Applying the Twelve Steps to problematic relationships with food, sex and gambling
Two Men Swinging Child
Table of Contents
We need to experience the truth—and the truth is, we are not alone.

Have you ever heard the phrase, "Addiction is addiction"? This enigmatic saying tackles the very real situation that many people with addiction to alcohol and other drugs experience: cross addictions

Cross addictions—or, as it is clinically known, addiction interaction disorder—is when people have more than one addiction. As a person works on his or her recovery, problematic relationships may surface—relationships not with other people, but with sex, food, nicotine, shopping, gambling, or excessive exercise, work or use of the internet. These non-chemical addictions are called "process addictions."

These process addictions may have existed prior to the alcohol or other drug addiction. The drugs may have even helped to mitigate or control the original addiction to food or sex, etc. For some people, it becomes a game of whack-a-mole, as they chase one addiction after another.

How can a person be "in recovery," yet have an active addiction?

Sex, food and nicotine addiction are the most common process addictions for people in recovery from alcohol and other drugs. These addictions may not kill as quickly as drug addiction, but spiritually and emotionally they leave people just as bankrupt and desperate. The secretiveness and shame can far outrank that of alcohol and drugs. Here are some of the methods we may have tried to slow our cross addictions:

  • We try to work our AA/NA recovery harder, to learn more about it (maybe even read about it in those great Hazelden Publishing books).
  • We may consider it a shortcoming or character defect, so we work Steps Six and Seven around it.
  • We tell ourselves: If we worked harder at our recovery, we wouldn't have this other addiction with its secrets and shame.
  • We appeal to our morals—yet we eat, purge, gamble, spend, restrict, and are uncontrollable in our sexual or internet behavior.
  • We look at how it's affecting our family our work, our life, thinking that will stop us—and yet we can't stop.
  • We lose relationships, don't show up for life, and feel all the more guilty because we're in recovery and we should "know better."

It feels hopeless.

As the hopelessness grows, we usually sit in our secrecy and shame. Some may have found the courage to talk to our sponsors or group in AA or NA and share some of those secrets. They may look at us like we have three eyes—or just with that blank, "I don't get it" look. They may even tell us to work our recovery harder, or laugh at our addiction. Comments like, "Wow, I wish I was a sex addict. How do I get that addiction?" or "How can anyone be addicted to food?" only seclude us more.

We need to experience the truth—and the truth is, we are not alone. Many people in recovery experience addiction interaction disorder. We have another disease —another addiction. And as we have learned in the Twelve Step rooms, addiction is not a character defect.

All addictions activate similar neuropathways in the brain, but with different triggers and symptoms. The common thread is that when people move from the use, to the misuse, and to the addiction stage, willpower does not work. It's a loss of control, either to a substance or a process. Yet these same unspoken addictions respond to many of the same components of recovery: surrender, education, therapy and fellowship.

The fellowship of Twelve Step groups can provide the support and specifics needed for recovery, no matter whether the addiction is to chemicals or behaviors. There are a variety of fellowships with a singleness of purpose to help others with addictions from food, sex, gambling, debting, nicotine, etc. Each addiction is different, with different tools for living in the solution. The concept of "abstinence" takes on a new perspective: How does one stay sober when they still need to eat, be sexual, spend, and use the computer?

Twelve Step groups for specific process addictions get it! Groups like Overeaters, Sex Addicts, Gamblers, Debtors, Food Addicts, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, to name a few, focus on the unique ways people act with that specific addiction. They provide a safe spot for people to share the secrets and the shame of what they do with food, sex, etc., to speak of what they never thought anyone else did and experience connection and freedom on a different level. Addiction is addiction, and in these groups, no one is alone anymore. There is a solution—but people need to know where to look for it.

People in recovery don't need to live with the secrets and shames of cross-addictions. It doesn't have to hurt this bad. Start by finding a Twelve Step group specific to your addiction in a face-to-face meeting near you or online. Find fellowship, understanding and support in people who know what it's like to struggle with that addiction. Watch the hope grow.

We need to experience the truth—and the truth is, we are not alone

Brenda J. Iliff has more than 20 years of experience in the addiction field as both a clinician and health care executive, and is the author of A Woman's Guide to Recovery.

Want to learn more? Select a Tag to explore a particular topic or browse articles.