WARNING: If you are taking medications, street drugs or alcohol and you want to stop using them you must first check with your medical doctor. It may not be safe for you to stop immediately.

How can I tell if I have addiction problems?
By Licia Ginne, LMFT

My friend Rod Allison who I used to work with at the Monterey Recovery Center, used to define addiction as an “enslavement to habit”. A medical definition of addiction is a state where the body relies on a substance to maintain normal function and when removed will experience a physical withdrawal. So what is addiction and maybe its not addiction maybe it is dependence, answering this question is the goal of this article.

In more common usage addiction can mean that to stop your body may go through withdrawal symptoms or it can be an emotional/psychological dependency. It has come to include more then alcohol and drugs, but gambling, sex, affairs and multiple relationships, food and eating disorders, computer activity, relationships, and many other substances and processes. Addiction treatment, dependence, abuse or just the desire to stop doing behaviors that get in your way is one of the areas of expertise that I have. I have worked over the past 30 years in different type of treatment programs and also outpatient in my private practice. All you need is the desire to see what is on the other side of your use.

Addiction is doing something over and over to the point where you have regrets (shame), or until it causes harm in your life; legal, loss of job, loss of relationships, health just to name a few. It is not how often you use the substance or behavior it’s how you use it and feel during or after. The feeling words that most often come up are: shame, remorse, guilt, anger, despair, depression, anxiety, panic and fear. The behaviors that are associated with addiction (dependence or abuse) are minimizing, denial, secretive behavior, poor judgment, irrational behavior and illegal behavior. The problem drinker will claim to have had fewer drinks than actually consumed or claim not to have even been drinking. The drug abuser will downplay the amount or type of drugs taken. The gambler will lower the amount lost and increase the amount won. The compulsive eater will eat alone and hide evidence of what they have eaten. Shame is such a crucial part of the addictive pattern that you can assume the person is underestimating or overestimating their story.

It is important to ask yourself does your indulgence affect your work, play, relationships, emotional or physical health?

John Bradshaw was the first person I heard to use the word “Compulsivity” as the behavior underlying addiction. In the years since working with John Bradshaw I have become to view addiction and abuse as a means of coping with unwanted or uncomfortable feelings, also called affect management. The substance or process has become a way for you to manage anxiety, depression or any unwanted feelings. But when you take this coping skill away you need to have something else to help you cope.  This can be something healthy or switching from alcohol use to drug use. Treatment is not just about stopping the use of the compulsive behavior it is also learning how to get comfortable living in your body. It is one thing to stop alcohol or drug use (substances) but living with processes can be harder, you can’t stop eating, you don’t want to stop having sex, or spending money but you need to learn how to live with these experiences. Learning about your feelings and behaviors and how to increase your tools of managing your emotions helps you to identify triggers and how to change your relationship to your self, family, friends and all the other people we encounter in the world. We will always encounter people and situations that are difficult the trick is in learning the best to manage the experience so it doesn’t send you off into behavior that you may regret. 

Substances can include:

  • Alcohol
  • Drugs: amphetamines, caffeine, cannabis, cocaine, hallucinogens, inhalants, nicotine, opiates (street drugs or prescription drugs)
  • Food

Processes can be:

  • Food; restrictive eating, compulsive eating, binging and purging.
  • Gambling
  • Internet use
  • Money & Finances
  • Sexual activity; anonymous sex, pornography, strip clubs, compulsive masturbation, multiple partners, prostitutes
  • Love addiction; infidelity, obsession with partner (stalking type behavior), relationship after relationship, being in love with love
  • Work
  • Exercise
  • Religion

Relationships can be:

  • Co-dependency
  • Co-sex addict
  • Traumatic bonding relationships
  • Love
  • Romance


What may start out as casual use or activity soon becomes compulsive and a demand. You tend to schedule your activities around the behavior or the planning for the behavior. Many report the preoccupation with planning is more stimulating and exciting than actually completing the event. You may become so preoccupied with your desire that it is hard to focus on anything else; you find your mind wandering back to the compulsive behavior. You attempt to control your behavior with rules; limiting use or abstaining without a support group.

Once you remove yourself from the self-defeating addiction pattern you can reassess your life and see what really needs to change; maybe you are lonely, insecure or feel you lack confidence and alcohol helps you feel confident and makes it easier to meet people. Addictions will always have a major downside; hangovers, health issues, financial problems, legal problems, loss of relationships, loss of employment or careers just to name a few.

If you are not certain if you have an addiction stop the behavior for 6 months (or even 3 months but note my warning about possible withdrawal effects to consider) and see how you feel, see if there is a difference in the quality of your life. If you cannot stop the alcohol, drugs, gambling or whatever your compulsive behavior than it’s a good guess it is at least a problem if not an addiction. People who don’t have issues with compulsivity can stop the behaviors for 6 months, they may have cravings at times but do not struggle with urges.

If you want to know more about your behaviors: contact me, contact an expert in addiction in your area, talk with a psychotherapist, M.D., social worker or psychologist who specializes in addiction or attend a 12-step meeting and see if you find people talking about situations and experiences that you have had.

12-step programs offer support and assistance for free or a small donation.

Support for Friends & Family Members

  • Al anon –support for family members and friends of problem drinkers.
  • Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACA) – support for those who grew up in alcoholic or dysfunctional homes.
  • Codependents Anonymous – 12-step program for women and men seeking support to learn how to have healthy relationships.