Soul-Talk: You Don't Have to Be an Addict to Recover

While the distinction between addict and addictive behavior may seem like splitting hairs, successful recovery may in fact lie in a seemingly-small distinction.
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Do you know anyone suffering from some kind of addiction or addictive behavior? While most of us think about addiction in the more common uses of the term, such as alcohol or drug addiction, people can also become addicted to emotional patterns, food abuse, or simply to their own self-appointed sense of righteous indignation and intellectual superiority (Rush Limbaugh, anyone?).

If you or someone you know is struggling with addictive behaviors, then you might want to pay close attention to a few of the concepts contained within this post. To be clear, I am not holding myself out to be an expert on addiction or recovery in the clinical sense; however, I do wish to point out some relatively small issues that, if addressed properly, can make a world of difference.

Could the most sensitive be the most prone to addictive behavior?

Not only are those who enter into drug and alcohol abuse the most sensitive people around, but also those who have not developed skills or abilities to deal with their sensitivity. Sensitivity is often looked upon by traditional society as a form of weakness or vulnerability. The more sensitive amongst us often struggle with how to survive, let alone thrive, in a world of criticism. For those who lack sufficient skills to address their sensitivities, alcohol and drugs appear to be temporary means to numb themselves from their highly-sensitive natures. The same can apply to those who overindulge in food, with food being used to first try to soothe an uncomfortable feeling and ultimately to provide a layer of protection against the world.

However, none of these "fixes" actually fix anything for very long, and so the need to return to the bottle, needle, or food binge comes back with a vengeance. From here, it is pretty easy to imagine the downward spiral that is about to take place. When "friends" or "family" notice that something is amiss, they rarely possess the skills or sensitivity to support the individual; instead, they either ignore the situation, hoping it will get better, or they go on the offensive, blaming the individual for their suffering, which only drives them further to the substance of choice.

Recently, the son of a friend relapsed into a form of drug abuse that may or may not be part of an addictive pattern. By relapse, I mean that he had undergone a previous set of instances wherein he wound up doing a fair amount of "recreational drugs" -- cocaine, marijuana, etc., -- got himself "clean" again, and then recently relapsed. The relapse wound up quite serious with a trip to the ER for a drug overdose.

Please notice that I did not say he was or is "an addict." While he has engaged in some addictive behaviors, and while he may be what people generally call an addict, who he is as a person is quite different from his behaviors (aka drug abuse).

You don't have to be an addict to recover

While the distinction between addict and addictive behavior may seem like splitting hairs, successful recovery may in fact lie in a seemingly-small distinction. There are any number of reasons why this apparently minor distinction matters. Before we can address the process of recovery and the near-fatal flaw of many recovery programs, we need to first understand what it means to recover.

According to Merriam-Webster, recover means:

  1. to get back : regain
  2. to bring back to normal position or condition

Notice recovery doesn't mean fixing anything that is broken, or making up for some kind of flaw in the person. It simply means to restore oneself to a prior condition, in this case that of a normally-functioning human being. However, even this definition of recovery is problematic -- what the heck is normal? Texting all day? Some 895 Facebook friends and no real connection?

Perhaps the best known of the recovery programs is Alcoholics Anonymous, founded in 1935 by Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, and later supported by a landmark book of the same name published in 1939. While AA has certainly had its successes, it also relies on a certain kind of negation which may not be all that helpful, especially when you realize that the Harvard Medical Health Letter wrote in an article called Treatment of Drug Abuse and Addiction -- Part III (October, 1995) that 80 percent of all alcoholics who recover for a year or more do so on their own.

Do we need the AA negation?

AA meetings begin with an introduction by the chairperson, who introduces himself simply as, "Hi, my name is Bob, and I'm an alcoholic." Shortly thereafter, attendees read the section on "How It Works" from the AA book. The "How It Works" section includes the following passage, which again is read aloud:

Rarely have we seen a person fail who has thoroughly followed our path. Those who do not recover are people who cannot or will not completely give themselves to this simple program, usually men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves. There are such unfortunates. They are not at fault; they seem to have been born that way. They are naturally incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty. Their chances are less than average. There are those too who suffer from grave emotional and mental disorders, but many of them do recover if they have the capacity to be honest.

The opening introduction is an unfortunate affirmation of a negative state: Hi, my name is Bob and I am an alcoholic commands the person seeking support to affirm that he or she is in a losing position, if not doomed from the outset. Bob is not asked to affirm that he is on the road to recovery having struggled with alcohol; instead, he is asked to affirm that he is forever more to be known as an alcoholic.

Sadly, this kind of negation is all too easily overlooked these days as people routinely affirm that they are their behavior or profession. "I'm gay," "I'm a banker," or "I'm unemployed" all miss an essential point: you are not what you do either as a profession or as a behavior. Instead, you are a human being who may or may not have a job or a behavioral preference. While this may seem trivial to some of you reading this article, I invite you to look more closely at the implications of affirming that you are your behavior. What progress can you ever hope to achieve if you are forever going to be labeled by your own self as saddled with any particular behavior or preference?

Even more problematic is the "How It Works" claim that "Those who do not recover are ... men and women who are constitutionally incapable of being honest with themselves, (people who) seem to have been born ... incapable of grasping and developing a manner of living which demands rigorous honesty."

That's a curiously damning beginning to something intended to be positive. These kinds of recovery programs begin by insisting that you proclaim yourself to be forever lost and then further demean those who struggle by asserting a series of natural-born defects.

What's so comforting and supportive about AA meetings?

As my friend's son discovered in his first AA meeting, there are many other sensitive people out there suffering as he has, people who lack meaningful, in-depth contact with other friends on a day-to-day basis, people who find some kind of relief in being able to share their struggles with others in an apparently open and transparent manner. What works about an AA meeting may have little to do with proclaiming a fatal flaw or emotional defect; instead, what may be working has a lot more to do with allowing a more vulnerable, open level of communication that most do not find in their daily lives.

This is where the AA meeting appears to work, at least for a while. After going through the negation exercise of asserting being lost, at least those attending get to share with one another at a deeper level of reality. Even though that reality is one of pain and suffering, at least it is shared and discussed with apparent vulnerability and community. For many, these AA sessions may be the first time they have ever experienced their sensitivity as a sign of normalcy, if not an actual source of strength and connection with others.

Next week, we will go deeper into the power of affirmations, how they work, and how you can begin to build a positive foundation upon which to build an even more positive life. If you or anyone you know are suffering from addictive behaviors, do yourself a favor and tune in next week to begin a process of affirming your own strength and inherent ability.

I'd love to hear your take on this subject. What has been our experience with sensitivity? How have you attempted to protect yourself or use your sensitivity as a source of strength? Please do leave a comment here or drop me an email at Russell (at)


If you want more information on how you can apply this kind of reframing to your life and to your job, about a few simple steps that may wind up transforming your life, please download a free chapter from my new book, "Workarounds That Work." You'll be glad you did.

Russell Bishop is an educational psychologist, author, executive coach and management consultant based in Santa Barbara, Calif. You can learn more about my work by visiting my website at You can contact me by e-mail at Russell (at)

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