After a stressful day at work, you go home and have a drink to unwind. You used to have a drink once or twice a week, but now it’s more like every day. Ever since a recent breakup, alcohol consumption has become more frequent. Drinking makes you feel better by easing your stress and numbing the emotional pain from the loss of your relationship.
Suddenly, you’re consumed with thoughts of when you can get your next drink. You thought you could stop whenever you wanted, but now you can’t. Your habit has gotten to the point where now you don’t want to drink, but you need to drink. Your addiction has total control over you and you feel like you’re in an emotional prison.
What makes one person more vulnerable to an addiction than someone else? How do addictions form? The Cheat Sheet spoke with Candace Plattor, a registered clinical counselor and addictions therapist, to gain more insight into addiction. Here’s what the author of Loving an Addict, Loving Yourself and expert contributor for Pro Corner on Recovery.org had to say.
The Cheat Sheet: What are some signs that someone has an addictive personality or is prone to addiction?
Candace Plattor: It can be difficult to distinguish between addiction and addictive personality, as many of the traits and mannerisms often overlap. Because of this, addiction is often more prevalent for those who are prone to having an addictive personality. However, that is not to say that every person with an addictive personality will become addicted to a substance or behavior. Generally speaking, the primary difference between addiction and addictive personality is the frequency and magnitude of negative consequences resulting in a person’s life. Addictions tend to present more severe challenges for an individual than an addictive personality.
The signs of an addictive personality include the following:
Impulsivity: This involves not feeling in full control of our wants or desires, and often impatiently feeling the need for immediate gratification to avoid difficult feelings.
Sensation seeking: Life feels empty and boring when risks are not being taken.
Non-conformity: The need to be “different from” or “better than” other people is highly valued, while positive societal goals are of much less importance.
Social alienation and loneliness: People with addictive personalities spend a lot more time alone than with others, often due to a belief of not measuring up to others.
Heightened sense of stress, anxiety, and frustration: Those with addictive personalities have difficulty handling these feelings in a healthy way.
Habitual ways of thinking and behaving: There is a greater than usual resistance to change.
CS: What does it mean to have an addictive personality?
CP: People who have addictive personalities are generally more at risk for addiction than others. When excessive stress, loneliness, or other difficult issues are present and there is a lack of coping skills, people often turn to behaviors that they perceive to be self-soothing. It is important to understand that there are other, healthier ways to deal with these issues and conditions, and that people are often unwittingly hurting themselves even further by engaging in dysfunctional, addictive behaviors to try to cope with life.
CS: What are some addictive behaviors that are cause for concern?
CP: First and foremost, there are the “usual suspects,” such as alcohol and drugs, eating disorders, excessive spending, smoking, gambling, internet addiction, co-dependency in relationships, and sex addiction, including online porn. But the truth is that anything that takes a person away from reality and makes life easier to bear can be seen as an addictive behavior.
In my opinion, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t each have a few of them. Some of these might include television, chocolate, or having cosmetic surgery performed on a frequent basis. It is also important to distinguish a habit from an addictive behavior. When the behavior in question begins to take over a person’s life and a feeling of dependency develops, then this has outgrown its potential as a habit and is moving swiftly into addiction.
CS: How do some people become addicts?
CP: Simply stated, people become addicted when they indulge in or practice an addictive behavior long enough for it to become quite problematic in their lives. I don’t believe that anyone chooses to become addicted to anything. I doubt whether anyone has ever said to themselves, “Yes, let’s become addicted to X — that will be fun!” In fact, most people who eventually become addicted firmly believe that this will never become a problem for them. They might reason, “That will happen to other people, but it won’t happen to me. I can handle it.” And that denial-based way of thinking is generally their downfall — right into the addiction they think won’t ever happen to them.
But once we become addicted and we know there is a major problem — when we can see past our denial and recognize that our lives are really not going the way we want them to — it is at that point that we are at choice with our addiction. We can either be a person who chooses to remain in active addiction, or we can choose to shift into active recovery of some kind.
In my opinion, even when people like myself who have had trouble with addiction choose recovery, we still need to be careful to a certain extent because we know we’ve had difficulty dealing with life at some points. We need to learn new coping skills and practice the best self-care we can on a daily basis so that we don’t slip back into our old addictive patterns.
CS: Why are some people prone to an addiction, while others are not as easily affected?
CP: This is a wonderful question, and one for which there may be no definitive answer. There are, however, several possibilities and schools of thought. Some people see addiction as a disease, similar to something like cancer or diabetes, but perceiving it as a brain disease. We often don’t know why some people are prone to any particular diseases . For example, why do some people develop cancer while others don’t? And yet, even with some of these illnesses, there are sometimes preventative measures we can take, such as not smoking or ingesting excessive sugar, so that we can limit the chances of getting sick.
I believe the same is true of addiction. For example, when we come from families in which addiction was present, there may be a genetic predisposition at play. If we understand that this is a possibility for us, we can make a decision to stay away from certain behaviors and/or substances, or we can learn how to experience these as moderately as possible. And when we are brought up to believe, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping,” or engage in other addictive behaviors, we can choose to become more self-aware and learn better coping skills before addiction becomes a bigger problem.
Once we have an addiction and we are willing to be aware of it, we can change it. I am living proof of this, with nearly 30 years clean and sober as of this writing — one day at a time. We do not have to believe we are powerless over our addiction because there are positive choices we can make at any time to go in a different direction.
CS: What should you do if you suspect you or a loved one has an addiction?
CP: There are many ways to help an individual struggling with addiction to get care. However, it’s most important to understand that not every form of treatment suits every person. One of the biggest pieces of advice that I have for people is to educate yourself on the condition of addiction, treatment options, and your own behaviors. There are tons of reputable sites, such as Rehabs.com, to evaluate treatment options. There are also countless books — I myself even wrote one — to guide loved ones through this process, and endless educational sources to learn more about every addiction.
In most places in North America and other parts of the world, there are 12-step programs for just about any addiction imaginable. Many of these programs are also now online, with group meetings running 24/7. If the 12 steps are not your cup of tea (and we know now that they don’t work for everyone), there are other viable alternatives, such as The 16 Steps for Discovery and Empowerment. You can find comprehensive lists of these programs online.
Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly as many services for the loved ones of people with addiction. These loved ones need help just as much as the individual struggling with addiction. There are effective and workable strategies that loved ones can employ — and the irony is that once the friends and family members know what to do and what not to do, things begin to change. When the loved ones begin to understand that enabling a person struggling with addiction is never a loving act, and begin to shift into healthier helping behaviors, the individuals they love almost always start making healthier shifts of their own.
Loved ones need to get their own help, sometimes even before their friends or family who are struggling with the addiction. In my opinion, they need to seek counseling for themselves from a skilled professional who will know how to work wisely and compassionately with them. They need to read about the difference between helping and enabling, and understand their own behaviors — because what they have been doing (or not doing) is really the only thing they can change. They are not responsible for their loved one’s addiction — that person is making his or her own choices. However, they are responsible for changing anything they’re doing that might be keeping the addiction going.
CS: Is an addiction always dangerous?
CP: There are different ways to define “dangerous.” When we think of substance addictions like drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and even some eating disorders, we know that they pose a physical danger to those who use them excessively — or even those unfortunate individuals who use them once or twice and wind up overdosing. Since Fentanyl made its recent appearance, we see this happening more and more.
With process addictions, such as excessive spending or internet addiction, there is little physical danger. However, that being said, one of the biggest dangers, in my opinion, is the loss of self-respect that addiction brings. When we don’t feel good about ourselves, the inclination to hurt ourselves physically or emotionally skyrockets, so this is another sort of danger. I do feel that addiction is always dangerous, because it can not only harm us physically, but also erode our sense of self — something that’s hard to develop and far too easy to lose.
CS: Anything to add?
CP: It seems like people have become so used to the idea of addiction that they don’t even think about it very much anymore — and that is not only a shame, but also a potential disaster. That’s why I feel so strongly about dedicating my life’s work to sharing my insight and advice with others. Whether that’s via online sites for individuals seeking information, in a published book, or through my own practice, I hope I’m able to help educate individuals about addiction, inspire compassion, and truly impact someone’s life in a positive way.
Follow Sheiresa on Twitter @SheiresaNgo
[Editor’s Note: This story was originally published November 24, 2016]