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Ask Maia: Switching Addictions

Turning on a new addiction in order to turn off an old one may be the right move if you are reducing potential harm. This how-to will help.

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By Maia Szalavitz

11/01/12

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This week’s question comes from DS, who asks about a perennial issue in addictions, substituting one compulsion for another. He writes:

I got sober in an instant on Sunday, June 16, 2008, at 6:30 pm. I have had no desire for alcohol since then. Within a few weeks of that happy day, however, I have had regular cravings for sugar and sweets. I drink two or three cans of pop a day, and maybe three or four Oreos if the urge happens. I have also left the church and gotten rid of friendships that were troublesome. Once the emotional fog lifted, I became much more attractive to women. Have I replaced a compulsion (alcohol abuse) with addictions (candy, caffeine, women)? Is this common for sober people?

In short, the answer is yes. Many people with addictions find that once they stop behaving compulsively with one substance or activity, they start doing so with another. Indeed, early AA literature specifically suggests replacing alcohol with sweets—and there is now some data suggesting that people with alcoholism are generally also likely to have a “sweet tooth.”

That said, there are many people who behave addictively with one specific substance—say, alcohol—but can use others, such as caffeine or marijuana, in a controlled fashion.

For those who do switch between different compulsive behaviors, there are two main issues. The first is whether the replacement activity is healthier than the original problem. The second has to do with why you are driven to escape (by means of this behavior) in the first place.

In your case, by replacing alcoholism with eating loads of sugar, you are almost certainly becoming healthier on balance, although obesity can still cause serious health problems.

One can rationally choose to take risks in seeking pleasure: life itself isn’t always about safety or comfort.

The question has to do with consequences: are the sugar binges causing weight gain or other problems? If so, then they should be a matter for concern. If not, your sweet tooth, while not the healthiest thing in the world, is far from the most dangerous. We all have to make choices about health risks: while the dangers of sugar are highly disputed, extremely high sugar diets do increase risk for obesity and may increase risk for other conditions like dementia.

Ask yourself: is the pleasure worth these possible risks? And don’t assume that the answer “should” be no. Much of the dialogue around addiction assumes that health should always be prioritized over pleasure. But my own view is that this is a mistake. One can rationally choose to take risks in seeking pleasure: life itself isn’t always about safety or comfort. The key is to make these choices for yourself in accordance with your own values—and with your eyes open to the fact that if you are behaving compulsively, the activity won’t continue to produce the desired effect indefinitely. Also keep in mind the lesson you’ve learned about switching compulsions: that if abstaining from sugar entirely will drive you to drink, you should stick with sugar.

As for caffeine, it really doesn’t seem to have any significant health risks and may have benefits if consumed in the form of coffee or tea. If it’s not making you anxious, unable to sleep or uncomfortably shaky, go for it.

Women are a different matter entirely, which brings me to the second main concern when evaluating potential addictive behavior. That is, are you running from something—and if so, from what? If there is something in life that you find unbearable and need to escape, you are always going to engage in at least some compulsive behavior. To get out of this pattern, you will need to address the fundamental unmet need and find ways of coping that don’t involve compulsive escape.

Keep in mind that abstaining from your new, less harmful addiction may well drive you back to the more harmful one.

For example, are you involved in a long-term relationship, and if not, are you working to find a partner? If you are lonely and isolated, you are very likely to continue to engage in some sort of compulsion until you develop the type of social support you need. For most people, that includes friends, family and/or a romantic partner. If you lack sufficient support, it’s not surprising that you seek various types of escape: the key is to not let your need for escape get in the way of solving your need for love and support. Since you have left your church and abandoned troublesome friends, you may need to find other types of community to replace it.

Also, there’s nothing inherently wrong with seeing many women so long as you are honest with everyone as to what’s going on. Many, if not most, people tend to prefer having a primary partner and ultimately find promiscuity empty and/or juggling multiple partners exhausting. You have to look at where you stand on this. Not everything that deviates from the norm should be viewed as “abnormal” or through the lens of addiction.

The bottom line is that we’re all human and therefore seek pleasure and escape. This drive crosses into addiction and compulsion when the negative consequences get in the way of a loving and productive life. Keep that in mind and you should be able to find your way through all of the competing information about addictions and also find some degree of peace.

Maia Szalavitz writes the biweekly "On the Contrary" column at The Fix in addition to her new advice column, "Ask Maia." She is also a health reporter at Time magazine online, and co-author, with Joe Volpicelli, MD, PhD, of the first evidence-based guide to addiction treatment, Recovery Options: The Complete Guide: How You and Your Loved Ones Can Understand and Treat Alcohol and Other Drug Problems (Wiley, 2000). She has published four other books on issues related to drugs and addiction.

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