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Why Many of Us Trade One High For Another

Yes, you finally put down the bottle, but now you find yourself craving cupcakes or crazy Internet sex or countless pairs of Christian Louboutins. Addictive tendencies are often transferred from one bad habit to another. Here's what you can do about it. 

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What "sobriety" can sometimes look like Thinkstock

By Emily McCombs

04/10/11

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Evelyn, a 27-year-old publicist in New York City, had been sober for nine months when she first started working through the night. It began the night she left the office around midnight but came home and continued working until five in the morning, when she wondered if she should get a few hours sleep or just keep going. She ultimately decided to plow through. “Work has been an underlying issue for me since forever,” she says, “but when I got sober it really escalated. You put the lid on one addiction, and it blows off on the other.”

According to Dr. Lance Dodes, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the author of Breaking Addiction, many recovering addicts simply transfer from one obsession to another. “It’s been well known for a very long time that A.A. meetings used to be filled with smoke because people shifted their focus from drinking to cigarettes,” he says. “Alcoholism isn’t about alcohol any more than compulsive gambling is about playing roulette—or winning money. Addiction is a solution to an emotional need. If you deprive someone of one solution to their emotional problems, it’s not surprising that they’ll find another one instead.”

Dr. Harold Urschel, chief medical strategist of Interhealth Addiction Disease Management Company and the author of Healing the Addicted Brain, says that untreated psychiatric disorders may also drive recovering addicts to new compulsions. “You may get sober but all of a sudden, you realize you have an anxiety disorder or depression,” he says. “You may go get on porn sites because it helps reduce your anxiety or go gambling because when you hit the jackpot, it feels really good and helps lift your depression.”

Bill, a sober 33-year-old engineer in a long-term relationship, describes his own struggles with sex and gambling in less clinical terms. “There’s something that I haven’t gotten to yet that is the reason why I’m so desperate to act out in any way I can,” he says. Whatever that unresolved issue is, it has driven him to dozens of affairs, abuse of pornography and multiple trips to Atlantic City that have left him thousands of dollars in debt.  After an all-night gambling binge at the casinos, he often drives straight to work, sleepless and broke.

Of course, some minor indulgences can help the newly sober stay that way; one of the most commonly read A.A.-approved books, Living Sober, even suggests that newcomers eat something sweet to replace the sugar in alcohol. So where’s the line between a comforting bad habit and a new addiction—especially if the behavior is keeping you from drinking or using?

According to Dodes, it depends on the motivations behind the behavior. “If you were to buy a candy bar because you decided you deserve a reward today, that’s not an addiction,” he explains. “If you have to have a candy bar because it’s solving an internal problem where you feel intolerably helpless, that’s a compulsive behavior.” In other words: if you feel out of control, you probably are.

Another indicator could be negative consequences. Says Evelyn of her workaholism, ”I self-sabotage the way I did with drinking because I neglect those really important parts of self-care—like sleeping and bathing and listening to my body. I was just fully focused on what I was doing. I worked until everything crashed.” The negative consequences in Evelyn’s behavior eventually caught up with her: she received bad feedback at her office for sloppiness due to lack of sleep and also has a difficult time keeping plans, developing relationships, or even being able to enjoy her life.

And addiction transfers can happen at any point, as evidenced by John, a 44-year-old photographer who began to struggle with sex addiction after over 17 years of sobriety. “This disease looks for any way in,” he says. “If you close a door, it’s going to go in the window. Close a window, it’ll go in the basement. It looks for any opportunity to get at you.”

Kate, 26, who recently completed treatment for an eating disorder that worsened when she got sober, agrees with that assessment. “I’m through with drugs, but now I’m running down the list of addictions one by one,” she says. “At the moment I’m obsessed with shopping. I steal my parent’s credit cards and go on weeklong sprees. I have dozens of shoes and bags and jewelry that I don’t look at twice once they’re in my closet. I know this isn’t healthy sober behavior but I don’t think I can stop shopping until my mom’s credit card is finally declined.”

The biggest concern is that the stress of battling a new issue can lead recovering addicts to relapse—as a 24-year-old recovering alcoholic named Alison experienced when she entered treatment for her eating disorder. “As I focused on my weight and the food issues, I stopped calling my A.A. sponsor and going to meetings,” she says. “I really thought that I could drink as long as my food intake was stable.” When she began drinking again after four years of sobriety, both conditions worsened; she ended up checking herself into an inpatient facility in California. 

So how can addiction-prone people avoid endlessly cycling through the list of available substances and activities? Do they have to join all the 12-step programs, attending a different kind of meeting every day of the week?

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