The Spectrum of Addiction: You can Ignore it, but it Won’t Go Away

Spectrum of Addiction

I took a writing class with my favorite instructor over the weekend. She asked the writers to picture a particular irrelevant scene in the future, and imagine how that made us feel. The specific scene is irrelevant to what you are reading here, so I’ve spared you the details, but it wasn’t irrelevant to me. Not at all. In fact, quite to the contrary, it was very important, and the emotion that flooded my body upon considering the situation my writing coach suggested was complete and total relief.


I immediately recoiled and broke into a cold sweat. I’ve recently designated “relief” as a dirty word in my vernacular. Relief is what I chased with alcohol. I’ve used sex and food and work in search of that same soothing relief. Relief is the dangling carrot of addiction.


I have been listening to Russell Brand’s audiobook about the twelve steps. He describes addiction as a spectrum, and he explains that those of us on the severe end of the spectrum are fortunate because we are kind of forced to address what’s going on in our lives. He’s right, too. It’s not the first time I’ve heard of addiction described that way. In fact, Laura McKowen’s new book is titled We are the Luckiest referring to the blessing of health that comes from actually attacking our demons rather than letting them slowly gnaw at the core of our lives. Considering the spectrum is a kind of like addiction 2.0.


In addiction 1.0, we’ve got to get sober at all costs, and that leaves no cognitive discretion for considering the bigger picture. But then, once we’ve found ways to keep from dipping our wicks into the primary poison, we can consider how many other habitual preoccupations we employ in search of relief from the pain and uncertainty. That’s where the spectrum comes into play. There are lots of secondary addictive tendencies that poke their heads up looking for a little attention now that alcohol isn’t stealing all the spotlight.


This is why the stigma associated with alcoholism is so frustrating and detrimental to the overall mental health of our society. Addiction isn’t something that some of us have an others do not. It affects all of us to varying degrees. Some of us have to address it, while others can choose to ignore it at their own life-long moderate dissatisfaction. If our society didn’t view addiction as the unfortunate malady of them, and realized it is inextricably linked to the human condition of us, we could all find the empathy that we all need and we all deserve.


Just because I took a frying pan to the face that forces me to consider all of this doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect everyone else who is not quite as aggressive in their quest for relief. It’s still there. You might just be ignoring it.


When we look to external relief for internal discomfort, that’s addiction. You don’t have to get drunk and snort coke off a hooker’s ass to suffer from addiction. You don’t have to eat an entire buttercream frosted chocolate sheet cake or work 16 hours a day to prove you’ve got a problem. Your case might be mildly concerning, or it might be flaming and catastrophic. Whether or not a room full of people can pretend they didn’t notice what you just did shouldn’t really matter.


Here’s one of the millions of counterintuitive oxymoronic befuddlements of addiction: As a drinker, I thought I had it all figured out. Now that I’m sober, I’m more confused than ever.


Alcohol let me put all the pieces together in the puzzle of life. I had a wife, a family, a house, a good job and enough money to keep it all going. There was nothing further to consider. When I worried, the drink brought me relief. When I faced stress, alcohol was there to soothe. When I doubted my abilities, my liquid friend gave me false confidence.


Alcohol is widely considered to work until it doesn’t. This is one of the reasons sobriety is so diabolically hard. No one wants to be an explosive, out-of-control, hedonistic drunk. When alcohol stops working to soothe, we don’t drink more because we think setting it all ablaze is a good idea. We drink more because we want alcohol to work again, and if the usual amount isn’t cutting it, certainly more will do the trick. We aren’t purposely chasing the inevitable destruction. We are chasing contentment. It’s just too late. The potion has lost it’s magic, and it takes us a while to figure that out.


One of my friends in our SHOUT Sobriety group explained it to me in one of those lightbulb moments on Monday night. She said she doesn’t predict the future because doing so only ensures disappointment and failure. She takes what comes, come what may, and tries to find the blessing in it. At first, that sounds cynical and negative. Then, it sounds timid and scorned. But when I really spent some time considering what she meant, I realized her attitude about the future is the only sane and logical way to think.


I’ve tried drinking to drown the future. I’ve tried having sex to feel better about myself. I’ve eaten ice cream like I just spent a week wandering in the desert with tonsillitis. And I’ve worked long and hard like I think I control my own destiny. That’s not how it works, and on Monday night, my friend explained it in a way that I could eventually understand it. The future is coming, like it or not. I can’t prevent it. I can’t control it. The only thing I can do is look for the joy in it, even when it’s hiding behind a pile of suffering. That’s hard, and I’m a long way from figuring it out. At least I recognize it is my only choice.


Relief isn’t coming. When we human’s climb one mountain, the crest just gives us a better view of the next mountain that’s still in front of us – taunting us and making us feel small. Just as addiction is a spectrum, and every single one of us is on it, life is an exponentially growing number of hurdles, and there is no finish line. Well, there is, but when we cross it, we’ll be quite a bit too dead to find relief in any mortal kind of sense.


Recovery is all about evolving as a person from finite limitations using alcohol (or any other poison) as our boundaries, to an understanding that we can neither predict nor control the future. There is no relief, so looking for it is a wasted endeavor. Getting comfortable with the unknown is as hard to do as anything I’ve tried. But I’ll keep trying. I’m fortunate. My place on the spectrum has made inaction impossible.


If you’re ready to embrace the unknown, we’d love to work with you. If your drinking puts you on the spectrum, please check out our SHOUT Sobriety program. If you love someone who drinks or drank too much, we need your voice in our Echoes of Recovery program. Everyone deserves the peace and enlightenment of evolving into comfort with the unpredictable future. We can’t promise relief, but we want to grow together. To learn more, to make a tax deductible donation to our mission or to enroll in our programs, please click the appropriate button below.

SHOUT Sobriety

Echoes of Recovery

Where Does God Fit into My Recovery from Alcoholism?
February 6, 2019
The Second Time I Quit Drinking Alcohol
December 11, 2017
Sobriety: Punishment or Potential?
May 12, 2021
  • Reply
    tim hanson
    April 15, 2020 at 9:55 am

    I believe this is my “favorite” piece of yours.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      April 15, 2020 at 10:25 am

      Thanks, Tim!

  • Reply
    Pat MacMillan
    April 15, 2020 at 11:42 am

    I love this posting because it includes all of us. I read this to understand my dad, long gone now, and to understand my childhood; but this one brings me right into the human fold. I belong here in this discussion now. Thank you.

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      April 15, 2020 at 12:50 pm

      Thank you, Pat. That means so much to me because the biggest things we can do to destigmatize alcoholism is to help people understand how normal and relatable addiction really is. Your feedback warms my heart!

      • Reply
        Pat MacMillan
        April 15, 2020 at 7:26 pm

        And I have two loaves of your bread left in my freezer – will be sad to see that go, and I understand more week by week why this is what you do!! Thanks

        • Reply
          Matt Salis
          April 15, 2020 at 7:46 pm

          Thank you, Pat!

  • Reply
    April 17, 2020 at 1:48 am

    I love reading your blog posts; I find them so inspiring. I’m a sucker for trying to control the future and have spent countless hours wondering “what am I going to be?” Reading this has served as a wonderful reminder that I need to relinquish the control in favor of acceptance, being present and finding the joy. Thank you for sharing!

    • Reply
      Matt Salis
      April 17, 2020 at 5:55 am

      Thanks for reading and commenting, Paige! It is such a necessary challenge to relinquish control.

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