By Jeremy Godwin.
Welcome to Let’s Talk About Mental Health, the weekly podcast about improving your mental health and wellbeing by Jeremy Godwin. Each episode focuses on one specific topic and is full of practical advice for improving and maintaining your mental health and wellbeing.
This is Episode 34 and this week I’m talking about addiction – I’ll be discussing the impact of addiction on you and those you care about, how you can identify if it’s time to do something about it, how to tackle addiction, and how to support someone else who might be struggling with an addiction. Listen to the podcast episode now in the Spotify player below or continue reading for the article/transcript version. Let’s talk!
I decided to talk about addiction this week because this episode goes out on July 6 which happens to be my birthday (no, I’m not fishing for birthday wishes!) as well as being my two-year anniversary of quitting drinking.
For a long time I thought I had my drinking under control, however if the last two years have proved anything to me it’s that, when it comes to addiction, it is amazing the things that we can justify to ourselves if we try hard enough! Since becoming sober, I’ve come to accept just how much damage I was doing to my mental health by drinking, and just how important it is to talk about these sorts of things openly and honestly — which is what I’ll be discussing this week. I’m going to be looking at addiction in general — from substances to food, from gambling to shopping — and I promise you that this won’t be an episode full of me lecturing you to tackle your demons; instead, I’m going to be giving you some things to think about and then it’s up to you to do with that what you will. No amount of lecturing is going to make someone change — dealing with addiction is a very personal thing and there are usually deep-seated reasons why people do things that aren’t in their best interests, so I’ll be challenging you to think about the choices you make and what impact those decisions have on your life. Let’s start with some definitions and background information…
Simply put, ‘addiction’ refers to a compulsive habit or behaviour, and often refers to a dependency on a specific substance. There are many different types of addiction: food, alcohol, drugs, smoking, shopping, gambling, etc. Addiction is extreme behaviour — too much of anything leads to excess, and there’s a wise old proverb that states, “Even nectar is poison if taken to excess.”
When an addiction is based on substance abuse, it can result in changes and serious damage to the brain as well as other organs in the body, and substance abuse is a major cause of mental illness; there’s also evidence to suggest that people dealing with mental health issues may have a higher likelihood of developing substance abuse (Sources: Health Direct and Sane Australia). So, it’s a bit of a ‘chicken or egg?’ thing in that mental illness can contribute to substance abuse (for example, as a coping mechanism) or having a substance abuse issue can lead to mental health issues. Either way it makes sense when you think about it — for a lot of us our addictive behaviours are things that we do to self-soothe, and when those behaviours tip over into being unhealthy because of their frequency or impact (or both), that’s where we start having more and more issues, and so it can become a downward spiral.
Let me share some statistics around addiction and substance abuse. This data is Australian and sourced from Health Direct, and I’ll include the reference in the transcript, but even though it’s specific to Australia I’ve noticed when I did a bit of research it’s pretty similar to most English-speaking countries, give or take a percentage point here and there, so this data should give you at least a broad idea of the prevalence regardless of where you live.
- Around 1 in 20 Australians (roughly 5%) has an addiction or substance abuse problem.
- The most commonly abused substances in Australia are tobacco and alcohol. Smoking is the single most preventable cause of sickness and death. Around 13% of Australians aged 14 and over smoke every day, and smoking causes almost 8% of the burden of disease in Australia.
- Just under 1 in 6 Australians drink at risky levels. Alcohol can lead to the short-term risk of accidents, injuries or violent behaviour as well as long-term medical complications such as liver disease and mental disorders.
- Drug use disorders include the misuse of illegal drugs (such as cannabis and amphetamines) as well as the use of prescription medicines, like painkillers or sedatives, for non-medical reasons. People who use illegal drugs have much higher rates of mental illness than the rest of the population. The most commonly used illegal drugs in Australia are cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine and meth/amphetamines.
So, I think it’s fair to say that many types of addictions affect a lot of people and have some major impacts.
Why do we develop addictions?
Many people become addicted to things because they’re seeking escape from physical or emotional discomfort (or both) (source: Harvard Health). Addiction used to be seen as a sign of weakness or a sort of personal failure, but more and more health professionals now recognise that addictive behaviour and mental health often go hand in hand. It doesn’t really matter what the type of addiction is; as noted in the same Harvard article:
“Ultimately, addiction is about the complex struggle between acting on impulse and resisting that impulse. When this struggle is causing suffering related to health, family, work, and other activities of everyday life, addiction might be involved.” (Source: Harvard Health)
How do you know if you have an addiction?
According to Your Health in Mind:
“At the start, you might start to notice problems with close relationships and your moods. As addiction gets worse you might:
- need more to get the same effect
- have withdrawal symptoms or feel sick if you stop
- sometimes use more than you mean to
- prioritise the addiction over other things
- keep going even though you know it is bad for you or others you care about
- try to cut down but can’t.”
That second-last point is an important one: “keep going even though you know it is bad for you or others you care about”. That is where addiction starts to move into really damaging territory; when we do whatever it is we’re doing to ourselves even when we can see the damage it is doing to us and to those we love.
Over the past few months, I’ve relapsed into food addiction as a coping mechanism due to stress. I can see the damage I’m doing — when you try to put clothes on and they don’t fit anymore, or when you look at your fingers and see that they’re getting chunky, it’s pretty obvious — but it’s like one part of my brain is being rational and sees all the negative effects, while the other part of the brain just tunes it out and tells me to eat.
So how do you identify if it’s time to do something about an addiction? Well, much like me with my current relapse into food addiction, you probably know if your behaviour is causing negative effects on your life — it’s a matter of being brutally honest and completely self-aware. I could sit here and give you three hours’ worth of points about how to work out when it’s time to make a change, but I’ll boil it down to this: if you’ve ever thought that you should make a change because your behaviour is unhealthy, then it’s time. Should you make the decision before it reaches that point? Absolutely! Will you? Probably not. We tend to ignore the consequences of our actions until they start to have a detrimental effect on our lives, so even though it would be wonderful if we could all get our shit together before we develop a problem we usually don’t. I mean, I talk about making healthy choices for the sake of your mental health a lot in this podcast and I’m sitting here with a relapse into food addiction, so I’m no saint when it comes to this! Addressing an addiction is a choice, and nobody can make that choice for you but you. And so with that said, let’s get into the how-to part of this week’s episode.
How to tackle addiction
There are three main components to tackling addiction:
Let’s start by exploring contemplation. The first step of contemplation is making the decision to change. Until you decide that you want to change, you will have no reason to change and therefore the addiction will likely continue. But when you decide you want to change, suddenly you’ll start thinking through what that change might be; for example, will you cut back on the habit or quit it entirely? At this point I’d suggest spending a bit more time in this contemplation stage (which I’m going to explore further in a moment) rather than just jumping into action; you probably know by now just how much I love to remind you that failing to plan is planning to fail, and a huge part of planning is about understanding where you are today (and why) so you can address the root cause of the situation. And so with that in mind…
The next step is to take time to understand why the behaviour/addiction is happening in the first place – this takes real work… yes you can have an “a-ha!” moment, but let’s be honest here: how many times in our lives do we have one of those big epiphanies about something and yet we find ourselves months or even just weeks later going back to the same behaviour? That happens because we haven’t spent enough time digging into the ‘why’ behind our situation and really confronting what we’re doing and what’s underneath it – e.g. With my falling back into emotional eating, I know that I do that when the anxiety and insecurity become so overwhelming that something in me shifts and it’s like a switch goes off, and suddenly I snap and go into overeating mode. While I’m doing it I can be completely rationally aware of what I’m doing to myself and point out the negative effects my behaviour is having on me, but it’s like my mind just overrides it completely. I did it with drinking, I did it with smoking, I did it with overspending, and I still do it with overeating. Every time I’ve overcome an addiction (which has been all of those except the food one, which I’m back to working on now), I’ve used my favourite self-awareness technique called ‘The Five Why’s’ to dig into the root cause of why the behaviour is happening so I’m going to cover that quickly now to explain how it can work to help you better understand why you might be struggling with addictive behaviours (which I know I’ve discussed in earlier episodes but it’s a good topic to revisit it on).
It’s like when you go to the doctor – a good one won’t just treat your symptoms but will run tests to identify what your disease or condition is so they can treat that, because if you just treat the symptoms instead of the root cause then problems are liable to crop up again later or your condition may worsen. If you’re dealing with some form of addiction, you can ask yourself “why?” then once you have an answer, ask yourself “why is that the answer I gave?” and continue doing that five times which will usually allow you to develop a much deeper understanding and get you far closer to the root cause of your issues than if you were just to deal with the initial symptom.
I’m going to do a real-life example now which is me asking myself a series of questions about why I’ve relapsed into food addiction, so you can hear (see) the process in action.
- Issue: I have relapsed into overeating, and it has been getting worse for the past few months.
- Why is that happening? I’ve been feeling stressed out and anxious with everything going on.
- And why is that? For most of this year I have felt on edge and like I’m treading water, with one major event after another (both at home and in the world).
- Why have I felt “on edge”? I had all these plans for my work which took a hard left when COVID hit and it’s taken me a few months to get back on track (albeit in a new direction), I couldn’t save my cat and it broke my heart, and I’ve felt adrift because I had a really particular set of goals in mind which became impossible because of a number of factors
- Why has that triggered overeating? Food has been a constant challenge in my life; when I was a child I would often take comfort in food when I was feeling unsafe (which was often).
- Why has that happened again? I’ve been feeling anxious and always on edge about losing control and so eating has given me some sense of comfort(even if it’s not particularly healthy).
See the difference from the beginning to ‘Why?’ number five? If I just tried to address the overeating thing, it wouldn’t tackle the real root cause — I need to address my anxiety issues about control before I can hope to get my eating back under control, because the eating is just a symptom of that much deeper issue which is manifesting in a variety of ways including anxiety and overeating. Does that make sense? I can’t say I’m hugely surprised; that control stuff has actually been a recurring theme and when I was mid-breakdown I was counting random things and writing out random words I would hear or think of using my finger or toe to write on the sheet or in the air — behaviours that my therapist at the time pointed out were about attempting to regain some control and order. It’s ironic, because I know that we can only control our own words, actions and feelings, however when events throw us off course we can find ourselves trying to take control wherever we can.
The thing about these types of deep-seated issues is that if you don’t address them, they have a tendency to manifest in many different ways and it will pop up over and over again until you confront it, learn the lesson you need to learn and then deal with it, (so it looks like I have some work to do…).
Once you understand why your addiction is happening, another component of contemplation is to take time to understand the impacts of your addiction. Ask yourself honestly:
- What impact is my addiction having on my life?
- What impact is my addiction having on my health (physical, mental, spiritual, social and financial)?
- What impact is my addiction having on my loved ones?
Be brutally honest with yourself when you do this — no sugarcoating. If your family is having to struggle to make ends meet because you’re down the track twice a week gambling away the grocery money, you’re having a major negative impact on your family and yourself. Really take the time to understand what you’re doing because you’re going to need that knowledge to keep you motivated to make changes in the future.
The final component of contemplation is be completely clear about why you want to change. You’ve just spent a whole bunch of time going through all the stuff that sits under your addiction and what it’s doing to you and those you love, so now it’s time to be blunt with yourself: why do you want to or need to change? Is it because your health is in serious danger? Is it because it’s costing you a fortune? Is it because you’re pushing away the people you love? Is it because you’re sick of waking up feeling horrendous or having that next-day shame feeling when you remember what you did? Take all of that stuff you’ve just identified and roll it into a sentence or two that makes it clear why you want to (and need to) make changes.
Once you know why you want to change, it’s time to get into action mode, which involves:
- Taking action — cutting back or quitting entirely (in a safe and responsible manner)
- Getting support — for serious addictions, especially gambling or substance abuse, you need to get help. Why? Well, for starters it could be dangerous and even life-threatening to suddenly quit without proper support (such as dealing with withdrawal symptoms from narcotics), and then the other reason is that quitting on your own is just plain difficult; if you want to have the best possible chance of success, get help. I talked about support in Episode 33 so check that out for more about what to expect, and if you’re planning on going to a support group (like AA or NA) then please do some homework and make sure you find one that aligns with your personal values and beliefs, since many of them can be religious in nature so you need to factor that in to your thinking (because when you find support options that are in line with your belief system you will have a higher likelihood of success)
- Taking things one day at a time — this is a marathon, not a sprint, and especially in the early stages it can be a case of just making it through the next hour. Take your time and take things one step at a time.
- Celebrating milestones — do you know why AA give out chips for hitting milestones? Because it’s a big deal! One month, six months, one year, two years, ten years… milestones matter, because they’re tangible evidence of the progress you’ve made, so work out what milestones matter to you and celebrate your progress to reinforce your success.
The final step is perseverance, and that means:
- Remembering that recovery happens one day at a time — it’s a journey, not a destination, and it takes daily effort and vigilance. If you used to struggle with alcohol addiction, then it’s quite possible that you will always be an alcoholic and so you’ll need to accept that and remain vigilant for the impact of triggers and setbacks. You will be recovering from addiction for the rest of your life — instead of fighting that fact, accept it and embrace it. That’s why a lot of AA sponsors do what they do, because it serves to ‘pay it forward’ by helping someone else get their addictions under control, and at the same time it can remind the sponsor of their own progress.
- If you do slip backwards, address it hard and address it early — this is the reason why I list this step as ‘perseverance’, because it certainly can take determination and effort to stay on track! You might relapse, but deal with it quickly and take time to understand why it happened; there might be additional triggers that have come to the surface that you weren’t expecting. Be kind and forgiving to yourself, and keep going. I think this quote from Harvard Health sums it up perfectly:
“It is important to remember that the process of overcoming an addiction often requires many attempts. Each attempt provides an important learning opportunity that changes experience and, despite the difficulties, moves recovering people closer to their objectives. There are many pathways into addiction and many routes to recovery. Think about recovery from addiction as a five-year process that will have its ups and downs; after about five years, life can and will be very different. As life becomes more worth living, addiction loses its influence.”Source: Harvard Health
I talked about Recovery back in Episode 27, so you might also find that useful to check out (link in transcript).
Supporting others through addiction
What if it’s a friend or relative who is experiencing addiction? How do you support them? First off, hopefully you’ve listened to the rest of this episode because that should begin to give you a bit of an idea of the challenges and issues associated with addictive behaviour, because offering genuine understanding about the difficulties of addiction and being non-judgmental are probably the biggest things you can do to provide support.
Also, you need to know that the person might not see their behaviour as an issue. You can choose to be honest with them and explain the effect their behaviour is having on you in a calm and non-judgemental manner, but the decision to change is ultimately going to be up to them. Explain your concerns, encourage them to do something about their addiction, offer support and love, and then give them space to decide what they will or won’t do.
If they decide to change, ask them what support they would like from you and simply be there for them. Just remember they have to do the work, not you, so don’t accept responsibility for taking action to address the addiction. For example, if you offer to be the one to drive them to meetings then that makes it your responsibility to get them to attend, which is taking away from the person’s ownership of their recovery. ‘Being there for someone’ means emotional support, love and encouragement, not doing the work!
And what if the person won’t do anything about their addiction? That is out of your control, because you can only control your own words, actions and feelings. So in that case, you either accept things as they are or you let go and walk away. That can be painful, especially if the person is someone you’re close to, but the reality is that you need to make the decisions that are right for you. If that’s something you’re struggling with, get support to work through it — talk to a counsellor or therapist. Letting go is painful and it’s something I talked about in Episode 32, plus I also discussed dealing with challenging family relationships back in Episode 19, so you might find either of those to be helpful.
Because when it comes to addiction, what it all boils down to is this: when you have an unhealthy addiction and you choose to continue it even though you know it’s bad for you and the ones you care about, you are doing harm — harm to yourself and harm to others. Confronting the truth about our behaviour is difficult enough, but often what’s more difficult is accepting that we’re doing harm. Life is a reasonably simple equation: make healthy choices plus do no harm plus be kind equals greater satisfaction. So, if you’re prone to behaviours that are taking away from long-lasting satisfaction, then perhaps it’s time that you confronted the truth and made a change for the better. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it, and it begins with the choices that you make today.
Summary and close-out
That’s nearly it for this week – each week I like to share a quote about this week’s topic and encourage you to take a few moments to reflect on it and consider what it means to you. This week’s quote is by an unknown author, and it is:
“Recovery is not for people who need it, it’s for people who want it.”Unknown
That’s it for this week’s episode. Next week I’ll be talking about insecurity – I’ll be discussing the common causes of insecurity and ways you can beat it in order to build greater confidence.
I hope you’ll join me for that episode, which will be released on Monday morning in Australia & New Zealand, Sunday evening in the UK & Ireland, and Sunday afternoon in the US & Canada. You can find past episodes and additional content at the website which is letstalkaboutmentalhealth.com.au.
You can find Let’s Talk About Mental Health on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest – I’ve recently changed the account name to better reflect the focus on mental health and make it easier for new people to identify what LTAMH is all about, so the new username is now @ltamentalhealth on all social media platforms (Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest).
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Thank you very much for joining me today – look after yourself and make a conscious effort to share positivity and kindness in the world, because you get back what you put out. Take care and talk to you next time.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health.
Because the more we talk about it, the easier it gets.
Let’s Talk About Mental Health. © 2020 Jeremy Godwin.