Dealing with Substitute Addictions: Overeating and Nicotine



One piece of advice often given to newcomers in recovery is to buy a box of chocolates and take one whenever the craving to get high occurs. This tactic does work for a while, because the sweet taste is incompatible with a stiff drink. And consuming sugar is a pleasant experience, so it seems to satisfy our need to get high. Food itself is a mood-changer, it affects the neurochemistry in our brain so that we want to eat. But our inner Addict takes advantage of this fact and tells us that if something is good, then more of it is better. Even though we might be convinced this argument is suspect, still we have trouble resisting the pastry shop whenever we pass by, which happens to be often.

Some of us have a sweet tooth, others have an irresistible craving to eat all the time. In either case, we will start to gain weight. It becomes difficult to hide. The inner Addict tells us we need to comfort ourselves, and eating is how to do it. Eating becomes our favorite activity, regardless of what other people may think of us.

Eventually we become disgusted with our appearance, so we seek some help. We may go to a therapist who specializes in this disorder, or we may attend an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. There we will learn how to control our impulses to eat, because abstinence from food would be deadly. We develop a plan that we commit ourselves to follow. In some groups this is referred to as a gray sheet. This approach, while rigorous, is effective. We need to seek our comfort elsewhere, perhaps in a caring relationship.


Most addiction treatment facilities are now smoke-free; they do not permit smoking cigarettes, pipes, or cigars. Those of us who got sober from alcohol or drugs may also have been smokers, as was Bill Wilson, one of the founders of A.A. He died in 1971 of emphysema.

Cigarette smoking is not well tolerated anymore. It may be allowed in designated areas, but not where it might affect nonsmokers.

Nicotine is a stimulant. There are cessation programs available, and someone who tries to quit alone may realize it’s not easy. Withdrawal from nicotine produces an intense craving for a smoke to alleviate the distress of quitting. All addictions captivate the addict in such a vicious cycle, and smoking is no exception. While it may appear to be only a mild addiction, smoking has a powerful grasp on the smoker. Usually programs to guide someone to quit smoking advise them to taper off their use. And they should expect their final withdrawal to entail a few days of altered consciousness.


We know from our primary addiction that we have a craving to get high. Getting sober from our favorite addiction does not abolish this craving. We will seek another way to satisfy it, because our craving is so intense and so deeply rooted in our psyche. Eventually we learn that our efforts to get high are not worth the trouble. The high doesn’t last very long, and we get hurt in the hunt. And so we realize we need to let go of this craving and replace it with a desire for peacefulness.

Richard G. Hartnett, MA, MS, LCADC is a former Jesuit priest who now lives with his wife, Kathy, by a lake in northwestern New Jersey. He has served as the chaplain at Hazelden New York, pastoral counselor at the Chemical Dependency Department of the International Center for the Disabled in NYC, and continuing care counselor at the outpatient Chemical Dependency Program of High Focus Centers in New Jersey. Currently he maintains a private practice in New Jersey. He is the author of The Presence at the Center, Renewing Your Fourth Step, The Three Inner Voices: Uncovering the Spiritual Roots of Addiction and Recovery, and Sobriety and Inspiration: Entrusting Ourselves to the Source of Our Healing and Creativity.

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