Cross Addiction: Reality Or Myth?

Road - Cross Addiction Reality Or Myth - PhysicianHealthProgram.comIt has long been believed that prior addiction predisposes a person to trouble with drugs and alcohol in the future. According to many chemical dependency experts, once the addictive genie has escaped from its bottle, it will do everything in its power to protect and preserve its freedom, even if it has to switch its drug of choice.

What Is Cross Addiction?

In the past, recovering addicts have been frequently warned about the dangers of “substitute addictions,” which can sneak in like a thief in the night to steal a man or woman’s sobriety in the blink of an eye.

When this happens, it is said the person is suffering from a cross addiction, meaning that her self-destructive pattern of behavior has re-emerged in connection with a whole new variety of substance abuse. With cross addiction being a significant hazard, a recovering addict can never afford to relax, since the conventional risk of relapse is accompanied by an equally perilous phenomenon that can strike anywhere and at any time.

At first consideration, cross addiction seems like common sense. After all, if a person has been caught in the lair of drugs or alcohol in the past, the chances of it happening again must be great, given the tenacity and consistency of most people’s personality traits. But surprisingly, a new statistical meta-analysis has now called the cross addiction concept into question, contradicting the assumptions of those who assumed the idea had been verified by clinical experience.

NESARC Debunks Cross Addiction

In the Sept. 10 edition of the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Psychiatry, a team of researchers from the Columbia University Medical Center announced the findings of an extensive study they had performed using information collected by the National Epidemiological Study on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC). In this survey, 34,653 adults were asked to report about their experiences with substance use disorders, first in 2001, and then again in 2004. The purpose of the study was to chart changes in behavior among those who were suffering from an addiction at its outset.

Using a nationally representative sample extracted from the larger group, the Columbia researchers scrutinized the data with three purposes in mind.

First, they wanted to discover how many NESARC study participants with a substance use disorder in 2001 had developed new addictions in the three-year interim between interviews.

Second, for the sake of comparison, they wanted to know how many of those who had developed new addictions had overcome their initial chemical dependency. And third, they were curious to find out if there were separate demographic, sociological or mental health factors that might explain why some individuals with drug or alcohol problems were more likely to develop new substance use disorders in the future.

As it turned out, practicing addicts were twice as likely to develop new substance use problems as those whose old habits had been in remission. By the numbers, 27 percent of those who had not overcome their initial addictions had developed additional ones, while just 13 percent of addicts in recovery had slipped from the path of sobriety and fallen into the clutches of a different chemical substance.

People unable to shake the hold of an original addiction were more vulnerable to further substance abuse, while those who had learned how to subdue their chemical dependencies gained a greater ability to resist alternative temptations — and the risk for continuing substance abusers was more than double that of those in recovery.

Crossing Cross Addiction Off The List

The old idea that recovering addicts were prone to substitute addictions seemed to make sense. But it appears to have been based on a misunderstanding about how the psychology of a recovering addict evolves over time. It has often been said that success breeds success, and apparently success in the fight against chemical dependency gives former drug users and alcoholics new tools for self-protection.

It must be noted that some alcoholics and drug abusers in recovery did indeed fall into substitute addictions. So it may be that old ideas about cross addiction are valid for a subset of recovering substance abusers. The Columbia team found that young, unmarried men with a history of mental health issues were more likely to develop new addictions, so this may be one vulnerable group that bears close watching.

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