How Many Vices Should You Quit at Once?
Addicts in recovery often try to give up smoking, sugar, caffeine and other bad habits at the same time. Is that too much of a good thing?
Many in recovery feel that once they beat their primary addiction, cleaning house includes clearing the wreckage from their bodies as well as their souls. And it doesn’t take a scientist to know that over-use of any substance can negatively impact your long-term physical and mental health: the headlines are full of scary statistics about smokers (they’re two to four times as likely as non-smokers to get coronary heart disease among other illnesses), over-eaters (obese people are more likely to suffer from hypertension and diabetes) and the over-caffeinated (too much caffeine leads to irritability, sleeplessness, and bladder problems). What most addicts and alcoholics often don’t know is that quitting these bad habits all at once can wreak havoc on their sobriety.
Dr. Gary Wenk, a Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at The Ohio State University and Medical Center, says that depriving the brain of all pleasurable stimulation at once can have deleterious impacts on a person’s mental state. He references Rimonabant (a drug that’s been used to control marijuana addiction and obesity, among other things)—which was prescribed to well over 90,000 in Britain in the mid-2000s (though never approved for use in the US). The drug, though initially successful in the treatment of obesity (and smoking and cocaine addiction), was eventually suspended in the EU due to severe side effects—including suicidal ideation, increased anxiety, and sleeplessness (in 2008, five people on the drug committed suicide). The problem? While the drug’s ability to control the CB1 receptor in the brain allowed it to block cravings for drugs and fatty foods, it also blocked the ability of the brains to receive pleasure.
While some maintain that living a healthy life in all arenas is crucial to staying sober, others believe that all the fuss about coffee, junk food, and cigarettes is overblown.
Something similar can happen to those in sobriety who try to quit their secondary addictions too soon and then find themselves feeling despairing and hopeless—and thus triggered to use. Sam, a 52-year old lawyer from Albuquerque who is 18 months sober, turned to food, particularly sweets, as a way of filling the void when she first quit drinking. “I felt like I should get to eat whatever I wanted,” she says. After nearly a year of self-soothing with food, Sam decided it was time to focus on losing weight. “I had every intention of following a healthier diet, and I just assumed I’d be able to cut out sugary treats like I had years before,” she explains. But she was wrong. After battling the urge to consume the caramels she had stashed in the kitchen cupboard, Sam went to the grocery store to find a healthy snack and soon found herself standing in front of a shelf full of vodka, imagining taking a bottle home and guzzling it. That’s when she made a decision: “If I have to choose between eating one too many caramels or downing a bottle of booze,” she says, “I’m picking the caramels.”
While some maintain that living a healthy life in all arenas is crucial to staying sober, others believe that all the fuss about coffee, junk food, and cigarettes is overblown. Confronted with concerns about excess in such areas, many refer to chapter nine in the Big Book, where a man in early recovery is nagged to stop over-indulging in coffee and cigarettes. This “…finally threw him into a fit of anger. He got drunk.” Later, the wife sees she was wrong “to make a burning issue out of such a matter when his more serious ailments were being rapidly cured.” Followers of this school of thought tend to believe that once drugs and alcohol addiction is overcome, other issues should be left alone—even smoking and over-indulging in food or coffee.
Susan, a 35-year old screenwriter from LA decided to follow the Atkins diet—which calls for cutting out all caffeine—when she had been sober for three years. “I was shocked by how much I lost it mentally when I when off caffeine,” she confesses. “It was like detoxing from Ambien or quitting smoking. I was half out of my mind with headaches and nausea. Ultimately I decided it wasn’t worth all that since coffee was never a big issue for me. I like the idea of being as free of stimulants as possible, but not when the personal cost is too great.”
The idea of systemic purity resonates with others in recovery as well. Just ask members of the Pacific Group, an AA offshoot group that believe those in recovery shouldn’t take anti-depressants or other medications (this is mirrored in the New York offshoot, the Atlantic Group). Such black-and-white thinking has obvious problems (suicidal alcoholics anyone?), but it appeals to the innately extremist addict living in each of us—especially when one considers how intertwined addictions can be.
Trudy, a 31-year old writer from Phoenix who is six years sober, feels her dual addictions to food and booze were intertwined. In fact, she didn’t even realize the extent of her alcoholism until she underwent weight-loss surgery. “After the surgery, I lived on popcorn and vodka for six months,” she confesses. “I knew I was miserable and unhealthy but I wanted to be skinny at all costs.” She lost 100 pounds in a short time, realized she was an alcoholic, got sober, gorged on carbs and candy and watched her weight balloon again. While Trudy now works with a nutritionist and has found a more moderate approach to weight management, she recognizes her addictive tendencies.
After all, for addicts and alcoholics in recovery, it’s not always as easy as “making healthy choices” since the brain wants what it wants. And what the addict brain craves is often short-term pleasure or oblivion or both, with no thought on the future impact or potentially disastrous consequences. This is why Wenk insists that addicts need to find healthy substitutes for their drugs of choice. “When a person gives up something they’re addicted to, the brain will attempt to find another substance to fill that gap,” he says. Taking up a different drug (switching cocaine for heroin, say, or drinking for pills) isn’t going to get a person sober, but finding a sufficient substitute—such as coffee or, even better, exercise for cocaine—can.
In the end, quitting coffee or junk food or smoking or road rage—or anything that feels dangerous to your physical or emotional health—is a purely subjective choice. But whatever you do, remember that the goal of sobriety isn’t to earn a halo for your perfection but simply not to pick up a drink. As Trudy says, “I’d rather be fat, sober, and happy then skinny, drunk, or dead.”
Rachael Brownell is a frequent contributor to The Fix and the author of the book Mommy Doesn't Drink Here Anymore. She has written about the importance of humor and what motherhood is really like in sobriety, among many other topics.