Addiction and Recovery Part 1: What is Addiction?

Addiction and Recovery Part 1 by Jay FeldQuestions about addiction come up frequently in therapy. Many people have a difficult time identifying as addicts because of the stigma associated with the word. It’s not easy to accept that one might have a life-controlling problem.

Some clients, especially those who have had experience in Twelve Step recovery, identify freely as addicts. For others, the realization that they might be struggling with an addiction dawns more slowly. Eventually, they open up about what has brought them into therapy, and how their specific “presenting problem” is affecting:

  • Their relationships
  • Their work
  • Their practice of self-care
  • Their self-image
  • Their spiritual life

And then the client might begin to identify with one or more of the essential characteristics of addiction (from Gerald May’s book Addiction and Grace):


Tolerance is “the phenomenon of always wanting or needing more of the addictive behavior or object of attachment in order to feel satisfied. … one becomes used to a certain amount of something, and this accustomedness removes the desired effect and leads to the need for more.” We find ourselves needing more and more exposure to that person, thing or behavior in order to create the same effect – relief from pain, the feeling of ‘aliveness’, restoring our equilibrium.

Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms occur when we’ve developed an over-attachment to something or someone, and then we stop. We feel distressed, ill at ease (dis-eased), out of balance, and often worse than before we began our pattern of overuse.


Self-deception is “the exquisite inventiveness that the mind can demonstrate in order to perpetuate addictive behaviors.” We deny, minimize, justify, rationalize our addictive behavior; we try any and every way to minimize the negative effects of the behavior – except stopping!

Loss of willpower

Loss of willpower is best identified at the beginning of the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.” Our ‘way of escape’ has narrowed considerably, and it becomes increasingly difficult to find our way out.

Distortion of attention

Addiction and its associated mind tricks inevitably kidnap and distort our attention, profoundly hindering our capacity for love [for ourselves and for others].”  The addiction becomes the preeminent object of our desire, our best friend, our God.

Therapy is the ideal environment in which to explore whether a certain pattern of behaving, thinking, feeling or relating has risen (or descended) to the level of an addiction, and provides an atmosphere of safety, support and ‘non-shaming,’ along with ‘straight talk’ and the appropriate level of challenge. In addition to individual therapy, various other types of support (couple or family therapy, involvement in a Twelve Step support group, assessment for co-occurring physical or psychiatric issues) are often necessary, as well.

Therapy can be an important source of hope, help and encouragement in the process of recovering from a life-controlling issue. One of my favorite Twelve Step recovery slogans is, “Together we can do what we could never do alone!” Therapy can be an essential part of “together we can”!

Feel free to call with any questions you might have about this complicated subject.

Jay R. Feld HeadshotDr. Jay R. Feld
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
(917) 572-4068

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