Category Archives: Addiction

Life in the Moderate Lane

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

It didn’t take long for me to notice that I was different than most of my friends. (At least the ones I was constantly comparing myself to!) Beginning in early adolescence, I noticed that my friends somehow seemed to be able to have one or two drinks, one or two bong hits, one or two late nights and one or two cookies. Not me. One or two of anything typically led me to overdo everything.

I will spare you the long, detailed saga, but suffice it to say that my inability to be moderate with substances led me down a path of addiction and depression that would last for many years.

To other people, I was the one who could handle the most shots, the most partying and the most all-nighters. But internally, my soundtrack was grim. I hated myself. My blackouts were getting more frequent, and my secret life of bulimia led to some of my darkest days (and nights) of despair.

Thanks to enormous amounts of help, grace and willingness, I was eventually able to let go of drugs, alcohol, cigarettes… and perfectionism. I did, however, need to keep eating. This one was a toughie and anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder can attest to that. So, for a few decades, I continued to ride the diet/riot roller coaster, attempting to eat only the foods our culture deems “good” until the dam would break and the bingeing began. My weight fluctuated constantly, right along with my self-worth, and while I remained extremely grateful to be clean and sober, I continued to be imprisoned by food and body obsession. I tried cutting out certain foods and I tried the eating-whatever-I-wanted-whenever-I-wanted plan. Neither brought me freedom, peace or health.

Alas the day came in my recovery when I decided that despite decades of cultural brainwashing to the contrary, I needed to strike the food rule madness from my internal record, and create all foods equal. Of course, all foods are not nutritionally equal, but when I, for example, let go of thinking cookies are bad and kale is good, I was able to begin inquiring about what my body was truly hungry for. When I also became willing to face, feel and feed my emotional and spiritual hungers, it became easier to know what and how much my body was physically needing.

I used to approach my meals from one of two positions: restrict to try to lose weight, or rebel and eat everything in sight. Then I decided to do what I refer to as “the biggest do-over of my life.” I began to approach food with honest internal inquiry: Am I truly physically hungry? What is my body (vs. my rebel or my restrictor) truly craving?

Some people on the path of making peace with food choose Intuitive Eating as their goal. This means they strive to listen to their physical hunger and fullness cues and let go of dieting mentality. Some find this path too vague and need to have a more concrete “food plan.” I refer to this as finding your “Live-it” (as opposed to a die-it!) Some people need to stay away from certain foods because they simply don’t feel well when they eat them. Some people find it helps to commit to a certain amount of meals and snacks each day and then work on not restricting or rebelling.

Regardless of the path you take, if you have been struggling with strict dieting and/or rebellious bingeing, your answers live deep inside your heart. You might not be able to hear them yet, but your inner wisdom knows how to feed yourself. You were born with this intuition. Children don’t automatically think there are “breakfast foods” or “lunchtimes,” “good” or “bad” foods, or “good” or “bad” body shapes. They learn it all.

Conscious eating requires a moment-to-moment awareness of what your true feelings and needs are, what your body is actually hungry for and what is honestly the right amount for your body at that time. And unlike what the diet industry will tell you, there is not a one-size-fits-all answer. Dessert might feel like a loving choice for you in one instance and not a loving choice in another. You might want sushi and a cookie for breakfast one day or an omelette and toast for dinner one night. Your body can be trusted more than your brainwashed mind.

So, while it’s true that you can stop using drugs or alcohol but you can’t just stop eating, you can stop restricting and/or overeating and you can stop making your food choices based on self-hate. You can learn to eat the foods you love in moderation and tolerate your emotions when food is calling and your bodies tank is already filled. You can achieve your natural weight without dieting and you can learn to accept your body at its natural state. And you can learn new ways to get sweetness, comfort and fulfillment in your life.

View on The Huffington Post

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The Many Faces and Phases of Addictive Behaviors

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Humans have been using drugs, alcohol, tobacco, excess food and other substances for centuries. When taken to extreme levels, such behaviors can adversely affect physical health, emotional well-being, relationships, work, school, finances and future goals.

In recent years, excessive use of screens, sex, porn, gambling, shopping and exercise have been added to the list of compulsive possibilities.

In addition to the more commonly known eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, lesser known compulsions are also on the rise. Orthorexia, a more recent diagnosis, is when someone becomes obsessed with eating only foods they deem as “healthy.” But taken to extremes, even “healthy eating” can become unhealthy.

Another trend that has unfortunately been gaining popularity is known as Drunkorexia (or Alcorexia). These terms describe someone who severely restricts their food intake so they can both save their calories for liquor and get more drunk when they drink. This combination of starvation and excessive alcohol can lead to extremely dangerous, if not deadly, consequences. It appears that “partying” for many, continues to be anything but a party.

To make matters even more complex, many people struggle with more than one issue or substance at a time. Others overcome one habit, only to pick up another in its place, often described as “switching seats on the Titanic.”

Regardless of the means or methods that somebody uses to numb, distract, harm or comfort themselves, the bottom line is that in order for someone to get better, they need to want to get better. The negative effects of their actions need to outweigh the positive because as much harm as some habits can cause, we always get (or attempt to get) something from everything we do.

If you are one of the millions who struggles with an addiction or a chronic habit that has more of a hold on you than you have on it, consider some of the following stages and phases.

Denial is the earliest and sometimes longest stage of an addiction or a chronic pattern. Denial is when someone holds the belief that there really isn’t a problem. Or maybe they think there’s a problem but it’s “not that bad.” Sadly, this stage can last for a long time, sometimes years, sometimes a lifetime.

Breaking out of denial is the moment of truth when someone admits they have a problem. This is often spurred by negative consequences like job loss, legal troubles or ruined relationships. Some people hit bottom and break their denial for more internal reasons; they decide they’ve had enough and they need help. People can seek more light in their lives because the dark is too scary and painful, or they can seek light because they simply want more light in their lives. Regardless of the circumstances that lead someone to break their denial, admit they need help and actually seek help, it is a crucial turning point for anyone who struggles with an addiction or a chronic and painful habit.

Once the veil of denial has been lifted and there is motivation for change, it can be helpful to have an understanding of the stages of recovery. While there are various clinical terms that are used in the health field to describe these stages, I will share my own user-friendly terms here.

I initially developed these metaphors to help clients in my therapy practice find practical ways to describe the strength of their cravings as they traversed the road of recovery. If you are on the path of overcoming an addiction or unhealthy habit, see if you recognize your current level of cravings in any of these stages.

Wild Horses: This is when the cravings to use substances or self-destructive behaviors feel incredibly strong or even impossible to resist. The urge to partake in behaviors and intake substances is stronger than your ability to say no. This is obviously an extremely painful and frustrating stage, both for sufferers and their loved ones.

Buzzing Bees: Once someone begins to learn new coping mechanisms, they are likely to continue having urges to do their old behaviors, but in this stage, the pull to partake starts to diminish at times. It’s still really hard to ignore these cravings, but they begin to hold less power than the Wild Horses had.

Flittering Flies: This is when the cravings to use or abuse something are even less powerful and less frequent. In this stage of healing, people experience more and more choice about whether or not they pay attention to and obey their cravings.

Nasty Gnats: In this stage, urges are very infrequent, mostly arising when life gets extra challenging. Someone in this stage of recovery spends the majority of their time in freedom. They still have to deal with the hard parts of life, including painful thoughts, emotions and situations but they turn to outer and inner resources for support, rather than old behaviors. Very occasionally, an urge might return, but it doesn’t have much power. They can just ignore it, or decode what triggered it and continue to make healthy choices.

Freedom: This is when a person is free from the desire to use harmful substances or behaviors. They have many healthy ways to handle difficult emotions, and many means of getting fulfilment and comfort in their life. This does not mean by any means that life is perfect, it means they have many healthy ways to cope with life when it isn’t.

Of course traveling through these stages is not always linear or smooth sailing. It also doesn’t take the same amount of time for everyone. Much depends on what events contributed to someone’s need to use, how long they’ve been using, how willing and ready they are to change, and how much support they have and utilize.

If you are feeling stuck in the grips of a painful pattern or an addiction and you’d like to move one step closer to freedom, the following list highlights some important areas and life skills that need attention in order to do so. The good news is that you don’t have to learn these all on your own, or all at once. You also don’t have to do them all perfectly in order to make progress. This is your course curriculum for life and even small steps can move you forward in significant ways. As you read through the list, perhaps you can write down any areas in your life that you feel are already being attended to, as well as any that you would like to give more attention.

  • Make self-care a priority.
  • Learn to identity and tolerate your emotions and find new ways to cope with them.
  • Practice challenging, quieting and upgrading your unkind thoughts and replacing them with kind thoughts as often as possible.
  • Practice being present more of the time rather than lost in past and future thoughts.
  • Build a safe, compassionate support system.
  • Practice communicating your thoughts, feelings and needs in healthy, respectful, mature ways.
  • Find healthy distractions and learn ways to take breaks that leave you feeling uplifted.
  • Seek balance between rest and movement.
  • Nourish your body with the same care you would nourish a child you love.
  • Understand the deeper needs that your harmful habits have been attempting to meet and find new, healthy ways to get those important needs met.
  • Find comfort and fulfillment in life-affirming, rather than life-numbing ways.
  • Develop a regular practice of expressing gratitude and appreciation. (Even if things are really hard, there’s always something we can be grateful for!)
  • Let go of the notion of perfection and give yourself lots of credit for the progress and efforts you are making.

So if you feel like you have lost the power to choose whether you use some substance or partake in certain activities, consider taking one step that can help you move one step closer to freedom. And remember, you are not alone in this. There are countless therapists, support groups, books, blogs, podcasts, workshops and treatment centers that are here to help you heal.

This blog was previously published in Recovery Today Magazine. To subscribe to this free online app, click here: www.recoverytodaymagazine.com

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The Ambivalence of an Addict

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

If you are one of the millions of people who struggle with an addiction, there is a good chance you have (or have had) some ambivalence about giving it up. After all, nobody would be addicted to something if it didn’t feel good or serve some sort of purpose. And, since one defining characteristic of an addiction is that it has negative consequences, many addicts are left with ambivalence — I like how it makes me feel but I don’t like how it leaves me feeling. It is only when the consequences of an addiction begin to outweigh the benefits that some people consider making a change.

An addict is someone who has an overpowering need to habitually take or do something. Whether your habit is drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, food, computer games, gambling or something else that helps you numb, distract or confirm your pain, it is likely that you get some things out of it and you lose some things from it. This is what leads to ambivalence. To use or not to use, that is the question.

I remember when I began to contemplate the possibility of considering giving up some of my addictions. (I was flexible about the ways I attempted to numb my pain so I had several to choose from.) I remember someone telling me at the time, “If you continue using, it’s hard and if you stop using, it’s hard. But if you stop, things will eventually get better.” I thought, Hmmmm… hard if I use, hard if I stop. I’m not loving my options here. Isn’t there a door number three? Isn’t there an easier route?I have heard it said that “The only way out is through.” I’m just not sure whoever said it was battling alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and an eating disorder!

If you are addicted to something, whether it’s a substance or an activity, where do you fall on the scale of ambivalence? Do you tell yourself, “It’s not that bad?” Do you have any desire to stop? Are you ready to stop now?

If you are somewhere on the scale of readiness, consider the following:

Write For Insight: It’s easy to think, when you are in pain or hungover or bloated or broke, that you need to give “it” up. But how about later when the shame and agony wear off and you want to use again? Not so easy to remember. The inner addict does not always chime in with wise advice.

Consider these writing exercises to help you gain some insight:

• Write a pros and cons list and take an honest look at what you are getting from your addiction and what it is robbing you of.

• Write a specific list of all the areas in your life that have been affected by your addictive behavior, including physical health, emotional health, relationships, work, finances, school, self-care, and future goals.

• The next time you are hungover or bloated or ashamed from the consequences of your addiction, write a letter to yourself that you can read when you are thinking about using again. Put it where you will see it every day. This could be in your wallet, wrapped around a credit card, in the refrigerator or cupboard, on your steering wheel, etc.

• Write a thank you letter to your addiction for all the ways that it has tried to help you through hard times. Include an explanation of how you are going to get your needs met in non-destructive ways.

• Write a goodbye letter to your addiction and include all the reasons you want, need and plan to stop.

Most addicts tend to be as addicted to forgetting as they are to using. It is so easy to minimize the agony of even yesterday and come up with what seem like very reasonable reasons to use again. These writing exercises can help keep you out of denial and minimization.

Heal The Wounds That Fuel The Need To Use: One of the reasons addicts use is to mask certain emotions. Not necessarily every single time. Sometimes addicts use simply because they feel like it, or because they used yesterday, or because they are genetically predisposed. But often times, a person who struggles with addictions, also struggles with tolerating painful emotions. (Even though using in and of itself can cause painful feelings, but that’s another story.) I often say to clients, “We either deal with the pain we are using over or we deal with the pain of using.” Of course this is not easy to do. If it was, there would be much less addiction on our planet. Tolerating painful emotions and expressing them in healthy ways can be very challenging. But again, so are the negative consequences of addiction. Consider getting support for yourself. There are countless therapists, treatment centers and support groups to choose from. There are people who truly understand and really care. It might seem like your feelings will kill you if you don’t numb out and distract yourself from them but I have never seen anyone die from feeling their feelings. Millions of people die from addictions.

Retrain Your Brain: The mind of an addict is not usually a safe place to hang out. Most addicts have a loud internal soundtrack that plays negative thoughts all day long — whether it’s about themselves, others, or the world. Many addicts get high in order to quiet those negative recordings for a while. Many use in order to confirm that the negative messages are indeed true. (Well, if I am such a loser, I might as well use again.) So in order to heal the need to use, we need to retrain the unkind mind that contributes to cravings and learn how to be on our own side instead of on our own back. Consider reaching out to safe people who treat you with respect and kindness. Consider reading a book or listening to a podcast on changing your thinking. We are not responsible for what recordings got put into our minds in the first place but we are definitely responsible for whether we want to start disagreeing with them, deleting them, and downloading new ones!

Meet The Need Addiction Tries To Feed: While addictions can have varying degrees of negative consequences, they do attempt to give us something. I have heard addiction described as, “Looking for something spiritual but going to the wrong address.” Overusing and overdoing are often attempts to meet some type of valid need. While they don’t usually do the trick, we need to find out what we are truly searching for and meet those needs in healthy ways. Some people are deeply lonely and need more companionship and to learn how to be better company for themselves. Some people are filled with self-hate and need to learn how to retrain their brain. Some people are living in the past and need to learn how to forgive themselves and let go of old hurts. Some people are extremely dissatisfied with their lives and need to make some changes or work on more acceptance and gratitude. Some people are unsatisfied in their relationships and need to renegotiate old agreements and see if change is possible. There are countless reasons why addicts use and once you uncover yours and discover other ways to meet those unmet needs, you will no longer need to use, and addiction will no longer feel necessary.

If you are struggling with an addiction and considering giving it up, you will likely have to deal with some ambivalence. With help, willingness and positive changes, you can learn to feel your emotions fully until they pass, retrain your brain till it’s filled with kinder thoughts, and fill some of the spaces that addiction attempts to temporarily fill. You can challenge the powerful voice of addiction until your ambivalence turns into clarity, conviction and compassion.

View on The Huffington Post

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Before and After Addiction

By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Here’s how it went:

I was teased about my body for the first time, so I went on a diet.
I felt starving and obsessed, so I binged.
I felt shame and socially awkward, so I drank.
I wanted desperately to fit in, so I smoked.
I felt totally alone, so I isolated.
I compared myself to the other prettier, skinnier girls, so I started purging.
I felt like I was never good enough, so I obsessed on my perceived flaws.

And so it went. I managed to have a life in there. I went to school. I traveled. I had jobs. But the constant soundtrack of feeling like I wasn’t okay, played on a repeat loop in my head.

Here’s how it is now:

I get hungry. I eat whatever I want, in moderation.
I feel satisfied. I stop no matter what other people are eating or saying.
I get sad sometimes. I let myself cry or sob.
I get mad at times. I feel it until it passes.
I make a mistake or do something I wish I didn’t. I immediately tell myself I don’t have to be perfect.
I go to parties sometimes and feel awkward. I tolerate the feeling, assume many others feel that way too and I leave when I am ready.
I rest a lot without an ounce of guilt and move in ways that I love.
I speak kindly to myself all the time.
I look at others and I know they’re doing the best they can with the resources and history that they have had.
I have many moments of peace.
When hard things happen I tell myself I can handle it and it will pass. And so it goes.

I always thought, when I was in the throes of addiction and depression, that if I ever recovered I would live a perfect, happily-ever-after life. But I live a real life with all kinds of feelings and experiences. I just don’t use anything over them or beat myself up about them.

I wish this for you.

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