Cross Addiction: Swapping one addiction for another
Cross-addiction is when you put down one behaviour or addiction, only for another one to “pop up”. This often happens in recovery from addiction. It can cause immense problems, particularly if you aren’t ready for it.
In this article, we look at examples of cross-addiction, why cross-addiction happens, and how to prevent this from happening at the root.
Examples of cross addiction
There is an almost endless number of ways that one addiction can transmute into another. Here are just a few examples of these.
Stop using drugs and start drinking
There is a reason why in the Narcotics Anonymous “How it Works” preamble, there is a section that tells you:
“Thinking of alcohol as different from other drugs has caused a great many addicts to relapse. Before we came to NA, many of us viewed alcohol separately, but we cannot afford to be confused about this. Alcohol is a drug.”
People in recovery can often experience cross-addiction, and it can have disastrous consequences.
A person may find recovery from heroin and find a new lease on life. After a while of recovery, though they start to experiment with alcohol during social occasions. They may even find that, for a while at least, they are able to moderate their drinking somewhat.
This usually doesn’t last long in someone with addictive tendencies, and soon they find themselves increasing their alcohol intake to dangerous levels. Either that or returning back to their initial addiction. In this case, heroin.
When friends point out them that they have simply replaced one addiction for another, they might justify that alcohol is different because it is legal, or that they are now out socialising. Whereas with heroin they would stay at home and isolate.
Though these substances both have fairly different effects, they are both depressants and are used by people with addictive tendencies to fill a void and “change” how they feel.
Swapping one drug for another
Another example might be a person addicted to Xanax, who manages to stop using Xanax, but still, feel highly anxious after a long time clean. Rather than go to counselling or look at the root causes of this anxiety, they may begin smoking cannabis to relieve these feelings.
They might reason that cannabis is far more benign than Xanax. After all, Xanax withdrawal can be fatal, whereas cannabis withdrawal comes with little or no risks.
While this may be true, there are still plenty of risks for using cannabis habitually. If a person smokes cannabis, they are at a much higher risk of developing problems with their lungs than the general population. They're also at a higher risk of this if they mix cannabis with tobacco.
Cannabis use can also cause serious mental health problems. A cannabis user can experience severe anxiety, depression or even psychosis. These effects are particularly problematic for a person with addictive tendencies, as once they begin smoking cannabis, they may not be able to stop. With the effects of cannabis slowly increasing their anxiety, Xanax, the very drug they swore to never touch again, could become increasingly appealing.
Stopping using stimulants and starting having promiscuous sex
A person may take cocaine for many years and become addicted to the feelings of excitement and escape. However, upon quitting, they may find they miss these feelings and instead seek them in the form of promiscuous sex.
While there is of course nothing wrong with having sex, when sex is used in a compulsive way to escape the way a person feels, it can soon become problematic.
A person with a cocaine addiction might steal or commit crimes to feed their addiction. While a person with a sex addiction might not do this, they may find themselves becoming similarly corrupted by their obsessive thoughts and actions.
They might not turn up for responsibilities they had agreed to because they were either having sex or pursuing it. They may begin cheating on their partner, sometimes with many different people. Perhaps they have sex with people it is inappropriate for them to have sex with.
While having sex might not come with the same dangers of taking cocaine (heart attacks, deviated septum, brain damage), having sex promiscuously comes with its own set of risks. Mixing with dangerous people and the risk of contracting potentially deadly STDs are just two of these.
Exchanging one addictive behaviour for another
Cross-addiction does not always involve substances. It can just mean swapping one behaviour for another.
The permutations are endless, but all are problematic and eventually lead to despair. Situations and feelings from the repercussions of these addictions end up as a driving force for the addiction to continue, albeit in another form.
Overcoming cross addiction
The most important thing to remember in any addiction is that the compulsive behaviour involved happens in an attempt to avoid a feeling. If you are a heroin addict, you may be taking the drug to avoid depression caused by trauma. If you take Xanax, you may be taking it to block out anxiety. Perhaps you have an addiction to gambling, where you may gamble to provide some excitement to an otherwise humdrum existence.
The solution to addressing these addictions is not by taking substances or engaging in addictive behaviours. It lies in getting to the source of why you feel the need to change how you feel.
If you have depression, you need to look into why you are depressed. Perhaps you do not have a fulfilling existence. Maybe you do not have supportive friendships with people you can truly connect with.
If you are anxious, look at the reasons why you are anxious. This might be due to a situation that is going on in your life now, or it could have been caused by something traumatic that happened to you in the past.
If your life lacks excitement, it may be time to find out how you can live a more fulfilling existence.
Whatever the reason, getting to the bottom of it and healing is the only sane solution.
Self-inquiry to solve addictions
If you have cross-addiction problems, you may find that the cause of your addiction is not immediately apparent. For this reason, many people with addiction issues feel a need to commit to self-inquiry work to find out what drives their addiction. Once you find the root of your addiction and have healed it, addiction issues are likely to wane.
Joining a support group and hearing people talk about their addictions and how they address them can be of immense benefit if you are trying to get to the root of your own addiction.
Support groups often also involve a program of recovery, where you spend time looking at where your addiction stems. Often, this involves working with a mentor or sponsor, who can share their addiction wisdom with you.
Psychotherapy can be considered a kind of self-inquiry. Working with a mental health professional, talking about traumatic events in your life and addressing maladaptive thought processes can be a key part in unwinding your addiction.
You may find that going to a support group and attending psychotherapy is the most effective way of healing. Support groups have the benefit of having people who sometimes have decades of experience dealing with addiction. Mental health professionals have the benefit of being able to diagnose and treat any underlying mental illnesses that you may have.
Rat park - overcoming addiction
In the late 1970s, Dr. Bruce Alexander and his colleagues at Simon Fraser University in Canada conducted a series of controversial experiments that would come to be known as the "Rat Park" experiments.
These experiments tested the theory that addiction is not caused by the drug itself, but by the user's environment. To do this, they placed rats in two different environments - a "rat park" and a standard lab cage.
In Rat Park, the rats had everything they could possibly want – food, water, shelter, and companionship. They were free to roam and explore, and had plenty of opportunities to play. As a result, they didn't feel the need to turn to drugs in order to escape their reality. The standard lab cage was small and barren, with nothing to do.
The rats were given access to both water and cocaine-laced water. The scientists found that the rats in the rat park almost never chose to drink the cocaine-laced water, while the rats in the standard lab cage drank it frequently.
The same principle can be applied to humans. If we have a fulfilling and meaningful life, we're less likely to turn to drugs as a way of numbing our pain or escaping from our problems. This is why it's so important to create a pleasant existence for ourselves – one that includes healthy relationships, satisfying work, and meaningful leisure activities. Only then can we truly overcome addiction.
Accidental cross addiction
If you have addictive tendencies, it is possible to unwittingly fall victim to cross-addiction. Perhaps the most infamous example of this is when the Sackler family released a painkiller called Oxycontin in the United States, claiming that it was not addictive.
The Sackler family also engaged in aggressive marketing strategies that targeted doctors that could prescribe Oxycontin. This led to a massive increase in prescriptions for Oxycontin, as well as a corresponding increase in addiction and overdose rates.
The Sackler family's purported deception has had a devastating impact on countless lives. People struggling with Oxycontin addiction often turn to cheaper, more potent street drugs like heroin when they can no longer obtain pills.
Oxycontin also presented a dangerous risk to recovering opioid users. While they would have readily acknowledged that they should not take any addictive opioids again, due to the risk of becoming addicted again, due to Oxycontin being marketed as non-addictive, they may have fallen victim to addiction once more.
We now understand that Oxycontin was one of the key drivers of the opioid epidemic that the United States is currently facing. In 2021, there were over 107,000 deaths from opioid overdoses in the United States, more than any other year on record. Numbers of overdose deaths have been climbing at a truly horrifying rate, quadrupling since 1999.
While the UK does not have some of the driving forces that make the US opioid epidemic so deadly, the UK is still facing a worrying trend, as drug deaths have also been increasing. Rates of drug overdoses have doubled since 1994.
Get to the root of your addiction
In recovery, cross-addiction frequently pops ups. Getting to the root of your issues is always the most effective way of treating addiction. You may be able to figure out where your addiction stems from and address it yourself. Alternatively, you might require outside help. Support groups and psychotherapy are both very powerful ways of treating addiction in all its forms.
- U.S. Overdose Deaths In 2021 Increased Half as Much as in 2020 – But Are Still Up 15% - https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/pressroom/nchs_press_releases/2022/202205.htm
- Understanding the Epidemic - https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/epidemic/index.html
- The challenge of cross addiction - https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/addiction-and-recovery/201904/the-challenge-cross-addiction