If you've experienced alcohol or substance use disorder, there’s a possibility it has shown up in your life in more ways than one. While drinking or using drugs might be a primary issue, perhaps sex, online shopping, eating, or hell, even social media has become an obtrusive and difficult-to-control force in your life.
Having more than one addictive behavior is often referred to as “cross addiction.” It’s extremely common (and understandable) to struggle with more than one substance or process at once—they are, after all, coping mechanisms.
If you’re looking for help dealing with concurrent addictions, trust, it’s out there. While finding a therapist equipped with nuanced treatment plans for multiple addictions might seem daunting, knowing the basics about cross-addiction and the type of healthcare practitioners best able to support you is a good place to start.
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What Cross Addiction is and Why it Happens
Dr. Meghan Marcum, Chemical Dependency Specialist, Board Certified Clinical Psychologist and Chief Psychologist at A Better Life Recovery explains a little more about what cross-addiction is and why it happens.
“Addiction does not always occur in isolation and there are many people who struggle with multiple issues at the same time,” Marcum explains. “Cross addictions can be fueled by the restructured dopamine pathways in the brain that prioritize reward and pleasure. Sometimes during or after treatment once the most prominent addictive behavior has been stabilized a cross-addiction will materialize.”
Marcum gives the example of someone who undergoes a procedure for a gastric bypass to help control eating. While this person may notice they no longer have the urge to binge eat, they might drink alcohol in excess instead.
“(The cross-addiction) represents a larger issue that has yet to be resolved and is manifesting via different outlets,” Marcum explains.
Types of Medical Professionals Who Can Help
When it comes to finding a therapist and a method of treatment, Marcum says that most therapists who specialize in addiction treatment will be able to identify and treat cross addictions. But that’s the key—finding specialists who have a background in treating addiction.
Addiction specialist and family medicine doctor Dr. Melissa Fritsch concurs.
“From a medical perspective, we understand addiction to be a complex brain disease,” Fritsch says. She adds that the best way to treat addiction is involvement in behavioral therapy work, in addition to whatever medical support you may be receiving. When searching for help, you want to look for and engage with therapists and behavioral specialists who very specifically have training and background in treating patients with addiction issues.
“Working with a therapist or medical professional who is addiction-trained is crucial,” Fritsch says.
This means that the psychiatrist or doctor is licensed or has additional board certification in treating addiction. For therapists, depending on the state, one needs to look for licensed or certified addiction specialists.
“Without a true understanding of how addiction works, certain therapy recommendations could be harmful to one’s recovery outcomes,” Fritsch says.
How to Find the Right Professional
Research is the place to start when looking for a therapist who can support your recovery when dealing with cross-addiction, so get ready to do some more Googling.
Fritsche suggests making phone calls and interviewing your potential therapists and healthcare providers. Ask questions specific to each therapist’s expertise in addiction medicine.
What is their background in helping people who have issues with the specific addictions you are struggling with? How do they approach tailoring plans of treatment? How do they create and track goals with their patients? Listen to how thorough their answers are, and whether or not their approach seems like one that feels compatible with your needs and feelings.
“That will help one determine whether that trained professional is going to be a good fit for that individuals’ recovery journey,” Fritsche says.
Dr. Marcum adds that when beginning any kind of treatment or therapeutic endeavor for addiction, a full medical and behavioral assessment is key to creating the best plan for yourself. The individual issues at play may require special treatment outside of addiction, like eating disorders, she explains. The right treatment and the right practitioner ultimately depends on the individual’s needs.
“Sometimes stabilization is necessary whenever potential medical concerns need to be addressed,” Marcum says, especially for someone who is drinking or doing drugs to an extent that requires detoxification. “Residential treatment is an option for those who may have been recently hospitalized and need a full continuum of support [as is] day treatment or intensive outpatient treatment.”
As for further support, Fritsche gives examples of other spaces that can be beneficial like mutual health groups such as SMART Recovery, or groups like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Alcohol Anonymous (AA) or Refuge Recovery—groups that focus on the spiritual component of behavioral change. Fritsche adds that there are options to treat cross-addiction with the support of prescribed medications as well.
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It’s true that dealing with cross addiction might feel a little like being lost in a dense forest with no exit in sight. Knowing what to look for as you find help will make the process a little easier and a little safer. Reaching for one thing when putting down another, or using a variety of things to cope at once all makes a lot of sense. Just know that freedom from addictive reliance is fully possible and help is out there.
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