Sober and Still Addicted: Compulsive Behavior in Recovery

Sober and Still Addicted: Compulsive Behavior in Recovery

By Brian Michael Riley 01/10/19

There are plenty of us who discovered that even though the dope was laid to rest, that fiendish mentality kept on kicking, making us slaves to compulsive behaviors like overeating, gambling, sex, or shopping.

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Man with hand at head, frustrated by compulsive behavior in recovery
Not long after getting the opioids out of his system, Tom found that an old habit had come back with a vengeance.

Seems I need to make amends.

You’re supposed to be reading right now about how after we put the dope down, that destructive behavior that went along with it often continues, our addiction manifesting itself in cunning and baffling new ways.

But I just can’t seem to start writing.

There’s always one more cigarette to smoke, cup of coffee to drink. One more level to get past on this new game on my phone. My side business is pet care and there’s always one more dog I can add to the walk, my mild hernia screaming as I mush my way towards a serious medical condition. My fingers are wrecked, too, from gnawing on the cuticles. Maybe after one more Band-Aid I’ll be able to sit down and type. I really do want to share all the information I’ve gathered about how most people in recovery find themselves still struggling with these sorts of “replacement” addictions.

But as a hobby I make models and I just scored this kickass new car online, so I’d better try to finish at least one from the perpetual batch before the new one gets delivered.

And even if I do get around to writing this article, what the hell sort of message would I be conveying anyway? Here I am two years sober (November was my sobriety birthday), and still feel practically paralyzed by addiction. Cigarette, coffee, dog walk, repeat. Once again I have found my life bordering on unmanageability, my health suffering in the grips of these persistent new vices.

Yes, as I’ve said, there have been health complications and they are directly related to some of these addictive tendencies which I simply refuse to give up.

At least not any time soon.

And certainly not today.

After all, I’ve got this...thing to write, for God’s sake. How can I expect to work, or get anything done for that matter, if I don’t give in and continue to feed the beast? Not only would I be in serious discomfort, but you, dear reader, would have nothing more to read.

No, the best course of action is for me to continue with these behaviors in order to keep everything moving along. And look at this, I seem to have begun after all.

Fantastic.

I knew I couldn’t be the only one struggling with these issues and that if I just opened my mouth in the meeting rooms, others would feel comfortable sharing their own experiences. There are plenty of us who discovered that even though the dope was laid to rest, that fiendish mentality kept on kicking, keeping our sobriety from being as happy, joyous and free as is so often promised.

Erin was a cinch to relate to. Like me, she was anxiously awaiting her recent Amazon delivery, jonesing for that cardboard smirk to appear at her doorstep. “Oh, I love that smiley face,” she confessed with a shiver. “I always open the Amazon box first. I get a little rush.”

A true addict, Erin now chases that little rush like she once chased her high.

At 42 years old with over two decades of sobriety, Erin is now addicted to online shopping. “It used to be with credit cards, like from Target. I’d go in and wouldn’t leave until hundreds of dollars later. But now I’ve found that I can sit on my phone during a boring work meeting and just swipe right.” Then to clarify my obvious confusion she added, “You know, one-swipe shopping?”

Realizing that she could swipe everything into her digital cart, from paper towels to yoga pants, Erin started a steady flow of those smiles coming to her door. 

“Packages come every day, every other day,” she told me, “because I get groceries and household supplies. And I rent my clothes, so those are always coming. But it’s nice with Amazon because you can set it up where every month they’ll send you kitty litter and toilet paper. So you don’t have to think about it. They just show up.”

Those are Erin’s favorite packages, the ones that surprise her. “I make sure not to track the deliveries so when one comes with my name on it and I don’t know what it is - I’m like, holy crap, it’s Christmas!”

Of course with that kind of mindfulness, or lack thereof, it wasn't long before Erin lost track of her spending as well. “I was always so careful, never buying anything too fancy, thinking it's just $20. But then I was doing that like 50 times a week.”

These numbers would increase in times of stress; Erin escaped into dot com bazaars to shop herself numb.

In order to cover her increasingly reckless purchasing, Erin began manipulating the household budget, often lying to her husband of 15 years about where the money was being channeled. But then one month the debt had bloated to the point where she could no longer hide it.

Her household allowance of $1,500 clocked in closer to $5,000.

“The thing is, we don’t do credit card debt,” she told me. “My husband has had to bail me out a couple of times. The only time he really gets mad at me is about the shopping problem and how it’s preventing us from doing things like going on vacations or saving for retirement.”

Inevitably our spouses are affected by our compulsive behaviors, even after we’ve gotten clean and sober.

Tom, 41 and with 2 years clean, kept his newfound gambling habit to himself. “If my wife ever knew what’s really been going on, she’d be pretty surprised,” he said of his finances. “Yeah, there’d be problems.”

Not long after getting the opioids out of his system, Tom found that an old habit had come back with a vengeance. He’d been a light gambler since his 20’s, and now his betting activity suddenly increased by as much as 500%.

“Well I had all this extra cash because I wasn’t spending it on the pills. Near the end of my using I’d been dishing out around $1,600 a week.”

To play it safe, so to speak, Tom worked out a deal with his bookie, recruiting new bets for a cut of those winnings. The idea was that he would bet only with the money he made from this arrangement, thus flipping it. “So I wasn’t spending ‘our’ money, my family’s, which was perfect.”

Perfect, that is, as long as those bets he helped set up won - and he didn’t get carried away by the excitement of the game.

“Football is my thing,” he said with excitement. “Nothing beats the feeling of your team being ahead. And when you have money down on it, you’re a part of that team. So wherever I am and a game is going on, I’m in it all the way!”

Here was Tom’s Amazon smile. His cigarette and coffee. That thrilling little charge to help him through the day.

Tom was consumed.

“Then there was one bad week where everyone lost - so when it came time to cover my bets, there was just nothing there. I had no choice but to borrow from the family account.”

He’d done it before, always replacing any withdrawals before his wife could catch on. “Only this happened during the same week our property taxes were due - and we were going to be short $3,000.”

Panicked and humiliated, Tom confided in a cousin who he knew would be able to cover the loan. “But that was too close,” he told me, “and that’s when I quit. The day after that I asked (my therapist) for help.”

At the time, Tom was still taking part in a biweekly group and one-on-one counseling for the opioid abuse. He realized that his best bet was to start treating the gambling addiction as seriously as his substance use disorder.

“Very rarely, if ever, have I seen anyone come in with just one significant disorder going on,” said Christy Waters, MD, of Bright Heart Health in San Francisco. Waters’ specialties are addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine, and she is in recovery herself. “For a long time there was this sort of romanticizing of recovery. Addicts thought and were told that if they could just stop using, all would be well, not understanding that the drugs were really just a small part of what was really going on.”

“Our liquor was just a symptom,” echoes the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous. The Big Book explains that the substance that we thought was the root of our problem was, in fact, just an indication of that problem.

“A lot of patients come in just hanging on by their fingernails,” Waters continued. “They’ve stopped using and they’re depressed or they’re anxious or they’re just plain miserable. And now they’re acting all this out in completely new ways. Maybe they’re smoking a lot, or overeating, or whatever it takes to get that ‘lift.’ At first they might think, ‘Look, at least I’m not doing heroin, so what’s the big deal?’ But then they see how their quality of life is suffering. And that’s not the promise of recovery, is it? The promise is that your life will get better.”

AA and other 12-step programs’ suggested solution is for us to “launch out on a course of vigorous action” to face and exorcise “the things in ourselves which had been blocking us.” In other words, take the steps. The hope is that after all of our personal inventories and amends and prayers, we are released from the torment that used to compel us to drink or use; we become free of the behavior once and for all.

This is a solution in Dr. Waters' world as well. But it's not the only one.

“We meet so many people in recovery who wind up with a dual diagnosis. They’ve been living with a disorder for years, sometimes their whole lives, but it remained undiagnosed beneath the substance abuse,” said Waters. “Maybe they have post-traumatic stress. Or ADHD. Then finally in treatment they realize, ‘Oh my God, all this time I've been self-medicating?’”

Or shopping themselves into smothering debt?

Or gambling away their marriage and home?

Was she saying that just as our using was a symptom of a larger issue, the same can hold true for these “replacement” behaviors?

“Absolutely,” Waters confirmed. “It’s important to always approach the disease of addiction with a much bigger lens. For instance, we now know that 80% of women who abuse substances also struggle with a mood disorder - and that’s even before the first ‘fix’.”

Intrigued, I brought up the question with Erin during our follow up interview. I knew she had worked the steps of NA with great success, so much so that she was now applying a 12-step program to her shopping problem. But was therapy a part of her solution? Could the shopping possibly be linked to something else? 

“That’s funny you should ask that,” Erin said. “I actually made an appointment with a therapist not too long ago. I'm going in later today.”

A conflict between Erin and her son had come to a head and triggered the compulsive behavior; Erin’s online shopping increased exponentially once again in response.

“I used to have problems with PTSD,” she confessed, “and I think this stuff with (my son) might’ve stirred that back up.”

For Tom’s gambling habit, however, the solution, or at least the path leading to it, was not so clear. By the time I followed up with him he had stopped searching for help altogether. Though his check-ins with the rehab center continued, his therapeutic work focused only on his recovery from opioid addiction. He was back to placing bets weekly.

“I quit for two or three weeks,” he said, “handling just the bookings. I was able to look at where I went wrong - and now I know the warning signs. As long as I don’t use my own money, I’m okay. And as long as I keep the whole thing as entertainment there’s not a problem.”

But surely there had to be other activities Tom enjoyed, things he liked to do that weren’t as risky?

“Not once you know the rush you can get from gambling,” he said. “And the pills are out of the picture for good, so this is sort of all I have left.” 

As for me and my own vices, the cigarettes and coffee and busy-work in between, I imagine the doctor will read me the riot act on Monday morning. I have an appointment to get this little hernia checked out and when he inquires about my lifestyle, I plan on telling it to him straight. For over 20 years I was trapped in the grip of drug addiction and I thought I was in the clear once I was released. But as my eyes open wider, I see the true nature of this beast; I still have some shackles holding me captive.

But I think I just found the keys.

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Brian Michael Riley is a writer of both fiction and nonfiction whose work has most recently appeared in the likes of Every Day Fiction, Page & Spine, Gay Flash Fiction and Deadman's Tome. Also an illustrator, cartoonist, director, and educator, he lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his girlfriend and their many, many pets.

A grateful recovering addict and alcoholic, Brian considers his articles with The Fix to be part of his Step 12 work, conveying a message of hope to his fellows in recovery as well as those that support them. You can connect with Brian at www.brianmriley.com and find him on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest

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