Addiction is a tricky disease, regardless of the substance of choice. It is a mistake to think that the definition of an addict is “someone who wakes up drinking and goes to bed drinking.” This is a false notion. One reason it is tricky is that addiction is often hidden in secrecy and shame. For instance, shopping addicts will buy $1000 worth of jeans that don’t fit only to lament over the shame of having to go back to the store to return them. Food addicts will binge eat in the middle of the night to keep the behavior private from family and friends. The end result is always the same: feeling guilty and ashamed over the most recent binge and then repeating the cycle.
The commonality between all addictions, whether it's alcoholism or ACOA style relationship addiction, is the underlying cause: traumatic pain that continues to reside in the body. The addict uses an anesthetic such as sex, food, drugs, alcohol, work, or anything that can numb the feelings in the body so that they temporarily don’t have to feel.
The popular TV show, Nurse Jackie, is the perfect portrait of a seemingly functional addict. Jackie chooses pills over everything in her life; her relationships, her personal health, her ethics, and eventually her work. Jackie is the best nurse the ER has on staff; she has an easeful bedside manner, is quick to respond in the toughest crisis and immediately knows what to do, and outperforms her peers in cracking the hardest cases. The stress on the job (as well as historical stressors addicts may be unaware of), makes it difficult for her to remain present in her body amidst all the pressure. She frequently runs to the bathroom at work to take pills and snort lines. Eventually, her family, friendships, mental and personal health erode due to her reckless behavior as she sinks to lower and lower bottoms.
Here's a clip where she displays all the characteristics of addiction when lying, deflecting and lacking insight into the consequences of her actions. In other words, her performance is greatly suffering and her job is severely at risk!
This isn’t an unusual scenario: functional addicts can make millions of dollars on Wall Street during the day, only to fall apart completely by night and wreck their family and home life.
The commonality is that meaning, living life purposely and feeling alive is derived from the addiction, not actual pleasures and enjoyment in our humanity and daily contributions. Unfortunately, because one is seemingly “functional” in one area, perhaps finding ways to have a wildly profitable business or to make an enviable performance on stage at a concert, it becomes much harder to admit there is a problem. Once this addict meets sobriety, he/she usually become truly successful personally and professionally; there is no possible way that performance can be optimal until full recovery arrives. Dr. Mark Atkinson and Dave Asprey of Bulletproof speak eloquently on this exact topic in their conversation about using a integrative medical approach, also known as functional medicine, to treat the person and the addiction as a whole.
4 Lifestyle Changes for the Addict
The following list is from a holistic addiction treatment approach. There are 4 essential areas of your lifestyle that need support in addiction recovery care. In my professional experience these areas need addressing to successfully overcome addiction patterns. This list may be of particular interest to professionals with addiction who want to maximize their success and performance, while also maintaining meaningful relationships.
1. Supporting Biochemical Changes
In early recovery all addicts are dealing with the same task: refraining from the drug of choice as well as behaviors that enable the addiction to remain at the helm of someone’s life. When I work with addiction, I refer to this as a stabilization period where we need to simplify our lifestyle choices. In AA, it is known as being a “worker among worker”: in other words, pick a structure and just do it. Dr. Atkinson refers to nutritional, sleep and exercise changes that are imperative to making recovery last. This strategy gives someone in recovery enough energy to tackle day-to-day tasks as well as the emotional changes and challenges that will inevitably arise from being clean.
2. Nervous System Regulation and Managing Stress
The brain is in need of retraining because it has been in fight/flight/freeze (stress response) mode for as long as the addiction has been in charge. Asprey and Atkinson suggest central nervous system regulation strategies such as meditation or neurofeedback are essential in coming out of “threat mode” and moving into brain regulation, which includes greater mental clarity and greater ease in decision making. When we can see our lives from a more regulated space, we are able to choose to place our attention on what really matters to us and brings true meaning to our lives: our family, friends, contributions and personal integrity.
3. Identifying Underlying Trauma
Dr. Atkinson also speaks about the usual underlying developmental trauma responsible for setting the addiction in motion initially; if it isn’t dealt with in the body, it is going to be very difficult to refrain from the cycle of anesthetizing the feeling that consistently arises. Working with a psychotherapist is recommended to recognize, tolerate and investigate the bodily sensations responsible for triggering addictive patterning, so that it becomes much easier to become sober and prevent relapses as well.
4. Finding Meaning and Peak Performance
As Asprey and Atkinson say, it is incredibly hard to perform well at our work when we are involved in intense addiction whether it is drug addiction or porn addiction. Even if we have managed to be functional for awhile, it will eventually catch up (as it does Nurse Jackie.) When an addict becomes sober, a new world of possibilities open up; it is possible to see what genuinely brings full meaning to our lives because we are no longer numbing signals of joy, attraction and connection. More risks can be taken with fewer consequences since impulsivity is not running the show; it is possible to build business in a more lucrative and smarter way, to network effectively and to work more efficiently with others. “Excitement” is found in a different way; when formerly it was found in late night binges, now it is sought in what you would like to contribute to the world. Moreover, drinking buddies and bars can be replaced by friends, colleagues and business meetings that support your specific contribution and vision.
Addiction can give the illusion that we are living a full life, but it is a life invested in keeping the addiction at center stage with the biggest meaning. In sobriety, we have the opportunity to open up to a life of real meaning, improved performance and aligning with our true intentions.
More Blog Posts By NYC Therapist Heather
- Hard to be Close: ACoA NYC Therapist View on Dysfunctional Families and 4 Ways to Increase Intimacy
- ACoA and Mindful Parenting Tips: Growing Up in Dysfunctional Families
- Complex Trauma Recovery: You Can Find Safety Again
|Heather Coleman, LCSW, specializes in alcohol counseling, and working with AA and ACOA clients in New York in private practice since 2010. She uses a holistic approach to addiction treatment NYC - including mindfulness, group therapy and neurofeedback.