Dealing with Addiction

11 03 2015

Recently I saw a couple of encouraging articles in the news which inspired me to write a brief post about dealing with addiction. I will link to the two articles at the end of this post.

Addiction is an issue that comes up all the time in therapy. Sometimes it appears in very overt and obvious forms – such as substance misuse, gambling, or sex addiction – but often in more covert and subtle ways as well, such as compulsive exercise, workaholism, or obsessive thoughts and habits. In many ways all humans are addicts, as we are creatures of habit; we thrive on things that are familiar and comforting, and carve out repetitive patterns for ourselves. This is no bad thing, as it means that we can create healthy routines, or stick to a structured approach when making changes or adjustments; but it can also be dangerous and become an unhealthy, destructive force where a reliance on a certain way of thinking or behaving can start to interfere with the rest our lives.

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So, why is it that some people can keep their habits under control and choose healthy routines for themselves, whereas others find themselves losing control to harmful urges? What decides whether we will find a healthy or an unhealthy outlet for our need for comfort? This is a complex issue, with numerous answers (see Gabor Mate’s talk on The Power Of Addiction for some great points), but I think these three are the most important:

1. Psychobiology. Some people inherit genetic traits or learned behaviours from their ancestors, where they may be predisposed to certain ways of thinking or doing things, or have a particular physiological ‘weakness’ for a certain substance.
2. Environment. We are hugely influenced by our surroundings, and by our social networks (see Nicholas Christakis’ wonderful talk on The Hidden Influence Of Social Networks for more information). The people around us shape our ideas of accepted norms and influence the behaviours that we establish; we often look to see how others are coping with their lives, and then we copy them.
3. Early attachment experiences. Our early experiences shape our identities and also, crucially, our emotion regulation strategies. If we have positive attachment experiences then we learn that we can rely on others, and turn to them during times of need; and this also teaches us that we are ‘worthy’ of other people’s care and attention. However, if we have negative attachment experiences then we learn that we cannot rely on others, and instead have to develop our own methods of self-soothing; and this also teaches that we are ‘unworthy’ of other people’s care and attention. It’s this latter group of people who often seek external sources of affirmation and validation, which can slip into addictive cycles: if it doesn’t feel emotionally safe to turn to other people for reassurance, then they will seek that comfort from the escapism and rush of sex, drugs, or gambling instead.

Amazingly, many addiction treatment programs continue to focus on only the first of those three issues. They see addiction simply as a psychobiological disease, and they dissect the cognitive, behavioural, and physiological components of this disease, and then set out to replace previous bad habits with healthy new ones. However, they often overlook the crucial factors of social networks and attachment experiences; factors which will be massively influential on a person’s chances of maintaining their recovery over time. I believe a crucial element in treating addiction is to process and repair negative attachment experiences from the past, and then to create new, healing attachment experiences in therapy; so that a client can feel a sense of attunement, and learn that it’s safe to turn to others for soothing and reassurance, rather than having to self-soothe or seek out alternative sources of validation. This process also empowers the client to develop a new sense of worthiness, overcoming internalished shame from past rejection, and recognising that they are indeed deserving of the attention, care, and love of others.

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I spent several years as the Clinical Lead of a substance misuse treatment agency within the NHS in North London, and always made sure that we were taking a holistic approach to our clients’ recovery; addressing all three of the factors I list above. I continue to use this approach in therapy with my clients.

Now, here are the two articles I referred to earlier:

1. A Huffington Post article, titled “The Likely Cause Of Addiction Has Been Discovered, And It Is Not What You Think”.
2. An NPR article, titled “What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits”.

Hopefully you will find them as informative as I did. And if you are seeking information or therapy for issues related to addiction, then please do feel free to contact me.

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How To Change Your Drinking: A Harm Reduction Guide to Alcohol

16 12 2011

My review of “How To Change Your Drinking: A Harm Reduction Guide to Alcohol” by Kenneth Anderson:

How to change your drinking front cover

Substance misuse is one of the most common and widely discussed topics within the mental health community, as both clients and professionals debate the most effective ways to deal with addictions and their causes.

In the past, treatment might typically have involved a focus on abstinence as the ultimate goal, through zero-tolerance groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, or a 12-step program, where clients would be rewarded only for complete sobriety and nothing less.

This has slowly changed over the past decade, though, through the realization that complete abstinence simply wasn’t a realistic or achievable goal for some, and that such a harsh insistence on withdrawal simply wasn’t working. In fact, it is estimated that 60 to 95 percent of clients who enter 12-step programs either drop out or otherwise fail to maintain abstinence from alcohol, and the NIAAA’s statistics suggest that only 7 percent of people who suffer from an alcohol use disorder will typically seek treatment within any given year.

As a result the treatment focus has shifted from simple cold turkey toward an overall emphasis on healthier and safer habits, and lowering risks. This has seen an emerging popularity for modalities such as motivational interviewing, where both the pros and cons of sustaining the negative behaviors are acknowledged. The client is then free to decide how, and at what pace, to proceed.

The HAMS group takes a similar “baby steps” approach. HAMS — the acronym stands for Harm reduction, Alcohol abstinence, and Moderation Support — describes itself as “a free of charge, lay-led support and informational group for people who want to change their drinking for the better.” Founder and CEO Kenneth Anderson is himself a former problem drinker.

In this book, How To Change Your Drinking: A Harm Reduction Guide To Alcohol, Anderson presents a comprehensive summary of the harm reduction approach to drug and alcohol problems, suggesting it could “either be used as a self-help manual for people working on their own or by people who are participating in a harm reduction support group.”

The book begins by introducing the underlying theories of harm reduction, and is written in a nonjudgmental tone that will be reassuring to most readers:

Some folks today want to say that everything fun is an addiction and that everyone had better spend their lives in 12 step meetings talking about their ‘Higher Power’ and holding hands and saying the Lord’s Prayer instead of ever doing anything fun. We beg to differ with these people. Prohibition does not work because there is nothing essentially evil, sinful, or diseased about having fun. There is nothing evil, sinful or diseased about drinking alcohol moderately, and for that matter there is nothing sinful, evil or diseased about engaging in recreational intoxication either.

There is not some specific magical quantity which we can say is too much alcohol – free individuals have the right to make up their own minds about how much they believe is too much for them personally. Occasional intoxication is not a symptom of a disease; it is a choice.

It is this focus on individual choice and empowerment which personifies this book and differentiates it from much of the rest of the substance misuse canon. Instead of focusing on problematic labels or clinical diagnosis as a means of demanding perfect abstinence, the author leads the reader on a step-by-step journey toward deciding what their own goals should be, and offers advice and support on the healthiest ways to achieve and maintain them. There is even a short section titled “Ken’s Story,” where Anderson talks about his own previous drinking problems and near-death experiences in AA. Those led to his resolution to “find a better way” and start the HAMS network.

The opening chapters might seem familiar to many mental health professionals, as Anderson suggests that each reader completes a Cost Benefit Analysis exercise, similar to those used in motivational interviewing techniques:

Miller and Rollnick (2002) say, ‘Often individuals considering changing a problem behavior will concentrate on all the negative aspects of the behavior. ‘I know how bad my drinking is for me,’ they say. In fact, they can often produce a litany of reasons why what they are doing is bad for them. Clinician and client are often baffled by the fact that even with all these negatives, change does not occur. The reality is that if the behavior were not in some way beneficial to the client, he or she would not be doing it. Until the client acknowledges the ‘good things’ about the behavior, they cannot prepare to combat temptation once they make an attempt to change. The decisional balance helps facilitate this process.

It is clear that Anderson has done his research in this field, and even though much of the book features personal stories and experiences, these are all presented within a scientifically supported framework, using clinically proven techniques and offering further resources where appropriate. Later in the book, Anderson explains Prochaska’s “stages of change” model, leading the reader through each stage and explaining the range of thoughts and behaviors that might accompany this process. He offers readers a large quantity of materials to help them along this journey, too, ranging from goal-setting and risk-ranking worksheets, to consumption charts and graphs, to the chemical breakdown of different alcoholic beverages and how they are processed within the body.

The book also addresses the addict’s friends and family. Anderson features chapters on specific topics such as spousal goals, alcoholism’s effects on children, and a study of drinking patterns as affected by ethnic identity and religious affiliation.

There is a wealth of knowledge in this book, but the clear, concise and easy-to-read style ensures that it never becomes overwhelming or difficult to follow. Anderson describes things in layman’s terms and it is doubtless this open, reassuring style which attracts so many of the HAMSters to the harm reduction approach.

As a comprehensive manual to changing drinking behaviors, readers will be hard-pressed to find a better book than this. If you’re looking for support, advice, scientific facts, or recovery tools, you’ll find them all here, clearly laid out for both mental health professionals and clients alike.

4 out of 5 stars.

It is worth noting that alcohol misuse has been a major issue in the British media since I wrote this review; with suggestions of major changes in government policy and the introduction of ‘drunk tanks’ and ‘booze buses’. I have a lot more to say on this topic, and it is one that is close to my heart as I do a lot of work for a substance misuse agency within the NHS in North London; but that’ll have to wait for another time.