What follows is the summary of Addictive Thinking, a book on addiction by Abraham Twerski, M.D., and Craig Nakken, M.S.W. It is an overview of addictive thinking – the heart of addictive behavior. There is a companion work in the same volume, The Addictive Personality, which may be covered here at some later date.
All of us have encountered addiction either with family, friends, colleagues or even ourselves. This particular volume caught my attention because of its straightforward and non-technical treatment of the subject that is appropriate for the lay public. At the same time it provides insights for the professional who needs a quick refresher. I present here a summary of their work with a few additional ideas mixed in. Any significant distortion or misinterpretation is due to my own effort to produce a quick overview, and I apologize to the authors in advance. I am not a clinical psychologist and cannot advocate professionally for their work other than it makes sense to me. I will say that addiction makes its way to the work place and therefore deserves some basic understanding by I/O or HR types.
I have used the author’s chapter headings and many of their examples. Inasmuch as there are 23 chapters the reader will find this in 3 sequential postings. Pronouns are masculine for my convenience as writer.
I. What is Addictive Thinking?
“I now know that it is absolutely impossible for me to stop on my own, maybe.” The idea is a logical contradiction, an absurdity, yet typical of the Addict. Alcoholics Anonymous refers to it as “stinking thinking,” and it usually boils down to the central thoughts of “I don’t really have a problem,” or “I can control this.” Addictive thinking is like the distorted though processes of schizophrenia — different rules of thought that interfere with the person’s adjustment to reality. Like the schizophrenic, the Addict is unaware of the distortion. Even observers have trouble with the Addict’s logic and are taken in. The schizophrenic cannot be budged from the belief that Venusians have put a transmitter in his head, and the Addict won’t budge from thinking he can find a way to be a safe, social, or recreational user. The difference is that the schizophrenic is blatantly absurd while the Addict is superficially logical, seductive, and misleading. Moreover, Addicts are compelled to use. Around the Addict are Co-Dependents obsessed with the Addict’s using and their own need to control it through either help or punishment. The similarity between Addicts and CD’s is that as they try different tactics of control, yet neither ever come to the conclusion, “I can’t control this.” Other methods are required.
II. Self-deception and Addictive Thinking
For many who are locked out of society-approved rewards (education, career, family, success), substances offer a substitute and instant gratification. Deprived in other important areas they reason, “Why should I deprive myself of my favorite chemical?” Prevention and cure require the Addict to develop two key life constructs: (1) Ultimate life goals, and (2) Tolerance for delayed gratification. Addictive substances, meanwhile, offer the promise of instant gratification in the forms of anesthesia or euphoria.
Addicts are taken in by their own stinking-thinking (see below). The more intelligent the Addict/Co-Dependent, the more interesting is the form of the deception. For the Addict craving affects thinking in the same way a bribe affects judgment. Stinking-thinking is designed to (1) Deceive oneself about control while (2) Permitting the habit to continue. The Addict begins with the conclusin,”I need a drink” then builds the case using distorted logic. The self-deception is so compelling that identification of addictive thinking must come from outside the Addict who will almost never see the absurdity in his own thinking:
- “I’m only a social drinker.” (But do social drinkers have hangovers, and lose families/ jobs?)
- “I can control it.” (Yes, for about 1 day).
- “I can quit anytime I want.” (How many times this month?)
- “I can’t attend AA meetings…I would be embarrassed.” (And that’s more important that dying?)
- “I’m not like them.” (Who are you kidding?)
The threat of change associated with giving up the addiction produces Anxiety, which in turn creates the denial and self-deception that allows the continuing pattern of abuse. Addictive thinking has its roots in low self-esteem and a sense of inadequacy/inferiority. Oddly this is common with those most gifted. Some escape into chemicals, some into controlling role of the Co-Dependent.
Co-Dependents replicate the addiction pattern in their own way – the illusion of control is prominent. Their CD’s distorted thinking pattern goes this way, “I am so powerful I can cause, control and cure this addiction….If I had just been a better (spouse) this wouldn’t have happened…and they would quit.”
In response Al-Anon offers the Co-dependent’s 3 C’s:
- You didn’t Cause it
- You can’t Control it
- You can’t Cure it.
As with the Addict there is fierce resistance to change, illusion of control, and low self-esteem. The only real distinction may be actual substance abuse.
III. The Addict’s Concept of Time
The Addict’s concept of time is different from that of non-addicts. For example, Addicts think they can stop using anytime, and often they can abstain for a period. It is the insistent, immediate craving for a drink, hit or a smoke that hijacks their thinking. There is the famous AA aphorism, “One day at a time,” however “one minute” might be the only manageable unit of time. What about the long-term negative consequences of using? These take a long time to develop – cirrhosis or lung cancer do not really exist for the Addict, who is oblivious to the threat. In summary, recovery often begins when the “one day” concept is grasped.
IV. Confusing Cause and Effect
Addicts reverse cause-and-effect relationships. It is pretty clear that using causes havoc: unhappiness, remorse, carelessness, worries and lack of ambition. Addicts reverse the logic, “I use because I am unhappy.” The perceptual distortion will often continue with or without active use of drugs.
V. Origins of Addictive Thinking
Using is a form of escapism – an anesthetic for the pain of living. Why do some people fall into it and others not? There are likely multiple origins, but according to Dr. David Sedlak Addicts lack the ability to reason with themselves, to make healthy decisions, and to exercise willpower. Good reasoning requires (1) Knowledge of facts (i.e. the impact of long-term using), (2) Certain values/principles as grounds for decisions (i.e. cultural acceptance or rejection of using), (3) A healthy/undistorted self-concept stemming from a stable childhood. A child experiencing an unstable, punishing or crazy world is likely to feel insecure, undeserving, and inadequate and develop the low self-esteem of “not OK-ness.” Brought to adulthood, low self-esteem creates the anxiety, isolation and despair that lead to escape through chemicals.
VI. Denial, Rationalization and Projection
The Addict’s distorted self-perception is a serious problem to be overcome, and which is greatly complicated by a tricky pattern of ego defenses designed to (1) Reinforce the denial that is pervasive, and (2) Maintain the status quo of using. Because these defenses operate unconsciously, it is useless to tell the Addict, “Stop Denying!” Why? Simple Denial takes the form, “I do not have a drinking problem.” Rationalization works with Denial and provides “good” reasons for using, e.g. “I am not an alcoholic, I only drink because…” With Projection, which also reinforces Denial, the Addict focuses blame away from himself, e.g. “She makes me drink; when she changes, I’ll stop.” Addicts need to be reminded that they cannot change anybody but themselves and that even if they are the products of a bad environment, remaining a victim is their own fault.