Food for Thought

The Many Faces and Phases of Addictive Behaviors
By Andrea Wachter, LMFT

Humans have been using drugs, alcohol, tobacco, excess food and other substances for centuries. When taken to extreme levels, such behaviors can adversely affect physical health, emotional well-being, relationships, work, school, finances and future goals. 
In recent years, excessive use of screens, sex, porn, gambling, shopping and exercise have been added to the list of compulsive possibilities.

In addition to the more commonly known eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia and binge eating, lesser known compulsions are also on the rise. Orthorexia, a more recent diagnosis, is when someone becomes obsessed with eating only foods they deem as “healthy.” But taken to extremes, even “healthy eating” can become unhealthy. 

Another trend that has unfortunately been gaining popularity is known as Drunkorexia (or Alcorexia). These terms describe someone who severely restricts their food intake so they can both save their calories for liquor and get more drunk when they drink. This combination of starvation and excessive alcohol can lead to extremely dangerous, if not deadly, consequences. It appears that "partying" for many, continues to be anything but a party. 

To make matters even more complex, many people struggle with more than one issue or substance at a time. Others overcome one habit, only to pick up another in its place, often described as "switching seats on the Titanic."

Regardless of the means or methods that somebody uses to numb, distract, harm or comfort themselves, the bottom line is that in order for someone to get better, they need to want to get better. The negative effects of their actions need to outweigh the positive because as much harm as some habits can cause, we always get (or attempt to get) something from everything we do.

If you are one of the millions who struggles with an addiction or a chronic habit that has more of a hold on you than you have on it, consider some of the following stages and phases.

Denial is the earliest and sometimes longest stage of an addiction or a chronic pattern. Denial is when someone holds the belief that there really isn’t a problem. Or maybe they think there’s a problem but it’s “not that bad.” Sadly, this stage can last for a long time, sometimes years, sometimes a lifetime.

Breaking out of denial is the moment of truth when someone admits they have a problem. This is often spurred by negative consequences like job loss, legal troubles or ruined relationships. Some people hit bottom and break their denial for more internal reasons; they decide they’ve had enough and they need help. People can seek more light in their lives because the dark is too scary and painful, or they can seek light because they simply want more light in their lives. Regardless of the circumstances that lead someone to break their denial, admit they need help and actually seek help, it is a crucial turning point for anyone who struggles with an addiction or a chronic and painful habit.

Once the veil of denial has been lifted and there is motivation for change, it can be helpful to have an understanding of the stages of recovery. While there are various clinical terms that are used in the health field to describe these stages, I will share my own user-friendly terms here.

I initially developed these metaphors to help clients in my therapy practice find practical ways to describe the strength of their cravings as they traversed the road of recovery. If you are on the path of overcoming an addiction or unhealthy habit, see if you recognize your current level of cravings in any of these stages.

Wild Horses: This is when the cravings to use substances or self-destructive behaviors feel incredibly strong or even impossible to resist. The urge to partake in behaviors and intake substances is stronger than your ability to say no. This is obviously an extremely painful and frustrating stage, both for sufferers and their loved ones.

Buzzing Bees: Once someone begins to learn new coping mechanisms, they are likely to continue having urges to do their old behaviors, but in this stage, the pull to partake starts to diminish at times. It’s still really hard to ignore these cravings, but they begin to hold less power than the Wild Horses had.

Flittering Flies: This is when the cravings to use or abuse something are even less powerful and less frequent. In this stage of healing, people experience more and more choice about whether or not they pay attention to and obey their cravings.

Nasty Gnats: In this stage, urges are very infrequent, mostly arising when life gets extra challenging. Someone in this stage of recovery spends the majority of their time in freedom. They still have to deal with the hard parts of life, including painful thoughts, emotions and situations but they turn to outer and inner resources for support, rather than old behaviors. Very occasionally, an urge might return, but it doesn’t have much power. They can just ignore it, or decode what triggered it and continue to make healthy choices.

Freedom: This is when a person is free from the desire to use harmful substances or behaviors. They have many healthy ways to handle difficult emotions, and many means of getting fulfilment and comfort in their life. This does not mean by any means that life is perfect, it means they have many healthy ways to cope with life when it isn’t.

Of course traveling through these stages is not always linear or smooth sailing. It also doesn’t take the same amount of time for everyone. Much depends on what events contributed to someone’s need to use, how long they've been using, how willing and ready they are to change, and how much support they have and utilize. 

If you are feeling stuck in the grips of a painful pattern or an addiction and you’d like to move one step closer to freedom, the following list highlights some important areas and life skills that need attention in order to do so. The good news is that you don’t have to learn these all on your own, or all at once. You also don’t have to do them all perfectly in order to make progress. This is your course curriculum for life and even small steps can move you forward in significant ways. As you read through the list, perhaps you can write down any areas in your life that you feel are already being attended to, as well as any that you would like to give more attention.


So if you feel like you have lost the power to choose whether you use some substance or partake in certain activities, consider taking one step that can help you move one step closer to freedom. And remember, you are not alone in this. There are countless therapists, support groups, books, blogs, podcasts, workshops and treatment centers that are here to help you heal.

This blog was previously published in Recovery Today Magazine. To subscribe to this free online app, click here:

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