Understanding Dependency and Addiction Part II

Dependency and Addiction:

In part one of this series we explored the separation between control and influence, reflecting on the posturing that is necessary when facing layers of power and powerlessness in our lives. We utilized terms like addiction and dependency to describe the phenomenon that occurs when a free willed human being becomes reliant on a substance or behavior to a degree that the influence and control they have over their own life fades.  How do we understand this? What are these unwanted attachments to behaviors and processes [1]?

To begin a discussion about dependency and addiction, it is important to keep in mind that addiction and dependencies develop and grow. People don’t go from a non-dependent state to a  dependent one overnight. The process of developing a full scale of addiction takes place over a long period of time.

The words dependency and addiction are often used interchangeably which ultimately causes a lot of confusion. It is critical that we begin to unpack and understand these two terms and what they describe as they are actually describing two separate experiences that are often part of the same process. One of the main differences is that dependency develops at a different pace than addiction; i.e. people more often than not become dependent [2]  on something well before they are addicted [3].

While most people that are addicted are also dependent, and a vast majority of people that are unhealthily dependent eventually become addicted, they are not the same thing. The primary distinction between dependency and addiction is withdrawal. Withdrawal is the process by which a person experiences intense physical and or mental distress when they have been separated from the thing they are addicted to. The amount of time and the types of withdrawal are specific, but the earmark of addiction is that when the something is removed, withdrawal sets in, triggering an instinctual and desperate seeking for relief. The brain knows it needs this “something” to feel better, to regulate itself and its chemical balance, and will engage any form of justification necessary to facilitate getting back the “something” it so desperately needs.

Dependencies, on the other hand, operate differently. Being dependent on a substance, behavior or process, means relying upon that thing to cope with the realities of life. Depending on it to get through challenges and live up to responsibilities. When someone is separated from what they are dependent on, they also experience distress. However in these cases,  it is not the lack of the thing that causes the primary distress it is some other underlying need. The actual distress is caused by something they have long been able to ignore, by relying on their unwanted dependency. Therefore, when they encounter distress in the process of breaking their dependency, they are often facing things that were always there, but without their “medicine”. Whether it is stress, fear, sadness, or joy, they now have to face the reality of their existence unsheltered by the “something” they have come to rely on for support.

Why does withdrawal occur in addiction but not in dependency? That has to do with the brain. When someone is addicted their dependency is at a chemical and neurological level. They become completely needy of the substance, behavior or process. When the “something” is removed and the balance is off, they experience real physiological distress and pain. They are in actual need, the pain they feel is like any other pain and it continues until they fill that need by engaging their addiction. The only alternative is to detoxify the brain allowing it to reset and learn to regulate and balance itself without the substance, behavior or process. This reset or detox takes time and can entail intense discomfort ranging from emotional distress and sleeplessness to physical sickness, which can even be life threatening.  Dependency on the other hand is a much more psychological process. The distress that is felt is solely emotional, no different than being homesick or feeling anxious about a test.

Why is this important to know? What difference does it make?

The simplest answer is that the foundation of addressing our dependencies and addictions successfully, is hinged on our ability to develop a greater sense of awarenss of what we are really seeking when our cravings to act out come up.  In this specific aspect of the work, that means understanding whether we are breaking an addiction, or developing independence from something we are dysfunctionally reliant on. While often both dependency and addiction exists, overcoming these two factors entails two separate processes. Let’s explain.

An acute state of addiction, for the most part, has a relatively short shelf life. The most significant factor to “breaking” an addicted state is tolerating the withdrawal and giving the brain time to reset. While people who are or were addicted are sometimes more susceptible to falling back into an addicted state, with that or some other “something”, in most cases the actual addiction itself ends relatively quickly. Withdrawal is real, acute, and extremely uncomfortable, but it ends.

Dependency, on the other hand is more complicated. As stated above, the distress one feels in dependency is not only about the lack of the “something” that we are reliant on but also the other aspects of life that we now have to cope with. Anxiety, stress, fear, sadness, anger, and loneliness, but also excitement, joy and happiness, the list could go on. Both negative and positive emotions become unbearable without the “emotional crutch” of our dependencies. These parts of life don’t go away, and we will always need to find coping strategies for dealing with them. We will always experience some measure of distress or tension around them, and in some ways, as humans, we always have some measure of dependency on people or things to cope. The work here is not about removing the dependency but about developing independence, resilience and healthy attachments, ones that support our emotional and mental health.

For this reason overcoming an unwanted and or counterproductive dependency takes much longer. It takes time for us to grow and evolve into more effective people, more capable of facing our challenges. There often is good reason behind our development of an unwanted dependency. It’s  easier, quicker, cheaper or closer at hand. The impulse to rely on it and the association of its benefit, might stick around for a very long time, especially if developed at a young age.

Therefore, it is critical for us to understand what we are addressing at any given time and learn to identify the sort of distress and tension we are experiencing (withdrawal or regular life stuff). For many reasons, this will be critical as we move along.  Most simply, withdrawal needs to be tolerated, “white-knuckled”, till it passes. The distress around dependence on the other hand, cannot be tolerated and ignored, it must be addressed in other ways. When we feel the burn of our dependence we need to lean in to the problem by addressing the underlying tension, but when we feel the burn of our addiction we need to hold out and allow our brains to heal.

The bottom line here is that breaking free of unwanted dependence and addiction requires a willingness to begin to take ownership of our own minds. We can only do so as we develop a greater understanding of what’s going on, where our thoughts and impulses are coming from. Then, we are in a position to develop strategies for living effectively, free of the crushing reality of an addiction and or disempowering maladaptive dependency[4]. Only then can we create space to live free, to be granted the gift of functional and enriching attachments, especially to the one we most rely on, Our Creator.

[1] When discussing certain addictions and dependencies it is important to differentiate between the part of the addiction or dependency that relates to the behavior or substance (the individual is addicted to doing that thing, or using that substance) and the addiction or dependency to the process behind the behavior (the individual is addicted to the rituals and process that lead up to and then follow the behavior). Often times both these factors exist but not always.

[2] psychologically and emotionally reliant

[3] neurologically driven with an overwhelming compulsion

[4]Take note of the language used here. Addiction requires no identifying adjectives because addiction is always destructive. Dependency, on the other hand, requires a descriptive term, because dependency is a part human life, often a very meaningful part, it is therefore critical to qualify whether a dependency is constructive or destructive. The adjectives chosen to describe destructive forms of dependency are maladaptive and disempowering. These are very important because they are the earmark of all destructive dependencies. Maladaptive implies that the dependency is an unsuccessful attempt at coping. The strategy doesn’t work, it doesn’t effectively allow the individual to adapt to the realities on the ground, in fact it often makes things worse. Disempowering refers to how destructive dependencies leaves one feeling like they can’t live without this support, that none of their strength matters, and that they are hopeless. If a behavior, substance, or relationship leaves you feeling less-then, hopeless and incapable that’s a good sign its not the right thing or person to be relying on.

About the Author
Menachem Poznanski, LCSW is director of The Living Room, a clubhouse for Jewish young adults in recovery from Alcoholism and Addiction. Menachem is co-author of Stepping out of the Abyss: A Jewish guide to the 12 steps (Mosaica, 2017) and the editor of both Consciously and The Light Revealed, two social media initiatives focused on the messages of Jewish recovery and spirituality. Menachem resides in Cedarhurst, NY with his wife Naomi and their children, Zoe and Tani.
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