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When does a habit become an addiction?

Addiction E-book cover

It is the nature of desire not to be satisfied, and most human beings live only for the gratification of it.”

–Aristotle

When does a habit become an addiction? I have heard it said that with a habit you are in control of your choices, whereas with an addiction you aren’t in control of your choices—but what about a situation in which a habit slides into an addiction? For example: It may seem like a harmless habit to drink on weekends, but what if it seriously affects your family? What if you say and do things that you would normally never do? Would you call this a habit, or an addiction?

Just because you can control the time and place when you exercise your habit doesn’t make it any less of an addiction if you lose control of what you do and say after you ingest the substance. Ask yourself, “Do I have a habit, or do I have an addiction?” There are many definitions of addiction, but I prefer one stated in Addictions and Grace by Gerald G. May, MD: “Addiction is any compulsive, habitual behavior that limits the freedom of human desire.”

So if your habit leads you to act like a jerk (also known as a personality change)—if it limits your choices regarding your behaviors—perhaps you have crossed over from habit into addiction.

Does it really matter if it is “only” a weekend addiction and your can control your “habit” the rest of the week?

Richard Bach, author of Illusions, once said, “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough they are yours.”

When you see your freedom of choice compromised in any way, rather than arguing for your right to maintain your limitations, you might want to consider that you may have an addiction.

During the years that I used alcohol to escape my anxieties, I told myself that I wasn’t hurting anyone but me because I was holding down a job, continuing to work on a degree, making dinner for my children every night, and running a household. I told myself that since I had never had a DUI, didn’t drink every day, and didn’t get drunk every time I drank, I didn’t have a problem— despite the fact that my husband begged me to stop drinking because it changed my personality. When I drank, my personality change looked something like this: I became cute, funny, engaging and affectionate at first; then I became argumentative and/or totally disengaged as the evening went on and the drinks increased.

Here are a few questions, adapted from Grace and Addiction, to help you decide if you have a habit or an addiction:

1. How do I feel if someone threatens to take away my right to drink or get high?

2. When I have tried to stop or reduce my use of substances, have I experienced any stress reaction related to withdrawal (anxiety, agitation, irritability, resentment)?

3. Do I ever find myself making excuses, denials, or playing other mind tricks to rationalize my right to use substances?

4. Have I ever made resolutions to myself or someone else to reduce or even stop using, only to fail to keep my word?

5. Do I find myself anticipating the next time that I can drink or use without censor?

6. Do I sometimes struggle with thought of regrets or embarrassment when thinking of my last drinking or using episode?

7. Has anyone close to me ever told me that I drink/drug too much?

8. Has my drinking or drugging caused distress for anyone in my life?

Until you have honestly answered these questions—habit vs. addiction—you do not have the freedom to choose. You do not have drinking or using—drinking or using has you.

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