by Tanya Ruckstuhl-Valenti LICSW, MSW
I was talking with a friend recently who shared with me that she started going to AA after an incident of over-drinking in which she had to re-assess her own alcohol issues. This is a particularly savvy and insightful person, and I was struck by her awareness of feeling irritable and resentful and her ability to connect this to sobriety.
I started thinking about the how addictions offer a comfort—dysfunctional and emotionally expensive, but a comfort nonetheless—from feelings of malcontent and anxiety.
When an addict stops their addiction there is no chemical or behavioral buffer between themselves and their emotions. This is something the addict is rarely warned about in advance. It will hurt. Perhaps we don’t warn them because it’s hard enough to muster up the will to dump one’s best friend without knowledge of the loneliness that follows.
Drug addicts report a six to twelve month depression following “kicking.” As a sugar addict (I know that sounds wimpy by comparison, but believe me it’s the same thing) after I quit I went through months of self pity (“Other people do it! Why can’t I?”—duh, cause I’m an addict!), of dreaming of chocolate and ice cream, of feeling at my wit’s end about how to celebrate, comfort or simply chill without desert products. If I weren’t committed to self-awareness AND self acceptance it would be easy to look back and scoff at my naiveté and the extent to which food, rather than relationships, took center stage in my mind.
I’m not sure we mental health providers offer full disclosure when we blithely recommend a separation from a substance or behavior of choice. I think clients sense this loss and avoid complying with our recommendations because they are frightened, feeling that they alone know how important their addiction is to them.
This is why a twelve step program in addition to mental health services is recommended for successful treatment of addictions. Therapy alone is famously unsuccessful at treating addictions (in AA’s Big Book, one of AA’s founders flies to Europe and receives treatment from the venerable Carl Jung…and is not helped).
I would make the bold statement that 12 step groups alone are no more successful. Many people in one twelve step group report that their addiction morphs into another one as soon as they feel comfortably abstinent.
The focus of therapy is different from the focus of twelve step groups. Your therapist is there to focus just on you. Your twelve step group is there for you as well as themselves.
Therapy provides a supportive and structured environment for exhuming old hurts, seeing how current behavior is influenced by previous trauma and answering the important WHY question: When it hurts, why do I act/think/feel this way? The twelve step program provides a spiritual, social and emotional support system which answers the important HOW question: How do I live?
Jettisoning an addiction hurts. We are not meant to do life’s most difficult tasks alone. And ultimately the effort; shared and mitigated by support and understanding, is worth it. I liken it to getting cataract surgery for eye sight. At first the light, shaded for so long by the damage of the cataract/addiction, hurts like hell….Then you can see clearly.
- Twelve-step Approach to Recovery From Codependency (socyberty.com)
- Addiction during the holidays: Recovered or not, it’s important to be prepared (psychologytoday.com)
- Gender Differences in Trauma and Addictions (drsharma.ca)