8 Ways to Unlearn Addiction and Build the Life You Want

Your brain is not broken. Your addiction is not a disease. And yes, you can start your life over!

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Last week I wrote a post “What if Addiction is Not a Disease and Your Brain is Not ‘Broken’?” If you have not had a chance to read this post, I suggest that you take a few minutes to read it so that you have a context for this current post.

Saying that everyone in recovery from addiction needs “12 Step” or “Therapy” or “Group” would not make sense if we said the same thing about recovery from depression. Approaching each situation for what the person needs rather than what others believe they need will support a way forward.

In her book, “Unbroken Brain” Maia Szalavitz challenges the idea that addiction is a disease, that it is a moral failing, or the result of the brain being “hijacked” by drugs or by experience. Rather, Szalavitz argues both from her experience and from substantial research that it is a disorder of how we have learned to motivate ourselves:

“What it does show, I believe, is that addiction is a learning disorder, a condition where a system designed to motivate us to engage in activities helpful to survival and reproduction develops abnormally and goes awry.”

8 Keys to a respectful, empowering and life-building recovery

1.Maintain close, caring relationships because they are key to sobriety. “Tough love” will end up backfiring and making recovery harder for everyone.

“[P]eople are actually more likely to recover when they still have jobs, family, and greater ties to mainstream society, not less,” Szalavitz has written. In reality, learning is more likely to take place in the context of supportive relationships.

This does not mean that we have to tolerate abusive or destructive behavior in an attempt to be loving. Love sets boundaries and holds each other accountable for our decisions. Sometimes this does mean that relationships end. Having others who are with us when we struggle provides a safe place to fall. But it is one of the hardest things we can do: set limits while being open enough to notice when the other person is responding, where they are demonstrating effort and how they are taking the situation seriously.

I see this every day with my 17 year old. Some days my wife and I feel like we are going crazy. We seem to repeat the same lessons, same stories. He nods, he says he gets it, and I know that he means well. But then later today the kitchen is left in a disaster with his books, leftover food and other assorted belongings. At times we can fall into a mode where we fly to anger too quickly. We lecture, we remind him of the 10 times this week we have talked about the same issue. I get that this doesn’t help. Holding him accountable while trying to minimize our anger and the lecturing seems to work better. Because if we are so pissed off that we can’t stand each other, I guarantee that won’t help with any of his behaviors. Relationship is the best environment for change, but the pace of change can make it very, very hard to keep moving.

2.Addiction is a learned behavior and learning new skills will help to create a better, more healthy life.

Addiction is a powerful way that we learn change our mood, thinking and experience. Many times a person who lives with addiction feels pulled back into their behavior because they lack specific skills to support them to build more of the life that they want. When they say that they don’t know “how” to quit, they are right.

  • Each person’s needs will be different, but a short list of skills that support a life that minimizes substance use includes: how to tolerate frustration and not getting what you want, resume writing and how to interview, how to meet people and what to do with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings when you feel socially awkward, identifying what you need or want and communicating that in appropriate ways, accepting what you cannot change, acknowledging the losses you have faced and learning to let go, building an emotional literacy, knowing how to approach our own inner self talk/memories, how to be healthy in close and intimate relationships, learning how to be okay with ‘normal’ lows and that times of unhappiness are both normal and healthy, and being encouraged to seek help for any mental illnesses we may have and for the trauma we have faced.
If we are so pissed off that we can’t stand each other, I guarantee that won’t help with any of his behaviors. Relationship is the best environment for change, but the pace of change can make it very, very hard to keep moving.

3.Find areas where a person with addiction has existing motivation.

True, they may not be committed to being clean or to cutting back on their use. But what do they want? Are they open to learning how to keep themselves safe and healthy? Are they still interested in completing high school or attending university? Do they want help on their resume and finding work?

For certain, some people who use drugs can see nothing else other than their substance use and may not respond to offers of help from families. However, most people who are using close themselves off because of real or perceived judgment and shame (or both). At times, they can and will make changes to their behavior but it usually begins when they feel supported in small areas of need.

4.Each person who uses substances has a unique history and circumstance.

Some live with significant trauma, mental illness (anxiety, depression, OCD, ADD…), family history of addiction or abuse, relationship or communication deficits, barriers because of their race or religion or gender or sexual orientation. A recovery path will be as unique as the individual who is trying to regain their lives. Saying that everyone in recovery from addiction needs “12 Step” or “Therapy” or “Group” would not make sense if we said the same thing about recovery from depression. Approaching each situation for what the person needs rather than what others believe they need will support a way forward.

“Some people may need antidepressants, some people may need a college education, some people may need a job, other people may need a child.”

Maia Szalavitz

5.Encourage self advocacy

This builds on the previous point. Helping the person in recovery to speak up for themselves, to notice and ask for what they need will further help them to open up and feel they are being seen as person worthy of being heard and noticed.

6.Involvement in a positive and supportive community.

Community could include 12 Step involvement, or church or other religious/spiritual groups, connection with other students in college or university, group, volunteer organizations, workplaces, and the like.

The more that a person believes they are powerless over what they feel is a disease, it will contribute to relapses that are more damaging.

7.Encourage learning, strength, resilience but NOT powerlessness over themselves, their behavior or circumstances.

The more that a person believes they are powerless over what they feel is a disease, it will contribute to relapses that are more damaging. When a person has a belief that they can learn new and better ways of responding, they are more apt to be able to change their behavior over time. When they believe and have a clear idea of the person/parent/student/partner they want to be, it will support building a life rather than trying to stay ‘clean.’

This does NOT mean encouraging a person to expose themselves unnecessarily or too early to situations or relationships that are remnants of the life they are trying to leave behind them. Resilience is not marked by remaining in negative or disempowering situations, but by investing ourselves moreso in activities and environments that support a healthy lifestyle.

8. Build coping skills, the ability to acknowledge and tolerate some level of emotional triggers.

You or a family member may have recovered using the 12 Step approach or AA. It may have worked in your situation or perhaps not? I am curious what is helping with your recovery or with the recovery of those you care about. Your family, your situation is unique and your recovery needs will change over time. Part of recovery is recognizing what has changed for you (and inside of you) and being willing to search for what else may help you to move forward.

“When we see our uniqueness as a virtue, then we will find peace.”

Ghost in the Shell

References

(2017). The National Council for Behavioral Health. National Conference: 2017. Maia Szalavitz: Unbroken Brain: A Different Way of Understanding Addiction (Research and reference pages).

Brodwin, E. (April 25, 2016). The answer to treating drug and alcohol addiction may be far simpler than you think. Business Insider.

Ferranti, S. (April 4, 2016). Maia Szalavitz on a New Way of Understanding Addiction. The Fix.

Goldstein, D. (APRIL 4 2016). Is addiction a learning disorder? Slate.com

Miller, WR., Westerberg, VS., Harris, RJ., & Tonigan, JS. (1996.) What predicts relapse? Prospective testing of antecedent models. Addiction. December, 1996. P. 155-172.

Szalavitz, M. (July 17, 2014). Most of Us Still Don’t Get It: Addiction Is a Learning DisorderSubstance.com

Szalavitz, M. (2016.) Unbroken brain. St. Martin’s Press.

Szalavitz, M. (April 5, 2016). The Addictive Personality Isn’t What You Think It Is. Scientific American.

Winger, G., Woods, JH, Galuska, CM, & Wade-Galusk, T. (2005). Behavioral perspectives on the neuroscience of drug addiction. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. 84. Page 667-681.

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If you have not already, I suggest that you consider reading my earlier post “What if Addiction is Not a Disease and Your Brain is Not ‘Broken’?

You can sign up for my blog by clicking “Follow Getting High on Recovery.” It won’t cost you anything except a few seconds and in return, I promise I won’t spam you. Also, please vote for my page on Psych Central’s list of mental health blogs.

Keep it Real

Photos: Jonathan Kos-ReadJeffrey, Don Wong and Aaron Offord


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