Perfectionism in addiction and recovery: Taking it to the extreme

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Perfectionism Fucks You Up

I’ve been fucked up in various ways throughout my life, and most of these ways have been linked to my perfect storm of perfectionism, extreme discipline, and low self-esteem. I had an eating disorder for many years when I was younger, because I just couldn’t lose weight fast enough so I almost stopped eating altogether. Ignoring the growling stomach and the obsessional thoughts about food, I saw the weight drop off, listened to the compliments I received, and felt validated in my choices. Although this was many years ago, the after-effects lasted a long, long time, and it was only when I got pregnant that I decided to eat normally, because I didn’t want to starve my baby. At that point I realised that actually eating when you are hungry makes life soooooooo much more enjoyable, and leaves cognitive capacity free to think about things other than food. How on earth I earned a PhD whilst being so damn hungry I’ll never know, but then I was also a burgeoning alcoholic back then, so I guess it simply speaks to my other kind of ‘addictive’ behaviour: working too hard.

I have had plenty of opportunities to work myself ragged, starting in school during adolescence, and lasting right up until the present moment. I have studied away, getting great grades, qualifications, and more recently, publications in great journals. The phasic burst of dopamine that no-doubt accompanied each accolade (as well as each compliment when I was losing weight back in the day) did more than just make me feel good, it motivated me to work harder/eat less, and so forth. Only when those things didn’t come so easily anymore – when suddenly everyone I’m competing with had a PhD and was super-smart, or when I had a baby to look after and don’t want to starve myself – that phasic burst was harder to come by. This was when I really doubled-down on my drinking.

As I’ve mentioned previously, drinking is primarily a GABA-A agonist, which means it increases the actions of the major inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain which can quiet all those pesky thoughts of not being good enough. However, it also increases dopamine (as I have also written about before). So when ‘life’ stopped producing those phasic bursts of dopamine, and reinforcing those adaptive and not-quite-so-adaptive actions of starving and working hard, I replaced them with a quick, easy, and artificial way in which to produce that same dopamine burst. This time, however, because the effects of alcohol are more complex than simply increasing dopamine in the brain, and because when the alcohol wears off the brain is trying to reach equilibrium again and dopamine levels are low, over the long term the drinking just made me extremely unmotivated.

There were hungover days when I didn’t get out of bed, and many, many more day when I did get out of bed, but not because I wanted to. Rather, what got me out of bed was because a sense of duty to my job, my husband, and my daughter. I remember the first time I took my daughter to the park after I stopped drinking, and I remember feeling bloody marvellous but also deeply ashamed that this was the first time in years I had taken her to the park without a hangover. I also remember when I first got into recovery, that feeling of having energy again. Suddenly it wasn’t too hard to do my laundry, clean the house, and sort out my clothes I don’t wear anymore and put them in the clothing bin. Suddenly I had the energy to do all the things I couldn’t be bothered doing before.

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When Perfectionism Takes Over in Recovery

For all the wisdom and fabulous advice I have heard people give in recovery groups and have read in books, there is one piece of advice I think has been fundamentally missing. That is, you MUST find a balance in life. It can feel so great when you get into recovery and you suddenly have energy again, you feel motivated again, and you participate in life again. However, I do worry that some people take this too far.

Time and time again I have heard of people in recovery and their behaviour seems just as extreme as it was when they were still drinking/drugging, only it is being channelled into what is seen as ‘healthy’ behaviours and therefore is encouraged rather than discouraged. For example, people become vegan, or give up all sugar, or exercise three hours a day, or work themselves to the bone. I’m not saying that just because people do any of these things that they have a problem, they might not! But they might. And look – there are times (during grant applications for example) when I also don’t eat a lot and work pretty much 24/7. But the important thing that I have learned over the years, is that I can only do this temporarily if I want to stay sane. I am generally only writing grants for a certain part of the year, and I know that in that time, I will be working like crazy. But I also know that when those couple of months end, I’m gonna watch some real good Netflix, have some great picnics with my family, and have some loooooong baths. Even in those months I am writing grants I try very hard to take at least one whole day off a week.

It is common wisdom throughout the recovery community that ex-addicts make fantastic workers, at least once they have been sober long enough to become stable. I wholeheartedly agree with this, and no doubt our ability to work hard and do what it takes to get the job done feeds into this, not to mention the motivation and desire to be successful (once levels of dopamine are more or less restored and working as evolution intended – not induced artificially by a drug). These are all great things. However, I can’t help wondering sometimes whether the ex-addict who is running ultra-marathons and refusing to eat all sugar, dairy, and meat, is really doing so from a healthy mind-space (and all power to them if so), or is doing so in a desperate ‘addict’ kind of a way.

One of the men in one of my recovery groups died of his addiction recently after many years sober. In recovery, this man dieted and exercised to the extreme, worked hard, wrote a book, and so on. And who knows? Maybe those things had nothing to do with his death. I know he had other personal things going on. But I can’t help but wonder – when your mindset is so ‘All or nothing”, if you let go of the ”all” for a moment and let yourself eat a sausage, or sit on the couch instead of going for a run one morning, maybe it’s easier to lapse into the ‘nothing’ and get on that train straight back to addiction. I know that it would be for me.

So for that reason, I really try and watch myself, and all facets of my addict behaviour. I actually don’t diet at all anymore, although I do try and eat healthily (minus the two brioche buns I ate whilst writing this, but shhhhh). As I mentioned before I love to exercise – but to be strong and fit, not to win competitions or to be skinny. At work I also try to have a balance, although it works better at some times than others. But I have learned to say no a little bit more than I used to, and it feels good.

There isn’t much science out there that speaks to this that I know of, although please send some my way if you do. I do know, however, that addicts tend to be less sensitive to punishment, and I wonder if that applies to all of these other kinds of ‘addict’ behaviours as well as drinking/drugging. For example, if a ‘normal’ person stops eating sugar, but finds it really hard to the point of being aversive to refrain from eating cake, they will probably just crack and eat the cake. An addict, on the other hand, might just handle that aversion and manage to not eat the cake. This really is just speculation on my part, but it would be quite interesting if I were right. Indeed, it would imply that addicts actually have increased will-power relative to ‘normies’, contrary to common wisdom, and as counter-intuitive as that may sound.

In any case, I guess that is a question for future research. But for now, my suggestion to those in recovery is try and kerb all aspects of your ‘addict’ self, even those unrelated to your drug of choice. Because if you don’t, your ‘all or nothing’ attitude could lead you back down the path of addiction, and you KNOW that is not a place you want to be.

 

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