May 27, 2020

The Tentacles of Addiction

Where there’s one addiction, there are often more. Here’s how to stay on top of your own replacement demons. by Tracey Dee Rauh


Deni Carise names it, “The Disease of More.” Constance Quinn likes the inherent

power of “chosen behaviors.” Alison Smela uses the term, “obsession of the body and mind.” 

And Judi Hollis boils it down to “self-destruction.”


Whatever it’s called, addiction is tenacious. And its clever little tentacles will travel along neural pathways 

looking for a new pleasure source whenever its former favorite is shut out.

“I’m never surprised to see someone in recovery from drugs or alcohol then develop something different, 

like an eating disorder, compulsive gambling or shopping,” says Carise, Ph.D., chief clinical officer and 

senior vice president at Phoenix House, which operates more than 120 drug and alcohol treatment and

prevention programs in 10 states.

Technological advancements, particularly in the area of neuro-imaging, have enabled researchers to peer inside 

the brains of people with addictions. What they found in study after study is that their reward system 

(largely the neurotransmitter dopamine) is very, very thirsty. Meanwhile, their brain’s control centers are underachievers.

“This is the disease of more,” Carise says. “More fun, more highs, more excitement. If something is good, 

more is always better.”

Quinn, DSW and a licensed clinical social worker, is site director at the New York Renfrew Center, which 

specializes intreating eating disorders at two inpatient and ten outpatient facilities. She sees behavior replacement, 

commonly called “cross-addiction,” all the time.


You haven’t picked up a drink or drug in years. Yet suddenly, you’re hiding money in a bank account and sneaking off to play blackjack

for significant stakes. Pretty soon that bank account is drained and you’re dipping into the family house funds, making excuses to your

significant other.

No doubt about it: You’ve got yourself across addiction. How’d that happen? And what are you going to do about it? 

“In the best scenario, you know yourself,” says Deni Carise, Ph.D., chief clinical officer and senior vice president at Phoenix House, which

operates more than 120 drug and alcohol treatment and prevention programs in 10 states.

“So say you like casino gambling,” she says. “I would tell somebody new in recovery that it’s probably safer if you didn’t gamble. And if you

aren’t willing to stop, you should set limits.”

As an addict, setting limits is probably not your forte. That means you have to create self-imposed rules, write them down and share them with a trusted support person.

“You say, for instance, ‘This is my budget for playing poker. I’m going to take cash with me when I go. I will never spend more than $200 and no more than $1,000 a year. If I ever go for more money or feel vulnerable wanting to drink, I will stop.’”

And the first thing you do when you stop? “Tell someone.” Always be honest with another person about it,” Carise emphasizes. Motivational speaker, counselor and author Judi Hollis reiterates that advice, emphasizing the importance of communication in all aspects of recovery.

“We need to be vulnerable with other human beings and listen and talk to them,”she says. “We want to have all the answers. But the mind that got you here is not the one that can get you out of here. If a person does not become teachable, that is when they transfer to other addictions.”

Making matters even more confusing is the fact that, as Carise points out, there are addictions that our culture rewards. Take workaholism, she says, and many forms of risk taking, and extreme thinness.

“People who work in a pathological way have to ask themselves, ‘Is the extentto which I’m doing this hurting me in any way?” Carise says. “Because what’s the sense in getting sober and then losing your family, friends and health to your job?”

“Addictive behaviors are compulsive and compelling,” Quinn says. “Someone who hasn’t had a drink in five years still

has those grooves in the neural pathways that want to be satisfied.”

Suddenly, she says, that satisfaction might come from three pints of Haagen Daz, and then comes the compulsion to

get rid of it by purging.

“The pleasure center is still there saying, ‘What about me? What about me? Feed me!” says Quinn.

Judi Hollis, Ph.D., a licensed counselor, motivational speaker and author of several books, points to the 

famed father of psychoanalysis in naming the driver of addiction.

“Freud said we all have ambivalence concerning life and death,” Hollis says. “Until we give into self-destruction, 

we will keep turning to another substance, or guy, or gambling—all of it, to continue to hurt ourselves.”

Obese her whole life, Hollis became a social worker among the alcoholic and addicted population. In time, she realized

her eating behaviors were an addiction, too. She found Overeaters Anonymous, lost 75 pounds, maintained the loss, and

began work as a motivational speaker. Then she had a divorce and was confronted by her alcoholism.

“I was so busy, focused on the eating, that I didn’t notice the other problem. I was always able to get control again. 

I didn’t think it was the same as my out-of-control eating,” she says.

She learned otherwise.

“I’m 22 years sober in AA,” Hollis says. Some counselors compare cross-addiction to that arcade game where 

the little gopher pops up in all the different holes, Carise says. “You hit one down and another pops up.”

And so on. And so on. And so on.


Alison Smela, 50, was a round-the clock alcoholic with a 28-year drinking career before she entered detox and

treatment on Jan. 4, 2002.

She hasn’t had a drink in 10 years, but she did have a three-month stint in the Renfrew Center, Philadelphia, 

in 2008 for a serious case of anorexia nervosa.

In retrospect, she says she realized the addictions were co-occurring and feeding off one another. The alcohol 

quieted the anorexia, which then amplified when the drink was gone.

“It was very much like a pendulum. When I was getting vibes that people felt I was drinking too much, the eating disorder

would ramp up. Then someone would say something about food, and the drinking would get worse,” says the self-described

former corporate workaholic.

“I was at the pinnacle of my career when my alcoholism reached its peak. My drink of choice was wine and it was always with

me,” Smela says.

An executive and vice president managing multi-million dollar accounts for major ad agencies, her addictive destruction rose

along with her business stature.

At admissions intake at Hazelden, Smela says, “I was the alcoholic who didn’t breathe a sober breath. I had a drink by 

9 in the morning, and kept going all day.” At Hazelden, she came to understand the jig was up.

But, she adds, “I was already tracking in the diet mindset. It was like white noise to me. I wasn’t willing or ready to look at it.

It was the one thing I could control when a lot of things were out of control.”

At first her weight loss was slow, but constant. And then it began to plummet.

“The people closest to me saw it and we’re like, ‘Oh my God, what is happening here?” she recalls.

In 2008, at Renfrew, Philadelphia, she was confined to a wheelchair for three weeks to preserve her energy.

“My health was so compromised,” she says. “By the time I got there I knew that I was on my way out.”

Smela stayed at Renfrew for three months. When she came home, Smela and her husband agreed she would 

leave the corporate world. Today she dedicates herself to Twelve Step recovery work, her blog, Alison’s Insights

at, and writing a book focusing on women undertaking recovery later in life.

“My desire to run from life is my default mode. I can mentally leave the space by focusing heavily on something else,”

she says. “I need to stay in the present; I need to deal only with the facts.”

Hence, the title of her book: Slow Deep Breaths.

“That is what recovery takes: one slow deep breath at a time,” Smela says. “Slow it down; slow and steady. It’s not just putting

the booze down. It’s not just eating a turkey sandwich. It’s looking at what’s going on with Alison.”

And what’s going on with Alison is that she no longer indulges in her addictions.

“Today,” she emphasizes. “Today I’m pretty sure I won’t have a drink. And I’m pretty sure I’m going to eat well.”


At Renfrew, Quinn says, they operate under the philosophy that rather than labeling a whole person “addict,”

it is more helpful to refer to “addictive behaviors.”

This language is especially effective when considering common cross-addictions, such as gambling, shopping, 

sexual promiscuity, pornography, self-mutilation, eating disorders, exercise and the Internet. 


“A lot of times patients reduce the symptoms but don’t get to what is driving the engine and that critical insight 

and self-awareness,” Quinn says. “Grief, loss and trauma are key triggers in terms of transfer of addiction.”

Smela not only had her own struggles with cross-addiction, but also saw it in others.

“Cross-addiction is shockingly not rare. At Renfrew, women 30 and beyond would come up to me quietly and 

say, ‘I think I might have something going on with drinking,’” she says.


To uncover co-occurring and potential cross-addictions, Renfrew does baseline testing. They assess the level of symptoms

and a constellation of variables and try to “tease out” a plan to simultaneously treat the eating disorder along 

underlying psychological and biological issues. This, science shows, reduces the risk of cross-addiction.

“What Renfrew has done is really acknowledge that the eating disorder doesn’t exist in a vacuum,” 

Quinn says. “We have specialized tracks of treatment.”

Hollis believes the bulk of the answers come in easily accessed, affordable Twelve Step meetings and literature.

“What we need are personality changes,” she says. “I needed to become a person who doesn’t want to slap herself.”

By going through the Twelve Steps of recovery, Hollis says, people give up dishonesty and control, and learn to join their

fellow human beings on a spiritual path.

“What is needed here is to change our behaviors so that we like ourselves enough to give up self-destruction. 

And if we don’t do that, we will just transfer to the next obsession down the road,” she says.

In considering solutions, Carise goes back to the “Whac-a-Mole” analogy.

“The goal in treatment is to try and get things that could be beneficial to pop up,” she says. “Sure, a person could go off into

gambling. But the same person also could apply that same intensity to parenting, work or school.”

Providers and individuals need to identify what they really want to achieve.

“They are looking for something to take away the pain or fulfill the thrill-seeking side of them,” Carise says. 

“Addicts have a lot of energy and if you can focus it into a positive thing, they can go on to do amazing things.”

As a recovering cocaine addict and alcoholic with 26 years of sobriety, Carise would know.

“It’s probably no coincidence that I ride an Italian race motorcycle. Or that when I got sober I took up skydiving,” she says.

“I was pathologically driven to go back to school. I started community college and nine years later was in a 

post-doctoral program at U-Penn. You can’t do that any faster than that.”

To say recovery has worked out well for her is an understatement.

“You have to replace the need for thrill or challenge with positive things; something that rewards, rather than hurts.” 

Tracey Dee Rauh is a writer and editor with more than

25 years experience. She is a managing editor for The

Eagle-Tribune, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning daily

newspaper, and editor-in-chief of a group of award

winning lifestyle magazines.

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