Dear Crucial Skills,
How does one escape the addictions of pornography, drugs, alcohol, etc? I’ve been told that even if I’m able to finally get to the point of remission, I’ll always be an addict and never completely escape. It’s a hopeless message, but I sense truth in this and fear I’ll have to fight it the rest of my life.
Do you have any advice that can help me in my lifelong battle against addiction?
I have great news for you. While in some cases there might (and I stress MIGHT) be some element of truth to the statement, “I’ll always be an addict”—that statement doesn’t mean what you think it means.
The implication of “always an addict” in your note is “I’ll have to fight the rest of my life.” That’s the part I can immediately reassure you is absolutely not true, but hang on for a moment and let me get to that point in its time.
First, I want to be clear that my coauthors and I are not addiction experts. We study human behavior, so we have opinions about the state of research on issues like addiction recovery. That is not our specialty nor do I have training in addiction recovery. With that said, I will share some opinions on your question.
• Will you always be at risk of returning to your addiction? There’s a good chance you won’t. Many people with addictions recover in a way that never affects them again. One of the most dramatic evidences of this point is a major study funded by the U.S. Government in 1971 as tens of thousands of heroin-addicted soldiers were returning from Vietnam. Military officials were terrified that a healthcare crisis would ensue as their systems would have been overloaded with those suffering the effects of addiction. But the crisis never happened. Well over 80 percent of those returning, who were classified as seriously addicted, discontinued drug use after coming home—forever.
• How long does it take? I’ll answer this briefly but will refer you to the chapter on addiction recovery in our book Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success for a fuller description. Our work shows that habits change when all six of the sources of influence that shape our habits change. Period.
Now, that process can take a while, but understanding those sources of influence helps you recognize that there are discrete actions you can take to move the process along and to understand what work remains. This also explains why so many of the returning soldiers changed so quickly. All of these sources of influence were organized in a way that promoted addiction when they lived in Vietnam. When they returned, for many of them, all six sources changed. So they did, too.
• If you’re one of the 20 percent rather than the 80 percent, does that mean a lifetime of struggle? Absolutely not. Even those who continue to feel vulnerable to relapse will tell you that year by year, maintaining the life patterns that keep them “sober” (I use that term generically) become not just easier, but pleasurable.
Here’s the good news I promised you. Please read these sentences over and over and over: The way you feel today about your addictive behaviors can feel entirely different just a few months from now. You can literally come to hate what you currently love. You can—and will—come to find loathsome those things that seem irresistible today.
Let me elaborate on this last, and most important, point. Our emotions often lie to us. When we experience an emotion (let’s say I’m feeling angry at my daughter) it comes with two embedded lies—it feels true, and it feels permanent. It feels true in the sense that I have a profound conviction that I am totally right and she is totally wrong. My emotion is my evidence that I am right. All of us have had the experience of feeling that way, then getting a little more information and perspective, and having the emotion pivot 180 degrees. We feel remorse, or empathy, or love—whereas seconds earlier we couldn’t have imagined feeling different. Similarly, the emotions feel permanent. We believe the way we feel about something is how we will always feel.
For example, I cannot imagine not craving a cigarette. Or being stimulated by pornography. Or getting out of control at the sight of chocolate. Or losing my temper when criticized. Yet, when you talk with those who have realigned the sources of influence in their life, they’ll often use words like “disgusted” when they think about those behaviors today.
But don’t trust these other people. Test this proposition against your own experience. Have you ever felt even momentarily different about an addictive habit you struggle with? Have you had moments when you felt no temptation at all? In fact, you felt revulsion for the act? If so, you know already that change is possible. The challenge is working through the process of change until those temporary feelings become the norm.
If you want to see a powerful example of this shift, watch this video. It’s a fascinating experiment done by the Thai Ministry of Public Health. A young child approaches people who are smoking in public with a cigarette in her hand to ask them for a light. The smokers are horrified at the thought of this child picking up this habit. Every one of those approached began lecturing the child, citing compelling reasons the child shouldn’t smoke. After listening patiently for a moment, the child would hand them a card with a phone number for smoking cessation services, and ask, “Then why do you smoke?” Researchers observed the smokers after the child walked away. Almost every one of them dropped their cigarette. All retained the card with the phone number. Calls to the help line increased 40 percent on the day of the experiment.
Now, this doesn’t demonstrate permanent change, but it shows that feelings can change. That’s the point. In this case, it was temporary. But people who were feeling compelled to smoke moments earlier were suddenly disgusted at the thought and stopped.
You need not fear a lifetime of struggle. You may need to be conscious of maintaining the six sources of influence throughout your life, but you’ll want to do it. You’ll derive pleasure from the new life. Your feelings will change.
Just keep up the good work. The way you feel today is not the way you will feel a year from now.