Once You Are an Addict, Are You Always an Addict?
Some groups of people believe that once a person has an addiction he or she will always have that addiction. The actuality of addictions and their treatment is much more complex, however. Whether you have a lifetime addiction or not depends on who you are and the kind of substance or behavior about which you’re addicted. Let me explain.
I have counseled hundreds of people who were addicted to about everything under the sun—sex, relationships, violence, work, drugs, alcohol, tobacco, gambling—you name it. Some addictions are mind boggling and cause people to end up living under bridges if they don’t outright kill them. Others are straight forward, like drinking every night after work until you get married, and then, never doing it again. That is why some addictions can be easily classified while other addictions are just plain crazy.
Hence, it does not make sense to classify all addictions as the same, or to classify them without considering the effect of a person’s concurrent mental health disorder. What this means is that people are not the same and the addictions they have are often not the same. That is why some folks defy the pattern of having a lifetime addiction—and get cured. This does not mean that the 12 step adage of “once and addict, always an addict” is not true for other folks, however. There are lots of people who have lifetime addictions. Let’s look at this a little closer.
Years ago, I discovered that there seemed to be two kinds of people with addictions. That was because about half the people I saw at the psychiatry department could not understand what was going on at a twelve step meeting. They were not guilt-oriented or shame-based. So they did not fear the shame that the 12 step group would put on them if they relapsed. Hence, a 12 step group could not have helped them to control their addictions. Many of these folks veritably cannot understand what is going on at a 12 step meeting. So, a judge forcing them to go there is about as helpful as sending an atheist to church. Yet—
There is a group of people—about 20% of the people with substance addictions—that the only thing they do understand is a 12 step meeting. That is because of their genetic makeup, their life experiences, their lifestyle, and their beliefs. So, it follows, that the only thing I could recommend when this type of person showed up for treatment was to go to twelve step meetings.
In fact, I’ve gone with people to make sure they got to a meeting. That is because I believe in twelve step meetings for those people who can identify with the group members, establish a meaningful home group, and get a sober sponsor that they respect—someone to call when the stress of life gets out of hand.
That said, I do not agree that once you are an addict you will always be one. I say that because research shows that half the alcoholics quit drinking and move on without seeking treatment or without going to 12 step meetings. Yet, there still is that 20% of the people who have addictions like I mentioned—those folks generally cannot move on and just forget this crazy chapter in their lives. It is an everyday reality for them.
The person with a lifetime addiction may be, for instance, someone who binge drinks every time things get going too good or every time there is a heavy load of stress weighing them down. Or, he or she may simply not be able to control the craving to fix without the help of another person. Whatever the issues is, there seems to be some sort of chemical imbalance, personality flavor, psychic wound, or something that science has yet to discover that will not allow them to move beyond the therapy clinic or the 12 step program. This does not mean they lack will power. Some of the most headstrong people in the world have addictions.
What hurts these folks is that the kind of addiction they have is chronic and tireless. It’ll follow them like a thief in the night, just waiting to steal their lives if they make a false move—like going back to the places they frequented when they got high. That sort of thing triggers the craving to get intoxicated, and they are helpless because just saying “no” has no effect, aside from making the craving worse.
As for those folks who move on simply on their own, or after treatment—they only stay sober if they have completely changed their lifestyles. A major, permanent lifestyle change rewrites their psychic make up and their destiny, while rewiring their brains. That is why they are not triggered anymore by the sight or thought of the object of their former addiction.
A person who moves on like this, generally after three years of sobriety, wakes up one day feeling like a new person. You don’t know you’re going to have this outcome until you get there, however. It’s kind of like trying to master Zen without knowing that Zen cannot be mastered. But this does not stop Zen from making you a new person.
For the above reasons, I say there is a problem with the expression “once an addict, always an addict.” When this sort of thinking is burnt into your brain it becomes your identity—that you’re an addict. You’re not a truck driver or a lawyer or mother or father, but an addict. So all your future activities will revolve around that fact. That will certainly keep your addiction alive and in your face every day. But—
As I said, if you are among the 20% of the people with addictions that are incurable, you had better believe it—you will always be an addict. That is why it is important to face that identity and embrace it. And find a 12 step group … immediately!
It is possible to have a “normal” life after being hooked on a substance or behavior. The point, here, is that you first must come to grips with who you are and what you want to be. And if you think you’re going to “test” yourself, now that you are clean and sober, by doing your former addiction—then you’re still an addict in denial, big time.
What’s important here is that, if you have not changed your lifestyle to handle life stressors in some other way than by doing your addiction, then you are still an addict. And still vulnerable. That is because under extreme stress your thinking will regress and you will go back to the time that your addiction felt right. So change your life and move on, or identify as an addict and carry on. But do not take addiction lightly.
I’ve seen addictions put millionaires under bridges, living like bums, and doctors rendered helpless, taking their own pain pills. If you feel like you’re vulnerable, remember, whatever it is you keep track of, or count, and know where it’s at all the time—whether it’s the next drink or the next pretty body or relationship partner—that’s what you’re addicted to.