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Overcoming a Lifelong Battle Against Addiction

Dear Crucial Skills,

How does one escape the addictions of pornography, drugs, alcohol, etc? I’ve been told that even if I’m able to finally get to the point of remission, I’ll always be an addict and never completely escape. It’s a hopeless message, but I sense truth in this and fear I’ll have to fight it the rest of my life.

Do you have any advice that can help me in my lifelong battle against addiction?


Dear Struggling,

I have great news for you. While in some cases there might (and I stress MIGHT) be some element of truth to the statement, “I’ll always be an addict”—that statement doesn’t mean what you think it means.

The implication of “always an addict” in your note is “I’ll have to fight the rest of my life.” That’s the part I can immediately reassure you is absolutely not true, but hang on for a moment and let me get to that point in its time.

First, I want to be clear that my coauthors and I are not addiction experts. We study human behavior, so we have opinions about the state of research on issues like addiction recovery. That is not our specialty nor do I have training in addiction recovery. With that said, I will share some opinions on your question.

• Will you always be at risk of returning to your addiction? There’s a good chance you won’t. Many people with addictions recover in a way that never affects them again. One of the most dramatic evidences of this point is a major study funded by the U.S. Government in 1971 as tens of thousands of heroin-addicted soldiers were returning from Vietnam. Military officials were terrified that a healthcare crisis would ensue as their systems would have been overloaded with those suffering the effects of addiction. But the crisis never happened. Well over 80 percent of those returning, who were classified as seriously addicted, discontinued drug use after coming home—forever.

• How long does it take? I’ll answer this briefly but will refer you to the chapter on addiction recovery in our book Change Anything: The New Science of Personal Success for a fuller description. Our work shows that habits change when all six of the sources of influence that shape our habits change. Period.

Now, that process can take a while, but understanding those sources of influence helps you recognize that there are discrete actions you can take to move the process along and to understand what work remains. This also explains why so many of the returning soldiers changed so quickly. All of these sources of influence were organized in a way that promoted addiction when they lived in Vietnam. When they returned, for many of them, all six sources changed. So they did, too.

• If you’re one of the 20 percent rather than the 80 percent, does that mean a lifetime of struggle? Absolutely not. Even those who continue to feel vulnerable to relapse will tell you that year by year, maintaining the life patterns that keep them “sober” (I use that term generically) become not just easier, but pleasurable.

Here’s the good news I promised you. Please read these sentences over and over and over: The way you feel today about your addictive behaviors can feel entirely different just a few months from now. You can literally come to hate what you currently love. You can—and will—come to find loathsome those things that seem irresistible today.

Let me elaborate on this last, and most important, point. Our emotions often lie to us. When we experience an emotion (let’s say I’m feeling angry at my daughter) it comes with two embedded lies—it feels true, and it feels permanent. It feels true in the sense that I have a profound conviction that I am totally right and she is totally wrong. My emotion is my evidence that I am right. All of us have had the experience of feeling that way, then getting a little more information and perspective, and having the emotion pivot 180 degrees. We feel remorse, or empathy, or love—whereas seconds earlier we couldn’t have imagined feeling different. Similarly, the emotions feel permanent. We believe the way we feel about something is how we will always feel.

For example, I cannot imagine not craving a cigarette. Or being stimulated by pornography. Or getting out of control at the sight of chocolate. Or losing my temper when criticized. Yet, when you talk with those who have realigned the sources of influence in their life, they’ll often use words like “disgusted” when they think about those behaviors today.

But don’t trust these other people. Test this proposition against your own experience. Have you ever felt even momentarily different about an addictive habit you struggle with? Have you had moments when you felt no temptation at all? In fact, you felt revulsion for the act? If so, you know already that change is possible. The challenge is working through the process of change until those temporary feelings become the norm.

If you want to see a powerful example of this shift, watch this video. It’s a fascinating experiment done by the Thai Ministry of Public Health. A young child approaches people who are smoking in public with a cigarette in her hand to ask them for a light. The smokers are horrified at the thought of this child picking up this habit. Every one of those approached began lecturing the child, citing compelling reasons the child shouldn’t smoke. After listening patiently for a moment, the child would hand them a card with a phone number for smoking cessation services, and ask, “Then why do you smoke?” Researchers observed the smokers after the child walked away. Almost every one of them dropped their cigarette. All retained the card with the phone number. Calls to the help line increased 40 percent on the day of the experiment.

Now, this doesn’t demonstrate permanent change, but it shows that feelings can change. That’s the point. In this case, it was temporary. But people who were feeling compelled to smoke moments earlier were suddenly disgusted at the thought and stopped.

You need not fear a lifetime of struggle. You may need to be conscious of maintaining the six sources of influence throughout your life, but you’ll want to do it. You’ll derive pleasure from the new life. Your feelings will change.

Just keep up the good work. The way you feel today is not the way you will feel a year from now.


You can learn more insights and skills like this in Crucial Influence

8 thoughts on “Overcoming a Lifelong Battle Against Addiction”

  1. Peter Selby

    As an Addiction Medicine physician and CC trainer I concur that if there isnt alignment in the 6 sources of influence, it is hard to change for good. To clarify, I am not providing individual medical advice; I am commenting on my observation of the gap between science and practice.
    Most models of change tend to overlook the biological predispositions of individuals ( either genetic and or acquired due to exposure to drugs , adverse childhood exposures, life experiences). For example, countless lives are lost when medication assisted treatment with very strong evidence for its efficacy is discounted due to the stigma associated with them. Somehow it is viewed as a sign of weakness if people use medications to recover as part of their treatment plan. We dont judge people who take meds for other chronic diseases caused by the misalignment of the 6 factors described so well in Influencer and Change Anything.
    The management and treatment of addictive disorders are complex and for anyone suffering, it is important to reach out for help. Paradoxically, having the humility to appreciate ones vulnerability to relapse even after stopping for years is likely a protective factor that helps someone struggling with addictive behaviours stay on track. It takes years to develop the identify of being “an addict”, it takes longer to adopt a new one of being a “recovering addict”. The latter is engendered with hope and possibilities.
    Maybe when we are humble, we are more likely to reach out for help and resist drives that lead to slips and eventual relapse and reinforcing the identity of addict.
    best wishes on your path to recovery

    1. josephgrenny

      What a graceful, wise and caring comment, Peter. Thank you for adding to the conversation.

    2. SLCCOM

      Actually, you would be surprised how often people with chronic illnesses are told that if they would just get off their many medications they would get well.

  2. Steve Acevedo

    I am constantly impressed with the quality of answers given by the VitalSmarts team to the questions asked. This was incredibly exciting and validating for me to read Joseph’s reply to the sincere question from a struggling addict. I myself was once where “Struggling” is and the feelings of shame and guilt were paralyzing. I felt like I was the most despicable person on the planet, and that everyone could see my shame. A million times I vowed, “never again,” only to be shamed over and over again as I failed in my quest to overcome my addictions.

    Good news, “Struggling;” today I feel that I am one of the happiest, most blessed people on the planet. I feel joy and gratitude daily. The addictions that I once struggled with mightily now seem like a distant footnote in a past chapter of my life. What changed for me? Apparently, without knowing that I was applying the principles of the six sources of influence, I actively lived them and changed my world. In short, I now live a life congruent with my beliefs. Am I an addict? Some might define me as such, but I don’t. While I can’t say that the thought of past temptations doesn’t occasionally scroll across the screen in my mind, I can say that those thoughts are easily dismissed as I focus on the true sources of joy and love for me. Sometimes, when I’m driving in my car, I’ll reminisce about my past, and a big smile spreads across my face as I realize that all things are possible – even slaying one’s dragons.

    1. josephgrenny

      Thanks for that encouraging comment, Steve. Knowing you personally – I can vouch for the fact that you are loved and admired.

  3. Sarah

    As a former alcoholic and smoker I can tell you that you can escape, and I identify with your feelings of utter despair when people tell you that you cannot. The underlying message is that even if you are free of the behaviours, you will be so tortured by the cravings that life will be miserable anyway. What can possibly be inspiring about that?!

    I can’t speak for other people’s journeys but I know that for me, in addition to endeavouring to change the six sources of influence, there was also a single small moment in time in which something shifted for me, and gave me the strength to quit for good. In the case of my drinking, it was when my two-year-old daughter reached up to my wine glass and said ‘Tah?’ wanting to try some. I realised I didn’t want her to grow up seeing me with a glass in my hand every night, and from that day on, I have never had another drink. For smoking, it was my father’s diagnosis with congestive heart failure after he had spent a lifetime of drinking and smoking. I thought to myself, “Who am I trying to fool? This could just as easily be my end of life if I don’t change things now.” Interestingly the two events were some years apart, i.e. I was able to stop drinking some years before I stopped smoking, and I think that perhaps this was because it was easier for me to change my six sources of influence around drinking than it was around smoking.

    I want to emphasise that these changes occurred for me after years and years of trying many different things: AA, quitting for three months here and there, New Years resolutions, etc. Here in Australia there was a smoking cessation campaign a little while back that said, “Never give up on giving up.” I really identified with that sentiment. It is so easy to beat ourselves up when we fail (yet again!) but it is more important to be gentle with yourself when you do. Feelings of shame only exacerbate the desire to indulge in the behaviour and ‘prove’ to yourself what a failure you are.

    Instead I recommend never giving up on giving up, set up the structures around you that will support your goals (your six sources of influence) and be open for those moments or catalysts that shift your thinking. Waiting for you is a life of happiness and quiet pride in your achievements, and I promise you it is possible. I wish you all the very best.

    P.S. You are not Struggling, you are Striving!

  4. Warren Sy

    It is really great to know that you have deep insights about overcoming addiction and I really learn from it. Keep posting more here.

  5. Joseph Iwaye

    While I believe that medical help is vital to getting out of addiction, I equally believe that spiritual help is necessary. Christian devotions and resource Centre recently published a number of prayers for overcoming addictions.

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