Understanding Addiction

Look familiar? Whether you’re addicted to Twitter, chocolate, or another compulsive behavior, we all have some sort of addiction plaguing us, like alcohol or other drug dependence, gambling, eating disorders, sex, etc. As a psychologist/author (psycho author),I find addictions positively fascinating, and love to write about them. An addiction can give your characters conflict and depth.

Authors, if you choose to torture your characters with addictions, how do you write those behaviors authentically? Readers, how do you explain why your favorite characters continue to engage in behaviors that clearly hurt them? I want to share one simple model of addiction to help answer these questions.


1. This model starts with feeling negative emotion, like anger, hurt, fear, stress, shame. We don’t like feeling this way so we try to change the feeling.

2. Sometimes we turn to addictive behaviors to change the feeling. For example, I’m feeling really anxious about people liking my novel so I start drinking.

3. Many drinks later I’m not worrying about much of anything. I’m comfortably numb. I feel temporary relief. It’s very reinforcing!

4. Alas, the relief is short-lived, because when I wake up tomorrow, the worry about people liking my novel is still there. I’ll probably have even more worry now because I also have a hangover and I’m late to work. I’m angry and disappointed with myself for getting drunk. I feel like a loser. I’m back to experiencing negative emotion.

And here we go again!

Sound plausible? One reason we get stuck in addictive behavior is that temporary relief we feel. We seek the high or the numbness which prevents us from feeling the pain momentarily.

How therapy can help break this cycle is by teaching more effective coping skills for dealing with negative emotion. When I worry about people liking my book I can practice “nonjudgmentally” by listing the facts instead of spewing judgments. Here are some facts about the situation:

1. I feel nervous about reception to my novel.
2. I don’t have control over how readers view my novel.
3. Writing the novel was very enjoyable to me.
4. I have dealt with anxiety before without getting drunk.
5. I feel better at work after a good night’s rest.

Recently I finished reading Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder. (See my review HERE). Muscle is an autobiography by Sam Fussell, who became addicted to bodybuilding, including countless hours at the gym, bizarre diets, and steroids. Sam disclosed how much he disliked himself. He was ashamed of his fear, and he hid behind a wall of muscle so others wouldn’t see who he really was. Every time he felt the pain of lifting enormous weights, he forgot about his fear and felt invincible. It was a perfect description of the cycle of addiction.

And now it’s time for the Author Author Blog Bounce! Go to the Omnific Publishing BLOG for instructions.

7 thoughts

  1. I will admit I've become a little bit addicted to Twitter and following blogs. My cure for this is to turn off my computer and if I'm smart, leave the house.It's a very human thing to be addicted to something. Your chart is a great way of looking at the stages. Great post.

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  2. Cherie, I've been addicted to Goodreads and have dealt with Twitter addiction at times. My biggest addiction right now is playing Free Cell, but fortunately I'm getting sick of it.Carol, thank you. Have you ever written about addiction?

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  3. This is fascinating! In my current wip I'm dealing with an addictive personality. Clearly I think I need to do more research on this, because I can't have him suddenly \”cured\”!

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  4. Thanks, Karen–I hope this was helpful. Is there something in particular your character is addicted to? I do know people who have quit \”cold turkey\” but typically they need support and skills to stop the addiction.

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  5. I remember seeing a similar cyclical explanation in my mom's Richard Simmons exercise book—it's stuck with me all these years and now I finally get that it applies to all addictions, not just eating. I guess I toyed a little bit w/ alcohol, not addiction but abuse, in Three Daves—at a time when Jen was feeling negative emotion and escaped there. Hope I did it right!Thank you, psycho auther! And thanks for visiting me at Alex's. 🙂 Milli Vanilli *shakes head and laughs*

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  6. Nicki, who knew Richard Simmons and I would see eye to eye hee hee. Was good ole Richard talking about food addiction? Researchers are learning more and more about food addiction. I think you showed Jen dealing with negative feelings in a very college way, by trying to drink them away, so well done, you! Milli Vanilli were hot my frosh year of college and my swim teammates used to sing their songs in the locker room.

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