So you've recognized you have a problem -- that your addictive behavior is affecting other parts of your life -- and you want to quit. Chances are, when you started, you didn't expect to become addicted -- you may have thought you were just having fun and could quit at any time. Many addicts are surprised at how difficult they find their first attempt at quitting, and end up wondering, "How can I quit?"
The good news is that you can quit. Quitting is a complicated process, though. There are many factors, physical, mental and emotional, that make quitting difficult. This is why so many people find treatment helpful, to guide them through the complex process of quitting -- although many people are successful quitting on their own.
Understanding why quitting is so difficult can help you see that everyone overcoming an addiction goes through the same difficult process to some extent. It is not that you are especially weak-willed or that you are failing any more than anyone else. When you find yourself thinking, feeling or acting in a particular way that goes against your decision to quit, you can be more compassionate with yourself, and keep trying.
What Gets You Hooked -- Tolerance and Withdrawal
Tolerance and withdrawal are key symptoms of addiction. They are strongly interconnected, and are the main processes that got you addicted in the first place. If people didn't develop tolerance and withdrawal, they would probably find it a lot easier to quit.
Tolerance is a physical and psychological process. When you experience an addictive substance or behavior the first time, it may be overwhelming, unpleasant even or it may be mild and pleasurable. If the effect feels strong, you may feel there is no danger of you overdoing it, and if it is mild, it may seem harmless and innocent.
The more times the behavior is repeated, the less sensitivity you have to it, and the more you need to get the same effect. Drugs, such as alcohol and opiates, work on specific parts of the brain, creating physical tolerance. Behaviors, such as sex and gambling, produce feelings of excitement that get less intense over time. As tolerance develops, you may want to do more of the drug or behavior to get the same effect.
As you become addicted, you may experience withdrawal when you aren't able to do the addictive behavior. Physical withdrawal symptoms, such as shaking, feeling unwell and stomach upsets, and/or psychological withdrawals symptoms, such as feeling anxious and depressed, may occur. These are easily "fixed" by more of the addictive substance or behavior.
Physical withdrawal from alcohol and drugs can be overcome quite quickly, although it tends to be quite unpleasant. Since withdrawal can be dangerous, if you decide to quit, it is best done under medical supervision. Discuss physical withdrawal with your doctor for the best way to approach this. Once you have been through withdrawal, there are deeper psychological processes that make it difficult to stay "on the wagon."
Blocks to Quitting -- Conflict and Ambivalence
When your addictive behavior becomes excessive to the point of creating conflict, it is out of balance with other parts of your life. Conflict may occur within yourself -- you want to rein in your behavior while, at the same time, having greater urges to do it. Conflicts also occur with other people: whether they want you to quit or want you to join them in the addictive behavior.
Despite making a commitment to quit, and going through the withdrawal phase, conflicts do not simply go away. Expectations are higher than ever before. Yet the one thing you depended on to cope with stress -- the addictive behavior -- is now off limits.
This is why it is so important to have other ways of coping firmly established, ideally before quitting. A therapist will help you with this. Without coping strategies in place, you are likely to experience strong urges to go back to the addictive behavior "one more time." Relationship support can help you deal with and avoid conflicts without using your addictive behavior for comfort and escape.
Ambivalence, the mixed feelings of both wanting to continue with the addictive behavior and wanting to quit, is part of the addictive process even in the early stages of experimentation. Often, this is felt in terms of "right" and "wrong," a moral dilemma, especially in relation to sexual and illegal behaviors. In some cases, guilt feelings are appropriate; in others, they are not.
Guilt and Justification
The discomfort of these feelings of guilt when your behavior doesn't fit with your own standards of right and wrong can be a strong motivator to make changes. Sometimes, though, it can work against you, causing you to justify your behavior to yourself and other people. This can get in the way of the decision to quit.
Some common justifications are:
- Denial - "It's not a problem."
- Demurring or minimization - "I have already cut down."
- Diversion - "Pollution is more dangerous." "Uncle Ted drinks far more than I do."
- Defiance - "I would rather live a shorter life and be happy than quit and be miserable."
- Idealization - "You won't be complaining when I win a million dollars."
- Rationalization - "I've never stolen to finance my habit," "I've never hit a woman."
- Lesser of two evils - "Better I do it than I be impossible to live with."
- Misinformation - "Cancer doesn't run in my family." "It has medicinal uses, so it's OK." "Chocolate is the only cure for PMS."
- Taking behavior out of context - "In some cultures, polygamy is acceptable."
- Glorification - "Queen Victoria used to …." "Patriarchs in the Old Testament had many wives." "Jesus drank wine."
How Can I Quit?
Therapy can help you to cope with uncomfortable feelings and help you unravel the irrational thoughts that keep you addicted. Quitting is not easy or straightforward, but a good treatment program will help you achieve it, when you are ready. And although treatment will make the process of quitting easier, it is not essential -- many people quit addictions on their own, or using self-help resources.
American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th Ed.) Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. 1994.
Canning, M. Lust, Anger, Love: Understanding Sexual Addiction and the Road to Healthy Intimacy. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks. 2008.
Orford, J. Excessive Appetites: A Psychological View of Addictions. (Second Edition). Chichester: Wiley. 2001.