Craving vs Obsession

Why one is too Many, and 1,000 is not Enough

craving vs obsessionWho can really understand why an alcoholic must drink, in spite of all the evidence presented about the harm he is causing himself and all those around him. This question may seem overly simplistic or inherently complex, depending on which side of the disease you happen to be on. Ask someone who rarely imbibes and they most likely will have little sympathy for the chronic drinker. Why would Harry continue on when his father’s alcoholism tore his family apart? He should know better.

There are the usual reasons: “Too much stress – I need to unwind after work; When I drink, I don’t feel so self-conscious; My anxiety level is so high, I can’t relax without it; I’m not any fun until I’ve had a few; Intimacy is much easier when I’ve let my hair down with a few drinks first; there’s nothing to do in the winter but drink; I can’t perform without a couple of drinks to calm my nerves first…”

The list could go on. These may seem to be legitimate reasons people start drinking – at least at first. The baffling part comes when the drinker crosses a line and becomes an alcoholic. It’s then that the denial, frustration, manipulation, lies and irresponsibility permeate the alcoholic’s life. The alcoholic himself can’t see when he’s crossed the line. Somewhere in time the relief he gained in his initial drinking days is replaced by dysfunction, chaos and lack of control. Since he can no longer realistically gauge how his mood will be altered, those early benefits are no longer felt.

But the alcoholic now chases those initial benefits and feelings of reward to no avail. He is driven! To those outside the addiction, it makes no sense to see the alcoholic continue on in spite of the consequences. To the alcoholic, however, trying to find relief has become the mainstay of his life. The backlash of addiction makes the user feel much more uncomfortable when not drinking than he did before he started seeking relief in the first place. If the alcoholic’s stress level was 6 on a scale of 1-10 before he became addicted, he will discover, once the addiction is well entrenched, his non-using stress level is now at 10. That is compounded by the fact that the alcoholic, now more than ever, is seeking the same level of comfort he found in his early drinking days. He never finds it. Thus is the insanity of addiction, and on that treadmill he remains.

Once the addiction is acknowledged and treatment begins, the alcoholic soon realizes he can’t even have one drink, no matter what benefits he initially received. Even one drink, once an alcoholic’s system has adapted to regularly having the byproducts of alcohol in it, sets the whole phenomenon of craving in motion. The alcoholic’s system considers what he drinks as a sort of “food.” He feels abnormal without it. Indeed, it’s now the unnatural thing to leave it alone – his system nags at him for it, the same way hunger nags at a person who hasn’t eaten. Suppressing those cravings takes concerted effort and is not comfortable, even if the alcoholic is better in every way without it. So better to avoid even one drink, since it sets the addiction back in motion. When active in addiction, no amount of alcohol will again give him the relief he once felt, thus “one is too many, and 1,000 isn’t enough!

Once an alcoholic is abstinent and has gone through withdrawal, the phenomenon of craving disappears, but the battle isn’t won. Now he must grapple with the obsession to drink.. The obsession is no longer dictated by a chemical need in his system, but more by social and conditional responses. So craving is the body’s physiological need for the addictive substance, while obsession is the psychological, or mental aspect of that need -triggered by varied conditions When the recovering alcoholic comes home from work, he may still feel the obsession to have a drink for quite a while. Maybe holidays trigger that obsession. Getting to sleep at night may be another time requiring the alcoholic to be vigilant in fighting the obsession. The first time he has to do sober what he used his alcohol crutch to help with may set off the obsession big time! Which events or situations will trigger the obsession varies for each alcoholic.

What Can be done to ease the Obsession?

As factors vary by the individual, there is no set answer. What stage of the addiction he is in when he receives treatment will influence how difficult his withdrawal will be. An alcoholic in the later stages of the disease should always be detoxed medically, as death could result if he is in a later stage of the progression. Education and support are the standard methods of coping with both cravings and obsessions. Arming the alcoholic by teaching him what he can expect will do much to ease the discomfort. Since the feelings that accompany both craving and obsessing can be subtle, knowing what he’s feeling can do much to help the alcoholic recognize and walk through those tough spots. Getting extra support from others who have went through the process before them will help him learn ways of getting around, or diffusing, both cravings and obsessions. While acute withdrawal generally lasts from four to 12 days – depending on the severity of his disease – the secondary part, post acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) is much milder and can last longer. The obsession to drink, on the other hand, may actually last a lifetime. Many in recovery have relapsed after five or even 10 years or more of abstinence! Because of this and other factors, some alcoholics decide to stay involved in their support groups for the duration of their lives, choosing to help those who come in after them while renewing their own resolve at the same time. It can be easy to forget the pain and life disruption caused by the disease when the length of time away from that last drink stretches into years.

Seeking that Elusive Balance

Logically, it would seem that once an addiction is arrested, there should be little fallout. But ask anyone in recovery and they will tell you that dealing with the obsessive part of the addiction is a lifelong endeavor. While it may not seem like your brain is asking for more booze six years into recovery, it sure seems to ask for a lot of food. Or a lot of clothes. Or a lot of stuff (know any hoarders?) Trips to the gambling boat? Too many pets? Gym twice a day? House so clean you can’t touch anything? You get the picture…

It seems the obsessive aftermath of addiction can take many forms. Recovering people need to be vigilant when addressing the urge to overdo. Perhaps it’s the lesser of two evils. Replacing an unhealthy addiction with a new, healthier one, isn’t bad if the new pastime doesn’t create problems. If done to excess, however, that may need addressing. Gambling, shopping and other outlets can turn into process addictions if one isn’t careful. That carefulness most likely comes in the form of maintaining some sort of balance. When Karen goes shopping, she has a mind that tells her to buy that blue shirt she likes, but since she likes it so well, she wants to buy three of them. Her logic says that when one blouse wears out she two more. Bob likes to eat, so instead of having a serving of potato chips, he eats the whole bag. George, seven years into recovery, still goes to a meeting every night, while his wife struggles at home to manage everything that George is too busy to help with.

Ideally, in each of these situations, a mentor or friend may point out the obsessiveness going on. Some shopping, necessary; spending the food budget on clothes means Karen is out of balance and courting a shopping addiction. Bob’s eating too much. George may be hiding in meetings to avoid his responsibilities to his family. All are out of balance. Seeking to find that balance seems to be the task of most once thoroughly entrenched in recovery. Just an extension of the obsession to drink or use? Something to fill a void inside? Perhaps. But with mentors, friends and support, one needs never follow those impulses into addiction. Talking things out while trying not to be so impulsive is part of the solution. Looking at what’s out of whack and replacing unhealthy behaviors with healthier ones is also of benefit. Without the insanity of addiction, compulsions may be overcome, leaving balance and a sense of serenity in their place.Back to

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