by Joshua Hoe
How do addicts go from minor bad behavior all the way to something much more serious?
How did I get from someone who would sneak around to look at dirty magazines to someone who went to prison for inappropriate online chatting?
It took decades for my addiction to progress from magazines to prison, and if you had asked me if what I was doing wrong at any point, I would have – at most – admitted that it was maybe immoral but not illegal.
How is that possible?
How do inches become miles.
For me it was spending so much time on justifying the inches between my progressively bad acting out behaviors that I started losing sight of the moral miles between where I started and where I ended up.
The Progressive Nature Of Justification
Part of the problem of addiction is that acting out triggers both emotional pain and excitement.
In some ways, the pain and excitement combine to create a much bigger emotional impact than either pain or excitement would have alone.
I remember seeing my first adult magazine.
The very first time it happened, I was very confused that something taboo (wrong) also felt good.
Bad was supposed to feel bad and good was supposed to feel good.
Yet here I was looking at something I knew was bad, yet it felt good.
And the rush was boosted by the combination of the two – bad and good.
Then, as I started to confront emotional pain in my life (triggers) I started to try to respond to that pain by trying to replicate this intense new feeling I got from acting out (dopamine rewards).
Our brains constantly work to reduce our pain and to find pathways from pain to pleasure.
Coincidentally, as the shame and sadness we feel after acting out are also triggers, our brains try to reduce post-acting out stress and pain as well.
Our brains constantly try to reduce the dissonance between how we see ourselves and the actual behaviors that we engage in – finding stories that can explain the difference between how we see ourselves and the actions that we are taking (that do not accord with our ethical guidelines).
In terms of smoothing our ethical stress our brains are always re-calculating the difference between where we were yesterday and where we are today in terms of justifying our behaviors.
I started at magazines, then moved to porn movies. But my brain is mostly concerned with the distance between magazines and porn movies, not the difference between my ethically pure self and my self that is watching porn movies.
Because at this point, I already had justifications built up (by this time) for looking at adult magazines.
My brain was only trying to justify the difference between step 10 and 11, not between steps 1 and 11.
Justification cycles happen inch by inch.
The Progressive Nature of Acting Out
At the same time my brain was playing its inch by inch justification game, I also faced another problem.
Over time, I needed to engage in progressively larger acting out behaviors to reach the same level of emotional payoff.
I became increasingly numb, I needed more and more thrill just to reach the same level of excitement I used to get from much simpler transgressions.
I was originally happy with magazines, but then needed movies, and a few years down the line moved to needing phone sex, then internet porn, and on and on and on.
So instead of seeing the big picture, instead of seeing that I was crossing boundaries I said I would never cross, instead I was seeing (and justifying) new inches.
I saw inches when I should have seen the miles.
Hope At The End Of The Rainbow
The best way to stop worrying about the wreckage of miles – is to stop creating new inches.
Since I found recovery and sobriety, I became increasingly less blind to the big picture, it was no longer just about the inches.
And once I could be truly honest with myself about the miles (how bad I had become) I started being able to change everything about myself.
One way to look at recovery is that you are learning a new process of responding to triggers.
In a sense, recovery is about learning to hack your addictive cycle.
Before recovery, you confront a trigger, your brain rushes you to acting out and then starts helping you soothe/justify your acting out in the face of your massive guilt feelings.
After recovery, you learn to engage with a new set of tools that you can deploy between confronting a trigger and rushing to act out.
You are learning to positively substitute good behaviors in the places where the bad behaviors used to happen.
And your brain, over time, will stop assuming that only one path exists between trigger and reward.
Your brain can be retrained, and recovery – in a sense – is the process of slowly retraining your brain.
What does the progressive nature of addiction mean to you? How has it played out in your life? I would love to hear your story, leave a comment!