Are you an addict? Do you need a fix?
Addiction is essentially a compulsive dependence on a behavior (e.g., gambling) or substance (e.g., caffeine) that persists despite negative consequences. A hallmark of addiction is denial (‘I can stop anytime’); thus you must recognize that there is a problem before you can begin to address it. Battling that addiction is tough. The habit is merely a symptom of the psychological condition. By definition, an addict is vulnerable, so it is easy to see why it is common for a recovering addict to transfer his addictive behavior to other parts of his life, sometimes without even realizing it. This is ‘replacement’ or ‘substitute’ addiction, also called “switching.”
A dear friend of mine is a recovering drug and alcohol addict. She said that in rehab, they told her that the most common substitute addictions are sugar and sex, but they may also be exercise, work, smoking, dieting, overeating, drugs, shopping, cleaning, or a host of other activities. It’s still addiction. Even if the substitute is not in itself a bad thing, like work or exercise, it is clear that spending an excessive amount of time working or exercising can be harmful. You’ve changed the outward manifestation of your addiction, but you’re still addicted. You may not know it, but the people around you probably do.
I’ve known people who choose not to drink because their parents were alcoholics; their drug of choice is food, specifically sugar. One of my acquaintances quit drinking hard liquor and now only drinks beer. And we all know ex-smokers who gain weight because they eat candy instead of smoking. They simply replaced one habit with another – and that is not recovery. Your brain still craves the reward, the ‘high’ of whatever you did to satisfy the craving; it’s just finding another way to get the fix.
So let’s bring this closer to home. After a lifetime of obesity/food addiction and unsuccessful, yo-yo dieting, you have weight loss surgery. You have changed your eating habits; you are losing weight and getting healthier. However, you now smoke twice as many cigarettes as you used to. Or now, under the guise of ‘celebrating’ your weight loss, you max out your credit card at the mall. Or maybe you have become obsessive about working out. Or you become overly flirty and promiscuous in an effort to demonstrate your attractiveness. Or you become preoccupied with proving something at work, becoming an overachiever or workaholic. Or you spend countless hours online.
Whatever your replacement addiction may be, legal or not, it is like a rebound after a romantic breakup – it is a short-term, feel-better coping mechanism. It helps you escape the downside or negative consequences of your behavior. At best, it may not be harmful, but at worst, it certainly can be.
The problem is not the activity itself – it’s the obsession.
So what can you do about it? Well, recognizing that you’re switching is a good start. Then you must realize that you need help dealing with it. Help might mean behavioral therapy with a professional. It might be a 12-step program, counseling, or a support group. It might be developing other ways to deal with the stresses in your life or adopting new pastimes. It might be as simple as enlisting friends and family to hold you accountable or to help keep you away from challenging situations.
To me, it proves that I can’t do this alone. Left to my own devices, I would substitute one thing after another after another. For years, when I dieted, I would smoke more; when I tried to quit smoking, I’d eat more. When I finally quit smoking for good, I gained a lot of weight. Now that I’m not overeating, I find that I’m shopping more and spending more idle time online. (I’m also writing more, but I think that’s a good thing.) I have to be very careful not to let the habit gain the upper hand because I know it can easily happen. My brain still wants that fix.
I’ve come to the understanding that my obesity was not just about food. Facing myself and overcoming my compulsive behavior takes a lot of work and a lot of time. The key is in finding the balance in your life. You want to cultivate productive, healthy habits and behavior but not form detrimental attachments to them. It’s tough. I’m glad that Mr. Stuck and I are working on this together. I’m grateful to every one of the people who come to the same WLS support group we attend, because their insight and encouragement is what keeps us coming back.
I’m not a psychologist or counselor. I offer neither authority nor expert opinion on addiction. I know there are people out there in much worse situations than I, and I do not mean to downplay their struggles toward recovery. I just want to acknowledge that an addict doesn’t have to have a needle in his arm or a bottle of vodka hidden in the bathroom cabinet. It could be the guy on the treadmill, the boss who stays late every night, or the woman next to you with the Diet Coke. It could be me.
Or it could be you.
For further reading on this subject, check out the book Eat It Up! The Complete Mind/Body/Spirit Guide to a Full Life After Weight Loss Surgery by Dr. Connie Stapleton, a licensed psychologist and certified addiction counselor. Eat It Up! shows you how to create and maintain balance in your life and helps you on the journey to your well-being. In addition, Dr. Stapleton is the ‘Doc’ to Cari De La Cruz’s ‘Post-Op’ on their Facebook page, A Post-Op & a Doc, where you can find wit and wisdom and lots of support. Check them out!
photo credit Alan Cleaver