensive if/when they are openly confronted.
The Decreasing Odds of Lasting Change
Unsurprisingly, the chances of long-term behavior change decrease when a person slides from casual to at-risk usage, and from at-risk to addicted usage. A casual user, if he or she is serious about making changes, can usually succeed with a combination of willpower and moderate social support. For instance, an emotionally healthy person who gained ten pounds over the holidays might resolve to lose that weight by eating better and going back to the gym. The eating better portion of this resolution may involve both willpower and support from a spouse or significant other, who agrees to cook and/or enjoy healthier meals, and the exercise portion may involve both willpower and support from a workout buddy or a personal trainer.
At-risk users typically have a tougher time keeping their New Year’s resolutions. For instance, a college student who looks at porn every night before bed, whose grades have recently started to drop because he’s spending less time studying and more time with digital imagery, may struggle to simply turn off the computer and get back to his books. This is exacerbated by the fact that his porn use is almost certainly a secretive activity. If he hopes to step away from porn completely and permanently, he made need assistance from a therapist who understands compulsivity and the basics of sexual addiction, even though he does not yet qualify as an addict. He may also want to seek support at a group level, perhaps by reading and posting on a porn-related education/support website like YourBrainOnPorn.com.
Addicted users, unfortunately, are typically unable to implement lasting behavior change without a heartfelt admission that they have a serious problem that is causing serious consequences, coupled with a combination of addiction-focused individual and/or group therapy and ongoing attendance at a 12-step (or some other) addiction support group. For addicts, education (about what addiction is and how to overcome it), accountability (to family members, to other recovering addicts, to employers, etc.), and an active and empathetic social support network are necessities for long-term sobriety and a healthier, happier life. Without this outside assistance, addicts have little chance of keeping their resolutions for change.