Do Healthy Addictions Exist?

Jul 15, 2023

As a recovery coach, I am accustomed to questions. And I have answers for most of them—how to navigate early recovery, what to do for a friend in addiction, when and how to seek professional help. But recently, I’ve been getting a question I cannot answer—a question that has hung heavy over me like the silhouette of a swelling stormcloud. 

What are your healthy addictions?

The first few times I was asked, I responded with a bouquet of routines and habits.

I run every day. I love blueberries. Sleep is my comfort zone. 

But over time, I have come to interrogate the question itself. What distinguishes habit from compulsion? What constitutes a healthy addiction? Is there even such a thing? 

If anyone can answer this question, it ought to be. I have lived my life in patterns, lulled by the comforting rhythm of repetition. I suspect that this is a trauma response; my childhood was a maelstrom of chaos and uncertainty, my expectations dashed at every turn. I came to rely upon my habits to lend shape and structure to my life, to weave meaning of the disparate events that punctuated my experience. But insanity, according to Einstein, is doing the same thing again and again, expecting different results. And for me, the illusion of comfort soon lapsed into the delusion of constancy. 

At twelve years old, I was diagnosed with OCD. It was determined that my habits—increasingly specific and bizarre—had overtaken reason, that willpower was no longer at play. Come adolescence, I discovered other, more socially sanctioned rituals, and the rest is history. By the time I was 23, I was a bona fide alcoholic and drug addict with an eating disorder and a spending problem. 

The severity of my addiction made it easy to recognize. I went to rehab in the summer of 2017 and sought to restructure the architecture of my life, to develop healthy habits to replace the dysfunction of the old. I started exercising, became a vegan, and threw myself into my work. I kept a journal, maintained a meditation practice, and committed to therapy. All around me, others were doing the same. It’s a peculiar tendency of addicts in early recovery: to hurl themselves wholeheartedly into healing with the same vigor and enthusiasm once reserved for drugs.

It wasn’t until my third year in recovery that I began questioning my new way of life. In 2020, I was working out almost two hours a day. I had two therapists and three sponsors across three different programs. I had worked the steps seven times and taken on nearly a dozen sponsees. I was meditating for an hour and writing for two. All spontaneity was leeched from my life; the cadence of experience reduced to the rote repetition of routine. There was little time for anything else. In fact, I could hardly meet my own to-do list. As a result, I found myself flitting between tasks, tripping over my tangled priorities. Everything I did, I rushed. Everywhere I went, I ran. And I was miserable. 

It took a long time for me to understand where I had gone wrong. Rather than restructuring my life, I had merely replaced the content of my compulsions. I knew how to do but not how to be. I hadn’t tamed the nervous energy inside me—I had merely rerouted it. I hadn’t rid myself of my addiction; I had just given it a different name. 

It’s important, here to clarify our terms, to specify what we mean when we talk about addiction and recovery. Most experts agree that addiction is a repetitive pattern of pleasure-seeking that persists despite negative consequences—doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Recovery, on the other hand, is much harder to define. What is the opposite of addiction? Is it connection, as researcher Johan Hari maintains? Is it simply the absence of addiction? Or is it something else, something far more elusive and impossible to name?

It was this question that I had to contend with when I embarked on my second journey of recovery. By all appearances, it was a destination I had already reached. I was sober from substances. I picked up chips to denote lengths of sobriety. My life was in reasonable order. I kept no secrets, made no enemies, and certainly never woke up in a puddle of my own urine. But underneath it all, I could feel the same electrical charge that had animated me before, the same impulse to predict and control, to direct and manage. And I could see it in others.

There are many ways to contemplate recovery. Some believe it is as simple as abstaining from one’s drug of choice. Others believe that it is a journey, a spectrum, a destination we never reach. Still others conceive of recovery as the regaining of free will, the ability to exercise agency and make rational decisions. But on a practical level, it isn’t clear what we mean. 

Recovery is replete with contradictions—and it is also a uniquely personal experience. What is recovery to one may not be to another. Some people subscribe to the harm reduction model, wherein recovery is any step forward from addiction. Some prefer to abstain from one behavior or substance and engage with others. In AA, recovery means abstinence—but abstinence itself is a murky concept. As many AAs will testify, AA meetings are replete with cigarette smokers and coffee drinkers, Netflix enthusiasts and obsessive marathon runners. Where is the line between a guilty pleasure and an addiction? Is there one? It is arguably impossible to abstain from everything that is mind and mood altering—and maybe that shouldn’t be the goal. After all, what about food? What about sex? What about friendship and cuddles with a beloved pet? Everything we do colors our brain chemistry. All that we are is a set of habits and preferences.

Perhaps recovery is a flexible state; one we transition in and out of depending on the day, the hour, the minute. Perhaps we are making a mistake in assuming that recovery and addiction are mutually exclusive. Maybe the two can coexist. Perhaps we all must define recovery for ourselves instead of relying upon the conceptions of others.

I have thought long and hard about what recovery means to me. And I haven’t gotten very far. But one thing I know for sure is that recovery and abstinence are not the same. I have met plenty of folks who abstain from everything and continue to conduct themselves as though still in addiction. I have known people who abstain from some things and partake in others and yet manage to practice spiritual principles in all their affairs. Abstinence is simply the prerequisite for recovery. It’s only the beginning. Recovery is what happens afterwards. And recovery has less to do with the content of my routines than it does with the motivations with which I approach them. What matters isn’t what I do but how I do it. Recovery isn’t green juice and HiiT workouts and stepwork. Recovery is the freedom to do those things—and the freedom to refuse them. Recovery is liberation from addictive impulse.

Which leads me back to the original question: is there such a thing as a healthy addiction? 

I do not believe that there is. Because addiction isn’t about the substance or behavior itself—but about the manner in which we approach it. The addiction isn’t the drink or the needle but the motivations that underlie it. We are addicted, not to the object itself, but to the feeling that we derive from it. By this definition, there is no such thing as a healthy addiction. Because addiction itself constitutes a compulsive and delusional relationship to a substance or behavior—and compulsion and delusion can hardly be described as healthy. 

While it was initially hard for me to accept, I know now that, by my standards, I was not “in recovery” those first few years of sobriety. I had merely transferred my addiction to a new vessel—to work, to exercise, to accomplishment. Because the fundamental problem was still there: the problem of my perceived insufficiency, my “not-enoughness.” And still, I turned to external validation to overcome my internal insecurities. 

Does that make my early recovery invalid? Should I start over and count days again? I believe this question to be immaterial—if not counterproductive. If recovery is anything, it is nuanced—immune to our impulse to render everything in black and white. There are as many recoveries as there are human beings in the world—and plenty of room within each of those paradigms to make mistakes. 

In the end, “addiction” and “recovery” are just terms—imperfect signifiers for an elusive, indescribable experience, words we must define for ourselves. What matters isn’t the way we describe an experience but the quality of the experience itself. 

So that is what I pay attention to these days. I listen to my body and honor its voice. I attend to my needs and respect my desires. I listen for the insistent whine of obsession and the deafening roar of compulsion. I approach all things, whenever possible, with moderation and equanimity. And most importantly, I remind myself that, in recovery as in life, not all questions have answers. 

If you are interested in renegotiating your relationship to your habits, I invite you to book a free consultation with me. You’ll receive a free, detailed 90-day plan of recovery and my 4-step blueprint for habit change. I hope to speak with you soon! 


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