The Most Misunderstood Addiction Problem

In Bailey’s sophomore year of high school, her parents divorced and her father moved across the country to be with another woman. Her mother, devastated by the affair she’d discovered months earlier, succumbed to depression. The stress of her parents’ divorce and her feelings of responsibility for her mother’s condition took a toll on her. Her mother occasionally offered her one of her tranquilizers, “to help [her] sleep,” and Bailey soon found herself in the same position as her mother – turning to prescription pills to cope with an uncomfortable reality.

By her sophomore year in college, Bailey had begun binge drinking every weekend. She didn’t drink every day, and she didn’t especially like the taste of beer or alcohol, but at parties, Bailey wanted to fit in and let go, and after the first drink went down she found she could consume seemingly without end. During this period, Bailey also engaged in frequent high-risk sexual encounters with young men, many whose names she would never learn. Frequently she was unconscious by the end of the night and had no memory of where or with whom she’d slept, or how she’d gotten home. The next day she would feel badly about what she’d done and vow never to do it again, but by the next weekend, she would repeat the same scenarios again and again.

A once straight “A” student, Bailey’s GPA plummeted. She had no motivation and no desire to examine why. She dropped out of college at the start of her junior year.

Bailey began working a series of office jobs and due to the professional atmosphere, she gave up drinking. She was not surprised that she was able to; Bailey never believed she’d been addicted. While working for an insurance firm, a coworker introduced her to a diet supplement. All the women in the office were using it and initially Bailey was gung-ho; her self-esteem was perpetually low and she imagined that being thinner might be just the thing she needed. This particular diet supplement contained an ingredient much like ephedrine; it felt like speed. Soon, Bailey found herself taking more of it than the intended dose. When she took it, she felt extremely energized and good about herself, but her heart sometimes raced and occasionally it pounded so hard she’d have to lie down.

After several years, Bailey was promoted. Making significantly more money than she had 10 years prior, Bailey traded the diet pills in for the flash of excitement and self-esteem she found when shopping online for clothing and accessories. She prided herself in buying sale items and knowing where to shop, but after a couple of years, she had accrued thousands of dollars in debt and maxed out four credit cards. She’d recently gone to the doctor to request a pain killer for migraine headaches that she complained were keeping her from being able to work. She was depressed and fearful of what would happen to her job (she’d not been showing her best effort for some time) but seemed oblivious to the addictive quality of this new substance: the pain killers she’d been prescribed – as well as to her own capacity for abuse of addictive processes or substances. The truth is that she knew exactly how addictive this drug could be for her, but she asked for it anyway.

Bailey represents someone who, from a painful period during her adolescence, had experienced what is known as cross-over addiction. She had been in the habit of switching one addictive substance or process for another throughout her life.

The Popular Misconception

Most people believe that individuals gravitate to one substance or process when they have a problem of addiction and it is this substance or process that becomes their undoing; sometimes that drug might be alcohol, and other times it might be a process like sex or shopping addiction. But it is a fallacy, and a popular one, that when someone is an addict they have chosen one demon – their “drug” of choice.

The truth of addiction is more complicated than that. Just as some people are referred to as “high-functioning addicts” – in which they suffer from an addiction disorder but manage to maintain jobs or hold together marriages or relationships, however dysfunctional – many others experience cross-over addiction. According to David Sack, M.D., the cross-over addict is sometimes referred to as the “under-the-radar” addict because of how easily hidden or overlooked this addict’s compulsions may be by friends and loved ones, and for a time, even by the addict herself.

As Dr. Sack points out in his article on under-the-radar addicts, one has only to encounter a large group of chain smokers drinking coffee (hello nicotine, hi caffeine) to know they’ve stumbled upon an AA group. Trading addictions is not just a problem of the profoundly addicted, but the general population, too. What parent isn’t concerned about sugar, video games, extreme caffeine drinks and sodas?

Recovering from EVERY Addiction

The greatest hindrance to getting well is perhaps our incredible capacity for denial; it is perhaps the least adaptive/most adaptive defense mechanism we have at our disposal. Too many people in too many recovery groups are in the process of unconsciously trading their old addiction for a new one right now; replacing it with relationship addiction, sex addiction, smoking, eating, reality TV – pick one. And guaranteed, whatever it is they are doing next will serve in some way to trigger their old behaviors, if not the addiction they formerly had, the source problem underneath it that was the cause of their overarching problem of addiction in the first place.

For Bailey, that source problem was her sense of abandonment by not just her father – a big enough issue in and of itself – but the emotional abandonment of a mother who was suffering, who fell into the well of depression, and who made poor choices regarding her daughter. These things happen to young people every day and that is to be expected. It is when we do not process our hardships emotionally and mentally that they become converted into behaviors that can be self-harming. Looking to the underlying causes and working up from there is an essential part of recovery for every addict. Otherwise, the problem of cross-over, conversion, and under-the-radar addiction will continue unabated. No one of us would wish this for another; why would we allow it for ourselves?

There is still hope.

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