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Overcoming the Painful Desires and Beliefs That Feed Addiction

Feeling Down

“Taking responsibility for your beliefs and judgments gives you the power to change them.” ~Byron Katie

I had spent five horrible years in and out of rehabs and support groups for my substance use problems. Along the way, there were a few periods where I cleaned up for six months, eight months, and almost a whole year one time, but nothing seemed to stick.

The worst part was that even with all of the painful effort it took to keep the drug and alcohol use going, and all of the painful consequences that were piling up, I was happier in that life than I was during the sober, trouble-free times.

I believed that getting high and drunk was really great, and I believed that sober life was complete drudgery. These beliefs played themselves out quite predictably.

I felt tortured and deprived when I was sober. I would trudge to work, then I would trudge home and hope that I could fall asleep quickly to end the misery until the morning.

Then I would wake up and do it all over again. I lived with a painful desire to get high and drunk the whole time.

I thought about it when I got up in the morning. I thought about it while I worked. I thought about it when I met with my counselors and therapists. I thought about it before, after, and during the support group meetings that were supposed to help me to resist the desire to get high and drunk.

I was hanging on by a thread—resisting my desire to get high and drunk one day at a time. Eventually, resisting would become too painful, too unfulfilling, and too unsatisfactory to maintain any longer.

I was resisting this desire so that I could stop bad things from happening in my life. But then I just ended up lacking bad things. I didn’t have any good things going on.

When I was abstinent, I didn’t have the thing I believed I needed to be happy and comfortable: heavy drug and alcohol use.

I took it for granted that I would always have a painful, overpowering desire for heavy drug and alcohol use. I could fight it or give in. I repeatedly gave up the fight and gave in to the desire.

But then I found a new approach. After years of being taught how to fight the desire, and years of failure, I found a way to change my desire.

I learned to accept my substance use habits as a simple pursuit of happiness activity (rather than as a compulsion). I learned that I was desiring it and doing it because I believed it was my best shot at feeling good. I learned that I could re-examine that belief once I acknowledged and accepted it.

I know this might be scary to people who’ve been taught that such habits have nothing to do with choice, but think about it—everything you do is because you believe you’ll benefit from it in some way.

In some cases the benefits are small, like when smoking a cigarette, which is an extremely mild stimulant that may provide a good feeling for a few seconds or minutes. In other cases the benefits can be big, like when going to college, which can result in more employment opportunities and job security that lasts a lifetime.

Everything we do is driven by our belief that it will bring us closer to some sort of happiness or benefit.

Now, getting back to my substance use habit—I had to take responsibility for my beliefs about drugs and alcohol.

I believed that drugs and alcohol were cure-alls, and that I needed them:

  • For the traumatic pain left over from my childhood
  • For my social anxiety, generalized anxiety, and depression
  • To have a good time at all in any way
  • To feel normal
  • To wake up in the morning
  • To go to bed at night
  • To be creative
  • To clear my mind

That’s a crazy list of powers I believed that drugs and alcohol had. Several of them are contradictory; yet, these beliefs are not uncommon at all.

Every time I hear someone express that they’re struggling to stay sober, such beliefs are involved. In fact, I saw someone complain about struggling to stay sober on Facebook recently, and she said:

“I hate that I can’t have a drink because I know it’ll quiet my mind and I’d relax.”

This is what creates desire. If you believe you need something to be happy, then you will desire it.

Unfortunately, our culture has done a great job of convincing us that drugs and alcohol have amazing powers to cure all of our ills. They have also done a great job convincing some of us that we need to “self-medicate” with these substances too.

The thing is, drugs and alcohol don’t medicate anything. But as long as you believe they are your medicine, you will feel deprived and suffer when you don’t have this medicine. The sooner you stop believing that they are medicine, the sooner this desire will go away.

The fact is, most of the emotional and behavioral experiences people have while using drugs and alcohol are subjectively created. They’re mostly an effect of expectancy. As a noted addiction researcher observed:

“Sometimes alcohol may be a relaxant (the martini after the hard day at the office) and sometimes it may act as a stimulant (the first drink at the party).” ~Norman Zinberg, Drug, Set, and Setting, 1986

Isn’t that a bit unbelievable? It’s a total contradiction and thus literally impossible. Stimulants and relaxants are total opposites. Yet, you probably know from your own experience or watching others that people can have both of these effects while drinking.

The key is to realize that these effects don’t come from the alcohol itself. They come from you.

The fact is that you don’t, in reality, need alcohol to relax, and you don’t need it to get wild at a party, because alcohol itself does neither of those things. If you want to relax, you can do it, with or without alcohol. Same goes for getting wild at a party.

And the same goes for the plethora of things we think drugs and alcohol do.

The reason for this is that you are actually cognitively creating these states with your intentions. You expect to have these experiences when you drink or drug, and that expectancy itself creates the experience.

There are plenty of other ways to intentionally put yourself into a relaxed state or any of the other states we believe are caused by substance use. The self-help world offers plenty of good advice on how to do this through mindfulness and other techniques. This website is a great resource for that.

I encourage readers to seek out such techniques if you feel you need them. However, before you do so, the best thing you can do is rid your mind of the belief that substance use is a cure-all. It is not.

If you haven’t broken these beliefs first, then in that moment that a new coping skill you learn doesn’t work so well for you (or you just don’t feel like using it—we’ve all been there!), you might feel tempted to return to substance use to deal with the problem.

If you have broken these beliefs, then you won’t feel tempted to use substances to cope. In this case, when a coping skill doesn’t work out, you’ll rightly look for a different coping method, rather than back to drugs and alcohol.

Stop giving drugs and alcohol credit for things that they don’t really do. Be mindful of these beliefs, and have the courage to change them. Once you do, you’ll find that you have much less of desire to use substances.

By severing the connection between stress and substance use, you can permanently end the phenomenon of feeling triggered to use substances when you encounter stress.

The same goes for severing the connection between substances and any of the other false benefits we’ve been taught to attribute to them. Then it’s up to you to decide how to deal with these life problems, but it will be much easier to solve them without the specter of a “relapse” hanging over your head.

I embraced the responsibility I had for my beliefs about substance use, and I examined them. I changed them. I ended up believing that drugs and alcohol didn’t have much to offer me anymore, and I believed I could be happier dedicating my time elsewhere.

Changing my beliefs was my choice. No one else could do it for me. Methadone couldn’t do it for me. Meetings couldn’t do it for me. Even the people who showed me these ideas couldn’t do it for me.

It was up to me to consciously question what I believed about the objects of my addiction, and how happy they could truly make me.

As a result of changing my beliefs, I haven’t had an issue with drugs and alcohol for twelve wonderful years now. I don’t feel deprived. I enjoy a drink now and then, without feeling desperation or loss of control.

When the normal troubles, hard times, and disappointments of life come along, I no longer feel like I need a drink or drug to deal with them, because I no longer believe they’ll help with the situation. When I’m bored, I no longer feel like I need substances to be entertained.

I now get to live my life feeling free of addiction, and it’s wonderful.

Photo by Kreg Steppe

About Steven Slate

Steven Slate is the Director of the Saint Jude Program in NYC. Saint Jude Retreats is an alternative to traditional alcohol and drug treatment with curriculum based on cognitive behavioral education methods for permanent and positive neuroplastic self-change that will foster productive behavioral patterns and improve choice making, for achieving personal goals and envisioned future.

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  • Scott

    Great article. I consciously remember choosing a life that included excessive amounts of alcohol when I was in high school because I believed it made me happier and allowed me to live the fun rockstar lifestyle. The belief of what you THINK alcohol does for you is extremely powerful and is what subconsciously draws most people to that lifestyle. When I started getting older and realized the party was over I chose to quit. Quitting was hard because of the physical dependency, but as time worn on I realized how much of my desire to drink was caused by the beliefs that it was the only way I could have fun. I am coming up on 3 years sober and I owe it all to the conscience choice to change my belief system of what alcohol did for me. Outside forces certainly can help with quitting by giving ideas and support, but the stickiness of sobriety and the lose of desire to drink becomes vivid when there is a conscious choice and realization that the only thing you can truly only get from drinking alcohol is drunk. The fun or relaxing feeling that most people believe comes from drinking can be had without booze. Changing your beliefs and knowing the truth about how you see something is an absolutely incredible feeling. Thanks for writing this and good for you Steven.

  • While I haven’t personally struggled with an addiction to drugs and alcohol, I HAVE struggled with an addiction to restrictive eating. Like you, I believed for a long time that my drug of choice — controlling food — would make me feel better and erase whatever problem was troubling me in that moment. It’s funny how if you believe something strongly enough, it basically comes true, because for a while, controlling my food intake DID make me feel better. But the “high” got less and less as time went on and my problem got worse and worse as I sought that imaginary panacea.

    I still remember what a therapist told me once when I explained to her my difficulty in overcoming my urges to not eat was because it made me feel better. If I couldn’t do x, how could I feel y, you know? She looked at me and said,” Maybe not eating only makes you feel better because you BELIEVE it will. Kind of like a messed up placebo effect, I suppose. Hearing that didn’t automatically free me from my problem, but it definitely loosened the chains, which I’m still working on throwing away entirely. But yes, belief is a powerful force, and now that I know how it motivates me (and how VERY wrong it can be!), I’m that much closer to being free.

    Anyway, I’m not sure where I’m going with this, but I guess I just wanted to offer up another example from a slightly different perspective. Thanks for sharing your story. It’s good to be reminded of the power of our thoughts because, for me at least, it’s easy to forget the control they have over us. If you’re not paying attention, they’ll grab the reins of your life pretty quickly.

  • darren white

    Thank you so much for this post i myself had a problem with addiction but was able to work through this myself thanks again steven and wish you all the best

  • JMM

    I spent a lifetime in hate, anger and judged the world because of it. I only needed to learn to let things go, things that none of my business. I cannot control things do why try. It took years to become finally somewhat happy, and I refuse to give that back. Attitude is everything in recovery.

    This is from my page on FB, this is what I do every day.

    June 11th. 2014
    “My Thoughts ~ My Recovery”

    “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows”–Epictetus

    When I came through the doors of N.A. about 6 years ago I knew everything, and would come to learn over the next few years I knew absolutely nothing. Opinionated, judgmental, racist, hateful, you name it; I had it. I knew everything on how to end up back outside the rooms,egotistical and arrogant I could not stay clean a week at a time. Everything I thought about myself and the world was pretty much backwards from reality. I had to learn how to think in a whole different manner, how to see, hear, and how to act differently. I had to become the person I always thought was in me but could not fully bring out. Bits and pieces of a decent person came out here and there, but mostly for selfish, self serving reasons. That person is slowly being replaced with a person I am myself only now just beginning to understand. So give yourself a break, and find it in yourself to be teachable.

    ©James McKinley My-Writings-and-Daily-Meditations 2014

  • JMM

    I love this site

  • “Kind of like a messed up placebo effect” – what a great way to put it!

    And chains are exactly the imagery I use when discussing this stuff with people. I’m so glad to hear you’re loosening those chains, and in a way that will really last once you fully break them.

    Even though many of the supposed benefits from the objects of our “addictions” are cognitively determined, they are very real experiences to us. It can feel very tough to change, and suffering is often involved – but isn’t it great that you understand the point where you can change something? It’s great to know there’s something you can do about it. It all comes back to the power of our thoughts, as you said.

    Thanks for commenting!

  • CR

    Immunity to Change by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey looks at how our sometimes unacknowledged beliefs can prevent us from making lasting change in our lives and how to overcome the mechanisms that hold us back. I have found working through the Immunity to Change process to be extremely helpful in addressing my food related issues.

  • Justin Nicola

    So well put, Steven. We all have our battles, and your eloquently stated story is brilliantly inspiring.

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  • Jennifer Lynn

    Wow. Thank you so much for this article!!! You have no idea how much I needed it right now! This has helped me more than any therapist, mental health workbook, self help book, etc. when it comes to my own struggle… Thank you, thank you, thank you for giving me a tool to change my life in an ever positive direction 😀

  • Jeevan/Mirthu/Gupt

    “Changing my beliefs was my choice. No one else could do it for me. Methadone couldn’t do it for me. Meetings couldn’t do it for me. Even the people who showed me
    these ideas couldn’t do it for me… It was up to me to consciously question what I believed about the objects of my addiction, and how happy they could truly make me.” So true, something I need to remind myself more often when it comes to my self-defeating thoughts & unhealthy habits/addictions… This was a really insightful & encouraging blog, congrats on your recovery! Thank you for sharing…:-)

  • “Outside forces certainly can help with quitting by giving ideas and
    support, but the stickiness of sobriety and the lose of desire to drink
    becomes vivid when there is a conscious choice and realization that the
    only thing you can truly only get from drinking alcohol is drunk.”

    Scott, what a great way to put it! Thank you for sharing!

  • Nakshatra

    I loved your article Steven. You just made my belief in the power of belief stronger than ever. It actually is just the state of our minds and nothing else. And THERE lies the KEY to take control of your life!!

  • Beatrice

    Thank you for your article. It’s the first time I have ever looked at my addiction to nicotine as a choice I make and a belief I have about how it makes me feel better. When I am not smoking, I think of cigarettes and feel deprived that my life no longer includes cigarettes. I think of times when I did smoke and remember them so fondly that I make myself believe that my life will always be missing something when I don’t smoke. When I do smoke, every single time I light up, I actually beat myself up mentally for doing such a harmful, negative thing to my body and health and I’m embarrassed of what I am doing. Your article explained to me why I have been continuing with this dangerous addiction for over 25 years. I believe smoking will calm me down, jack me up, make me feel better or just plain differently from whatever feeling I have at the time. I have day dreamed of a life free from addiction but to be honest, I believe fear has kept me going back to this drug… Because I have created a belief that cigarettes are the cure all from whatever I am feeling or want to feel. I really appreciate the clarity your article has given me. Very powerful…

  • YoungUrbanAmateur

    Such a great post. Thanks to Steven and to TinyBuddha for putting it out there. The idea that “substances” actually do provide this relief is so pervasive in today’s culture that it’s almost invisible.

    I am fortunate to have learned, at a relatively young age, that drug abuse isn’t a sinful “shortcut” to dealing with life’s problems. Substance abuse is often talked about as if it’s the equivalent of taking a helicopter to the top of a mountain instead of hiking it, when, in reality, it doesn’t take you to the same place at all. It’s not a shortcut, it’s a different life altogether.

    But if you believe, as many do, that it is indeed a shortcut, you’re in for a world of pain.

  • YoungUrbanAmateur

    “I consciously remember choosing a life that included excessive amounts of alcohol when I was in high school because I believed it made me happier and allowed me to live the fun rockstar lifestyle.”

    A vivid and recognizable description. I remember that feeling (as I’m sure many people do) and, often, when you see others drinking, you can almost sense that their excitement is coming from the thought of “I’m a rockstar” moreso than any feeling that comes from the booze.

  • Fighting your addiction with will-power is seldom enough. In Mindfulness Therapy for addiction we recognize that the most effective strategy for overcoming any addiction is to change the way you relate to the addictive, compulsive impulses themselves. Because they arise does not mean that you have to act on them. You can train yourself through mindfulness work to hold your impulse in a larger conscious space – the space that is your True Self – and learn to “sit” with the impulse without becoming identified and consumed by it.
    Abstinence is not the way to overcome an addiction because it will leave you vulnerable to addictive impulses as you have not changed the underlying relationship to the impulse.

    After you have developed a non-reactive relationship with the impulses then you can repeat this mindfulness process on the underlying core emotions. In essence we are learning to meditate on our emotions, and this is always more effective than ignoring or suppressing them.

    Contact me if you would like to learn more about online mindfulness therapy.