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Transference: When Addicts Trade One Addiction For Another

No matter what the substance, addiction is an incredibly difficult problem to tackle.  Not only does one have to be ready to face the fact that they are an addict, they also have to find a way in which to stop a behaviour they have grown dependant on.  Though the physical dependence on drugs or alcohol can be resolved relatively quickly, it can take a lot of work to get the addict to the point where they are understanding the reasons they use.  If an addict is not ready to look at what might be motivating their behaviour, they may be vulnerable to transference.  Transference occurs when an addict trades one addiction for another.  A common one seen in the addiction community is smoking.  Outside of twelve step meetings, there is often a large group of smokers, as it can make it easier to quit one drug if you have another to replace it with.  Normally, the addict will find something that is less destructive than their original substance of choice, and more accepted in society.  In this way, they can still engage in addictive behaviour without the stigma of addiction being an issue.  The question then becomes: why is transference an issue?

Addiction Cycle

In order to understand the issue of transference, a look at how addiction works is needed.  Addiction can happen in many different ways, but the main issue is the dependence on a particular substance or behaviour.  When speaking with addicts, one sees that that there is a general cycle that seems to take place.  At first, the behaviour can be categorized as normal. For example, the alcoholic will try their first drink and may love the sensation it provides, but they are able to stick to social drinking.  In this example, the budding alcoholic might drink more than their peers, but their behaviour is not outside of what would be seen as normal by society.  Addictions, however, are progressive, and at some point the troublesome behaviour may become more frequent, or perhaps dangerous.  Stepping back into the example of the alcoholic, the addict begins to drink more often, or they can start to have blackouts.  If nothing is changed once the addict has increased the frequency and dosage of their chosen substance, then the addict will start to become dependant on the substance, as withdrawal symptoms will begin to appear when the person is not using.  Here the alcoholic might start experiencing the shakes, which would require them to begin drinking earlier in the day.  This behaviour continues until the addict either realizes they need help, or are forced to seek help due to the intervention of friends, family, or law enforcement.

What leads to this behaviour can be explained by what happens in the body when one uses drugs or alcohol.  With the addition of drugs or alcohol into the body, dopamine – the feel-good hormone – is released, and you get the temporary feeling of joy.  The “high” we speak about when describing addiction is just that: dopamine is rushing through your blood, making you feel on top of the world.  This becomes a problem when the addict comes down from their high, since they will be drawn to use again in order to regain that feeling.  Once the addict begins to use drugs or alcohol regularly, however, the dose they are accustomed to no longer has the same effect, and they have to increase their intake in order to get that same high.  Slowly but surely, the addict must continue to increase their dose of drugs or alcohol, and soon the body becomes dependant on the substance. The addict starts thinking that the substance is actually the answer to their problems, as the dopamine rush makes them feel better on the drug than off it.  Once this connection is made, it can be difficult to break, and the addiction takes hold.

Common Addiction Replacements

If the addict is able to get out of the addiction cycle, recovery is a long and difficult road.  The first and possibly the easiest step in recovery is to safely withdraw from the drugs or alcohol.  The body can recover relatively quickly, and after a few months of abstinence, the physical cravings dissipate, and the addict is left with the mental cravings.  In other words, they must deal with the emotions and situations that make them want to use.  It can be very difficult to identify the emotions behind a particular action for anyone, but for the addict it is a crucial step in recovery.  If not dealt with properly, this is where we see the incidence of transference occurring.

If the addict has gotten to the point where they no longer physically crave their substance of choice but are having a difficult time dealing with life, then they might turn to a different substance to help alleviate their pain.  One of the most common secondary addictions is smoking cigarettes or vaping.  Though smoking and vaping can be bad for the health, when dealing with such things as alcohol or drugs, it is by far the lesser of the two evils.  The common joke in the recovery community is that if you are ever looking for a recovery meeting, simply look for the church with a large group of people smoking outside.  The number of smokers in recovery is quite large, but the problem can also come in other forms.  Just like inside the recovery community, people are constantly trying to find ways of distracting themselves from their problems, and unfortunately the addict can be the hardest hit with this type of behaviour.  It is all too easy for the addict to fall into old behaviour patterns, and substituting one addiction for another is very common.  The most common forms of transference are:

  • Cigarettes, e-cigarettes
  • Food
  • Shopping
  • Gambling
  • Sex
  • Work

It should come as no surprise that the above substitutions are common among addicts, as they are the kinds of addictions that can go under the radar.  If the addict does not see these addictions as a problem, it can be years before they address the issue, and the cycle of addiction simply transfers from one thing to another.

The Problem

A lot of people will now ask: if the transferred addiction is less harmful than the original addiction, then what is the problem with transference?  The reality is that any addiction can be destructive if left unattended.  Let’s look at the example of shopping.  At first the addict simply starts to shop a bit more because they have extra money in their bank account, as they are no longer spending it on their primary addiction.  It may seem completely harmless at first. They buy a few nice things for themselves every once in a while, which is a relatively normal behaviour.  What we do not see however, is that they tend to shop when dealing with difficult emotions, and they use shopping in much the same way as they once used drugs or alcohol.  Slowly they begin to shop more often, and with online shopping being very accessible, they begin to do it all the time.  They can easily take a short break from work and buy a multitude of things in just a few minutes, and with companies like Amazon offering same day delivery, not only do they get the satisfaction of buying said item while at work, they then go home and get another high when they open the package.  This may seem completely harmless, but if the addict is not careful, it could cause a lot of unpaid bills to start piling up.  In our society, credit card debt is a common issue, and if the addict is not careful, they can easily fall into enormous amounts of debt.  Though the addict’s behaviour is no longer threatening their physical wellness, it might start threatening their financial security.  Having poor money management can cause other problems in their life, and this new addiction can easily be just as damaging as the primary addiction.

This example of transferring one addiction to another underlines the fact that all addiction can be destructive if not managed.  When a person in recovery is unable to make a connection between their behaviour and their emotions, they are at risk of falling into another addiction, which can bring new issues into their life.  It is not necessarily about what the person is addicted to that is the problem, but the impact it can have on one’s life.  Going back to the shopping example, if this addiction goes unchecked for too long and debt becomes an ongoing issue, it can have an impact on the family, as bills go unpaid and collection agencies begin to call.  Suddenly a whole family can be in crisis, and it can all be traced back to the “harmless” secondary addiction.  Though the effects of certain addictions may not be as immediate as others, the idea of any addiction being harmless simply doesn’t make sense.  If an addict is beginning to transfer one addiction for another, it is important for them to look at their behaviour closely, so they do not repeat the mistakes of their past.

What we can do about it

Society seems to turn its head the other way when looking at certain addictions.  Our culture seems to encourage certain behaviours, like excessive shopping and compulsive working, and if a person in recovery were to start using these behaviours as a substitute to their primary addiction, most people would look the other way.  But those behaviours can be very destructive for the recovering addict, because they may lose control quickly, and if the behaviour continues unchecked, it may lead to a relapse.  It can be much easier for an addict to justify going back to their primary addiction when they begin to have other issues in their lives.  This is because they never dealt with the emotions behind their using, and the transference of addictions is exactly that – transferring one substance/behaviour for another.  Not actually addressing the problem.

It can be vital for people in recovery to dig deep and try to make connections between their emotions and their behaviour.  One of the best-known ways to do this is by joining a Twelve-Step Group.  This enables the addict to get the support they need in order to change the way they behave and how they react to the world.  By going through the steps, they get better perspective on how they act, and they begin to realize that the substance they were using was not the problem; rather, the emotion behind the behaviour was the problem.  Not only does the Twelve-Steps program require you to take a look at your own behaviour, the community can help by giving you strategies for dealing with everyday life.  That means that when faced with unwanted emotions or obstacles, you are less likely to turn to another substance to fix the problem.  Having a support system can be very important for long term recovery, and for those wishing to rid addiction from their life, a twelve-step program can mean the difference between recovery and relapse.

Another thing that addicts can do to help identify the emotions behind their behaviours to see a therapist.  The proper therapist can give space for the addict to talk about their life and get some insight into their behaviour.  Therapists can also help give practical advice on how to handle stress or triggers.  By learning strategies that can help deal with difficult emotions, the addict is better equipped to deal with their addiction and will be less likely to succumb to the pitfalls of transference.

All in all, the most important way to combat transference is through awareness.  Being aware of one’s emotions and knowing how to deal with them in a healthy manner is important for everyone to do, not just addicts.  The more we are aware of why we behave in the way we do, the better we are at stopping bad behaviour. For an addict, this greatly increases the probabilities of success when it comes to staying sober.

Photo credit: Florian Christoph. This picture has a Creative Commons attribution license.