Understanding the Challenges of Cross Addiction

Your recovery from alcoholism was going so well. You were going to meetings and seeing a therapist regularly, but then life gradually began to get crazy again. Maybe you found yourself caring for a sick parent or you had unexpected problems with your boss at work. But this time, instead of reaching for a glass of wine, you reached for an old bottle of prescription pills instead. You took one in hopes of taking off the edge. Then you took another. And then one more… Suddenly you find yourself self-medicating with prescription drugs on a regular basis. You’re now struggling with a cross-addiction.

What is cross addiction?

In the simplest terms, cross addiction means you’ve traded one addiction for another. It’s no surprise that many individuals in recovery wrestle with the problem because addiction is often defined as a chronic, relapsing disorder. Cross addiction happens in many different ways. For example, a heroin addict might start abusing alcohol, or someone recovering from alcoholism starts abusing painkillers. Many cross-addicted people will use a substance that mimics their original addiction. For instance, a recovering cocaine addict may become addicted to prescription stimulants used to treat ADHD. Individuals with a cross addiction might also abuse seemingly innocent substances, such as over-the-counter sleep aids or prescription sedatives. Some even develop non-substance addictions to activities like excessive shopping, gambling, or sex. Although cross addiction is common, not everyone who recovers from one addiction is necessarily going to develop another at some point. The condition often affects those who are newly sober, although it can strike anyone in recovery – even if they haven’t touched the original substance in years. For example, the individual recovering from alcoholism might be sober for a decade and then unexpectedly develop a hydrocodone addiction after taking the drug for a routine dental procedure.

Why is cross addiction so dangerous?

It’s easy to minimize the seriousness of cross addiction. The new addiction can seem harmless at first, especially when you’ve traded an illegal drug like heroin for an activity like gambling. But the harsh reality is that anything that is having a negative effect – physically, emotionally, financially, etc. – on your life or the lives of your loved ones is dangerous and needs to be treated. Excessive gamblers can bet away their entire life savings or lose their home; a prescription drug abuser can get into a car accident while under the drug’s influence. Needless to say, the consequences can be severe. Cross addiction also makes it much more difficult to resist your cravings for the original substance. All too often it puts you back into an environment that invites relapse. For example, if you’re recovering from alcoholism and develop a cross addiction to gambling, you could easily find yourself in a casino setting, surrounded by others who are drinking and partying – and inviting you to join in. Such an environment would make it very difficult to resist the temptation to have a drink.

Why do cross addictions develop?

Whenever you engage in something pleasurable, whether it’s eating chocolate or snorting cocaine, your brain releases the “feel good” chemical dopamine. When you have an addiction, your brain begins to need that feeling. That need is what triggers cravings that drive you back to the substance or activity that made you feel so good. When you’re in recovery – even though the original substance is no longer in your body – your brain continues to desire that feeling. In other words, it wants a new drug or activity to give you that “high”.

How do I know if I’m cross-addicted?

This can be a tough question to answer, especially if you haven’t latched onto a commonly-acknowledged addictive substance. However, there are several warning signs that you may have developed a new addiction including:

  • Ignoring responsibilities, like work, family, or school, in order to use.
  • Lying to your family, friends, or co-workers about any activities related to your use.
  • Becoming irritable, anxious, or moody when you don’t have access to the substance or activity.
  • Committing illegal acts, such as theft or fraud, to fund your habit.
  • Abandoning hobbies or other things you used to enjoy, like jogging, reading, or traveling.
  • Attempting to quit the activity or substance multiple times without success.

If none of the above applies to you, and the new substance or activity doesn’t harm you or others physically, mentally, socially, or financially, chances are that you can continue to enjoy it. However, if any of the above do apply, then you need to consider the possibility that you have a cross addiction. It’s time to seek help if that’s the case.

I suffer from alcoholism but need to take a potentially addicting medication; what should I do?

It’s imperative that you tell anyone who is treating you – family doctor, pharmacist, emergency room physician, etc. – that you are an addict in recovery. As a result, when you need a prescription drug, they may be able to provide an alternative that isn’t potentially addictive. Your health care provider might also recommend alternative treatments, such as using meditation or relaxation techniques to reduce anxiety or pain, in lieu of drugs of any kind. Never hesitate to ask questions about the addictive properties of any medication you’ve been prescribed. If you need to undergo a medical procedure or treatment that requires a potentially addictive medication or mood-altering drug of any kind, consult with your doctor or an addiction specialist to determine a strategy that will reduce your risk of developing a new addiction.

How can I be treated for cross addiction?

If you’ve developed a cross addiction, you may need to continue treatment for your original addiction as well as add treatment for the new substance or activity. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a particularly effective therapy for anyone with an addiction. A skilled therapist can help you identify and examine the thought patterns and feelings underlying your addictive behaviors. Once you learn to recognize these thoughts and emotions, your therapist will help you find strategies for dealing with them in a healthy way. You may also benefit from developing stress reduction and management strategies. Learning how to effectively cope with stressful situations, like a fight with your spouse or a holiday gathering with relatives, may include the use of meditation, regular exercise, or visualization. These simple techniques can reduce the anxiety that all too often leads to relapse. Other treatment for cross addiction includes joining a self-help support network. Many recovering addicts have experienced the powerful benefits of developing a network of people who’ve been through similar experiences. You may need to attend meetings for your new addiction as well as continue to attend meetings for your original one. Recovery is a lifelong process. Developing a cross addiction is one of those challenges you may be faced with on your sobriety journey. Even if you’ve been successfully abstinent from an original addiction, such as alcoholism or gambling, it can be surprisingly easy to fall into another. However, by being aware of the dangers and having open discussions with your treatment providers, you can reduce your risk of developing another addiction and increase the chance of living a life full of hope.

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