There are two categories of addictions:
- Maintenance Addictions: those behaviors that are necessary to sustain and enjoy life but have led to compulsions and obsessions. These can include food, relationship, and sex addictions.
- The best approach to recover from maintenance addictions is to learn to engage in these behaviors without allowing them to become excessive.
- Abstinence Addictions: those behaviors that are life-hindering and not sustainable, such as drugs, gambling, dieting, tanning, etc.
- The proven recovery method from life-hindering addictions is to abstain from all related substances and activities.
Both maintenance and abstinence addictions can cause physical cravings that are combined with rituals and other obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Knowing whether recovery from an addiction requires maintenance or abstinence is only the starting point. It isn’t recovery in itself.
Maintaining control of how often you engage in potentially addictive behaviors can be a struggle, especially when what you desire is unavoidable. For some of your life needs, like eating, intimacy, or working, abstinence is unrealistic. Therefore, you may need a lot of structure and support in controlling your cravings. If you’re unable to achieve moderation, find additional support and structure, and disengage from the behavior when possible. A good structure for moderation is:
- A moderate level is one that is normal and healthy. Discover what a moderate level is for eating, shopping, sex, etc. Practice maintaining this moderate level with balance and consistency.
- Just before you use, take a breath and ask yourself:
- “What am I feeling?”
- “What need am I trying to meet?”
- Count and chart your daily use, and discuss any issues and your progress with your support group.
- Continue practicing moderation until it feels really easy, usually after six months. Restart if you relapse.
Maintenance strategies do not only pertain to maintenance addictions. They can also be used in recovery from abstinence addictions.
Harm Reduction is a medical model maintenance strategy where the goal is to reduce the harm of using until abstinence is achieved. Relapse and even regular using is acceptable, yet total abstinence is the desired goal. This is a viable approach if you can’t, don’t want to, or won’t abstain – a decision that true addicts will usually regret.
Participation in an addiction moderation program for unnecessary addictions like alcohol is very questionable. Yet, if a person is rejecting recovery, moderation is better than full-scale use. However, harm reduction is not recovery, only a step towards it.
Abstinence is a no tolerance, black and white approach to addiction recovery and the easiest one for most people to achieve. Abstinence means giving up all undesirable or harmful substances and behaviors. In the beginning, this may be threatening and difficult for an addict, at least for the first six months. Avoid white knuckling it (toughing it out). You have support to help you through it. Use your resources to go after what you need and want.
A big benefit of abstinence from all addictive substances and behaviors is you stop chasing a reward that will never be satisfied (high, pleasure, energy, relaxation, relief, etc.). Remember, like maintenance, abstinence is necessary for recovery, but it isn’t recovery in its entirety.