How to Break an Addiction

A psychologist shares advice on building a new life without drugs.

A hand holding a sobriety coin.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Erik Von Weber/The Image Bank/Getty Images Plus.

On a recent episode of How To!, a listener, Jason, is in recovery from meth addiction, but he needs help getting past the stigma. He lives in a small town where everyone still knows him as an “addict.” Charles Duhigg connects Jason with Fred Muench, a psychologist and president of the Center on Addiction/Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, who shares his own struggle with addiction and his tips for staying sober. This transcript of their conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Fred Muench: Acknowledge that this is real. Accept that you have a craving. Rather than trying to distract yourself, say: “I’m having a craving because I want to feel better. I’m having this craving because it’s given me a reward in the past. I’m going to acknowledge and I’m going to accept it.” Acknowledge that in the short term you might get some benefit, but in the long term, you will not get that benefit. Even more is building a life and building outside external reinforcers that will reinforce recovery.

The first thing is making an effort to feel uncomfortable around other people, and it sounds like Jason’s doing this. It sounds like he’s going to meetings. It sounds like he’s going to treatment. He’s accepting that he doesn’t know everything, and he’s learning to reach out and being effortful in the behavior by which you want to change.

I remember in early recovery I was like, “I feel like I’m going on a date.” It was at a diner, sitting, talking to this guy. I’m like, “I don’t really know you, and I don’t know who you are.” Then the thing that got me moving forward is accepting that this is weird, accepting that I’m reinventing myself and it’s awkward and it’s uncomfortable, but I know if I want to live tomorrow and be free of addiction, this is what I have to do. So I created supports. Jason, do you feel like you have those in your life?

Jason: Yes, certainly I do. I don’t know that I’ll ever quit going to meetings because that is one of my biggest supports, that I can go there and talk about how I’m feeling with these people. These people know me in ways nobody else ever will. When I was in an inpatient program, a dealer that almost killed me with his bad stuff came in at the same time, and I wanted to leave that day. She said: “Well, how about this? How about you go up to him and talk to him?” I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to fight at that point.

Fred: What was that conversation like, when you approached this dealer who had sold you bad meth?

Jason: Awkward. Very awkward. When you’re in inpatient, you go up to anybody new, you shake their hand, greet yourself, say I’m glad you’re here. So that’s basically what I did.

Fred: Jason, what strikes me is your ability to go up to the dealer and do that with the support of confronting someone. And the other thing is making sure people know you are on the path to recovery and you are in recovery. Letting those people know, who you used to use with, that you can’t be with them right now or you don’t want to be around them. What I’ve found is, when I did that, people embraced me and said, “I get it.” The fascinating thing was the people who didn’t are the people who I never wanted to have any contact with again.

Jason: How do I get myself into new social groups? I’ve never had friends that weren’t using. What I found out is I don’t have friends right now. Me and my wife, we’re it. We don’t have friends over because all the friends we used to have over are using or they still use. I used to hang out with my dealers all day long. Since we’ve gotten clean the last five months, going to work and coming home, that’s all we do. We don’t have these social skills anymore. I don’t know what life without drugs is like.

Fred: If you can identify three or four people or even one or two people who you look up to or people that you want to engage with, that’s a great start. My suggestion is, this month, figure out one night you’ll spend with a couple of people who you don’t know really well, but you’ll go and do something and then slowly build that into your world. I remember I didn’t know what to do, so I went to meetings, but then I’d go out with people for coffee after the meetings.

One other thing that strikes me is you mentioned you’re an outdoors man. You like fishing; you like hiking; you like going in the woods. So identifying those rewarding behaviors—it gets back to that effort of ensuring and planning for six months from now. What would you do today to make your life better six months from now, regardless of how uncomfortable you might feel? What might you do? Might you go to a meeting or some place that’s 20 or 30 miles away and go hiking or join a meetup group, which are all over the country, even in small cities, essentially preparing yourself for the life you want to live around the things you love to do?

Jason: Yeah. It’s surprising because before, I was actually involved in a caving group, so we would meet up and go caving and we would go and map caves, explore caves we hadn’t gone to before. I loved it. I still do. I just haven’t been in years because my addiction kind of took over every aspect of my life. I ended up devoting all my energy to finding my fix for the day. Thank you for reminding me of all that. I really hadn’t thought about it.

Fred: The caving group, did they know you as an addict, or did they just know you as Jason?

Jason: Just Jason. They never knew me as an addict at all.

Fred: What do you think would happen if you reached out to them now and said, “I’d love to start caving with you again”? Maybe some of them will ask, “Why haven’t we seen you in a while?” And you said: “Well, I was struggling. I was struggling with addiction, but now I’m clean and I want to pick up with you guys again.”

Jason: Yeah, I think they would be very welcoming. I think that’s probably some of the best advice I’ve ever got because I really haven’t thought a whole lot of reinventing myself at all. All I’ve thought about up until now is this is the stigma that’s attached to me and how I don’t know how to get past it, but reinventing myself would get me past it. That would help, certainly. People would see that change.

Charles Duhigg: Fred, you’re a successful guy, you have two kids, and yet there must still be people who know you as the guy they knew as an addict. Is that stigma something you live with, or is it something that you can successfully ignore? Does it not matter?

Fred: It matters less and less every day, and I say every day and not every year, but just every day it matters less and less. It matters less and less because of the life I live and lead.

Charles: Jason, has this been an issue in getting any jobs?

Jason: Yeah, it was. I put an application in to everywhere, and I would tell my story, but nobody would hire me until I got to Rhodes [a gas station] where I met with the district manager. He asked me my story. I told him. It got very—I was crying in the middle of the store talking to him about this. His brother struggles with addiction, so he understood my struggle. He told me it sounds like I’m just looking for a break, and he gave me that break. I don’t want my addiction to define me. Eventually, I don’t want to have to explain this to everybody or tell my story like that, but it is a part of who I am right now.

Fred: It’s great that he knows, because if you need to go to a meeting or you need to do something, ideally he’ll be—

Jason: They provide me that in my schedule. Because I told him right off the bat: “I do want this job. I need this job desperately, but I can’t not go to these meetings. I have to go to them.” He said that he’d fired me if I didn’t.

Fred: Rather than seeing that as a detriment, rather than seeing that as a weakness, I’ve embraced that. When I start to embrace that as a strength, I find that other people start to look at it as a strength too. This is who I am. I’m embracing it, I’m loving it, I’m owning it. I know that when I tell people I’m in recovery from heroin addiction, the reaction is amazing, like “Oh! Oh.” They just don’t even know what to say, and that’s OK. I want to say that. I want to let people know who I am. That’s how I overcome the stigma, but it takes time. I didn’t do that in early recovery. I put my head to the grindstone and worked, and I guarantee that, over time, you’ll see that people focus on your recent past, not your distant past.

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