The Dry Drunk: Process Addictions as Self-Administered Drugs

Through being in recovery myself and working with people in 12-Step programs, I have come to believe it is essential to deal with chemical addictions before I can successfully address my process addictions. Process addictions include work, sex, romance, fantasy, relationships, emotional anorexia, social and relationship anorexia, compulsive spending and debting, frugality to the point of misery and self-debting, enabling Al-Anon behaviors, etc.

I accept the strong and clear differences in the quality of chemical addictions and process addictions. And, I have continued to see people who were working active 12-Step programs for chemical or process addictions behave as if they were still “drunk.” These individuals were concerned about their behavior since they were exhibiting the characteristics of active addicts. One person, despite working active programs in AA and WA, was questioned by her boss if she had returned to chemical abuse. I have experienced these same behaviors in myself when I am not clear, present and connected with my Higher Power.

A personal example for me was when I found my work addiction includes adrenaline addiction. As I would begin a new project, I would find the adrenaline flowing.  I would notice my work addictive behaviors increasing and then was conscious of feeling drunk (the adrenaline high/fix). Failure to catch these patterns early would result in an experience of work and adrenaline hangover after finishing a project.

Adrenaline is an important substance our body produces to assist us in dealing with stress.  Adrenaline can save our lives in difficult situations (e.g. a trauma occurs, the body emits adrenaline, and we can successfully deal with the trauma). And like any other substance, we can abuse adrenaline, creating an artificial high, which can lead to irritability and self-abusive patterns with work or other processes (e.g. the obsessive thinking patterns, which feed thought addiction). When we create adrenaline highs for ourselves frequently, a life-threatening situation may occur as the adrenal glands become exhausted.  Adrenaline addiction is important to consider, since we can become physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually drained.

Obviously, adrenaline addiction, unnoticed, can affect our recovery, as we may still appear “drunk” even though we are not actively using any other substance.

Another participant has been aware for some time he received an adrenaline “fix” each time he engaged in most of his addictive patterns—from unhealthy sex, love, and romances, to relationship addiction, co-dependency and fixing other people, to placing himself in dangerous situations. He is looking at whether his addiction to adrenaline may be a root cause for many of his other addictive behaviors and patterns.

I have also found shame can be a self-administered drug. I am coming to believe shame may not be a feeling; rather, it is a process we have learned, with many feelings connected to the “shame attack.” A “shame attack” often prevents us from hearing and allowing information to come in; it is often useless to talk to someone in the middle of a “shame attack” since they cannot hear or process the information. Do we sometimes use “shame” when we don’t want to hear or experience what someone else has to tell us? Do we sometimes use it addictively as we might another drug?

I have seen shame attacks used to control situations. In one group, a woman was asked to check out using shame to attempt to control her experience in the group and perhaps the group itself. She stayed with this information, and realized as a child, her parents had used “shame” (“Shame on you. You are a bad girl.” etc.) to control her. She acknowledged using her quick responses to feedback, and adding more dramatic events from her past to justify her current actions, was an attempt to use shame to control. She had not been willing to hear the feedback as long as she stayed in her “shame attack.” She was drunk in her shame, and talking to a drunk is useless. This is an example of using shame addictively.

Throughout life, shame can be valuable for learning. Healthy shame is connected with honest remorse for our actions, and assists us in appreciating our autonomy and responsibility for ourselves. It can also help us know better how we can take care of ourselves and accept our limitations. And we can learn to make mistakes and remedy our errors (10th Step) without going into a full blown “shame attack,” when we may feel worthless, flawed, incapable or even experience ourselves as a mistake. As with any addiction, living in shame affects our self-image, personal identity and self-esteem. As with work, relationships, romance and sex, we often lose the valuable experiences we can learn from healthy shame when we use it addictively.

Finally, I have also realized “confusion” can be used in a similar manner to adrenaline and shame. We may often feel confused when we are dealing with someone who is active in their disease, when no one can understand what the person is doing or saying because they are drunk on chemicals or processes. This confusion results when we feel clear and centered and someone around us is not. Confusion is healthy and understandable.

Some people use “confusion” as a self-administered drug. It enables us to stop hearing information, processing feelings and to avoid intimacy with others. We have often heard people say “I’m confused” when others are giving them feedback they don’t want to hear or asking them to look at behaviors they don’t want to address. Confusion is a place we can go to “hide out,” to be defensive while pretending to be in touch with our feelings; another “stash” we can use to avoid looking at what we are doing or feeling. Many social, emotional and relationship anorexics own this behavior as a part of their recovery process. This type of confusion is similar to other addictions, and often results in addictive behaviors such as blaming the other person when we are unclear, becoming angry and defensive, rationalizing and justifying, etc.

Considering adrenaline, shame and confusion as self-administered drugs is important. They have been instrumental in my own recovery programs, in those of the people I work with, and in further appreciating the complexity and multiplicity of addictions.