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Deciphering Addiction

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If the purpose of life is to awaken, then we really have only two choices to make. We can make a conscious decision to learn from joy and freedom, or we can choose to be mired in pain and defiance. I'm sure you've heard the expression happiness is an inside job, and I would venture to say that seeking any type of substantive change in my life is bound to be more fruitful if I turn the lens on myself rather than trying to change all the other chess pieces on the board. I think Anaïs Nin said it best: "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are."

I believe in seeing the positive in every negative, and this is very clear when it comes to my addictive behavior. Because I have an addictive personality, I focus on things, I obsess over things, and I take everything to the extreme. But on the upside, this addictive behavior that plagued me for so many years as I struggled to come to terms with my drug and alcohol addiction -- these potentially self-sabotaging character traits -- are the same things that have kept me sober for the past 17 years, one day at a time. The longer I have stayed sober, the more addicted I have become to feeling healthier and clearer of mind.

My favorite AA slogan, and you'll hear it in meetings taking place around the world, is "Keep it simple." Ironically, some of the most intelligent people I've met over the years in recovery are the same people who seem to struggle most with staying sober. Addicts are typically very ingenious when it comes to lying and deceiving those around us, but we forget, we are equally disingenuous when it comes to deceiving ourselves. There is always this soundtrack playing in the background of an addict's mind with the dangerous refrain: "You're different. You're not like the rest of the addicts in this room. Just have one drink, one line, one pill..."

If I distill my problems with drugs and alcohol down to one basic premise, there is a greater chance I can stay sober one more day. Simply put, addiction is a habit -- It's a self-destructive behavior that I default to. Like any habit, a drug/alcohol addiction is formed when the behavior is repeated and a neural pathway is established in our brain. In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg says that every entrenched habit involves three elements: the cue, the trigger, and the reward. He goes on to say most people fail when they try to get rid of a bad habit because they focus on the cue or the trigger. Therefore, as a recovering addict, if I simply tinker with the cues by isolating myself from certain situations and people, and remove the trigger, the drug or alcohol, I am not addressing the underlying "default" behaviour etched into my neural pathway. In other words, willpower alone will only temporarily mute those cues and triggers. Instead, I will have better success if I focus on the perceived reward I get from the drug or alcohol. For me, the reward always came down to one of two things: numbing uncomfortable feelings inside or attempting to connect with those around me. In battling addiction, real success comes from displacing a destructive behaviour with something more positive that generates the same reward that the drugs and alcohol provided. By doing this, I circumvent the old "default" behaviour and create new neural pathways.

Whatever bias you have against 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, they are incredibly effective for many suffering addicts. They can help establish routine and accountability in an addict's life. More importantly, recovery meetings give addicts like me the "rewards" we were seeking in the drugs and alcohol. It's a safe place to make connections with others, and through sharing our struggles and fears with other addicts, we are given a cathartic release that quiets our restless mind.

It's with all this in mind that I have a heavy heart when I look at the fiasco of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. After a very disgraceful public implosion, Mayor Ford entered a two-month treatment program to address his drug and alcohol addiction. Having just been released from the treatment program, Rob Ford barely missed a beat when he resumed his position in municipal politics. If his current antics are any indication of what's to come, I think it's safe to say Rob Ford is primed for a relapse. I opened this piece by saying that change has to come from within, but all we are seeing from Mayor Ford is his lashing out at everyone and everything around him. The cynic in me sees his stay at the treatment center as a charade to garner public sympathy for his run at reelection later this year. However, the addict in me sees his behavior as what is characteristically called "white-knuckling it." He's hiding behind the clinical diagnosis of addiction being a disease, and thus, he's but a victim of this disease who shouldn't be held accountable. I've seen this script play out so many times during my 17 years in recovery, and sadly it always has a tragic ending.

I suggest there is still time to write a happier ending to this sad saga, but it will require the same actions that so many other recovering addicts have taken to rebuild their lives: Admit you have a problem. Own up to the chaos you've caused around you. Build your future by rebuilding yourself. And finally, give the gift of grace that you've received to others so that they too can live a life free of destructive addictions.

I'd like to leave you with the words of Eckhart Tolle: "If you get the inside right, the outside will fall into place."

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.