The Surprising Truth About Cross-Addiction

cross addictionCross-addiction occurs when an addicted or recovering person becomes addicted to something other than his or her “substance of choice.”

How common is cross-addiction among recovering addicts? And how should we design our recovery to avoid falling into another addiction?

I’ve been thinking about these questions for a while, and I’ve discovered some surprising answers.

What Does it Mean to Be Cross Addicted?

Also known as addiction transfer or addiction interaction disorder, the term cross-addiction implies that a person with an existing addiction (or substance use disorder) to one substance is at a higher risk of developing an addiction to another substance.

Common sense tells us that if you’ve been addicted to a substance before, you should approach other potentially addictive substances cautiously.

I know my brain – and I know that I don’t usually do anything or consume anything half-assed.

That said, I don’t get mindlessly addicted to everything I consume.

I’ve found a unique selection of herbs and supplements to be very helpful. I haven’t once felt like I was becoming dependent on them.

Alcohol never had the same effect on me that it had on others. While others used it to relax slightly, I felt like I used alcohol as a performance enhancement supplement – and the more I drank, the sharper, more eloquent, more energetic, more relaxed, and more euphoric I became.

Cross Addiction According To Mainstream Rehab

The treatment industry, which is filled with counselors who are in 12-step recovery, promotes a much starker and more limiting view of cross-addiction.

In rehab, counselors often say things like the following:

  • Cross-addiction commonly occurs with any substance or activity that causes pleasure
  • Cross-addiction inevitably leads an “addict or alcoholic” back to the original addiction
  • Prior addiction makes developing a new addiction more likely

The implication, never fully explained, is that anything pleasurable is inherently bad.

Are so-called recovering addicts supposed to live like self-flagellating monks? No wonder 90% of them can’t work the program.

Are meetings and frantic calls to your sponsor always the best ways to deal withs stress?

Is it bad to get hooked on healthy, life-affirming activities like exercise and jumping out of bed in the morning to obsessively work on your self-started project?

You might assume so if you’ve just gotten out of rehab.

But don’t worry, because this is a defect in an otherwise well-meaning system.

The surprising truth is that no scientific evidence backs up the treatment industry’s position on cross addiction.

Scientific Research On Cross Addiction

The largest study conducted on the topic concluded that quitting an addiction did not typically result in the development of a new substance addiction.

The study’s authors observe: “Contrary to clinical lore, achieving remission does not typically lead to drug substitution but rather is associated with a lower risk of new SUD onsets.”

This study only measured new substance addictions. What about new non-substance addictions?

I talked to an addiction counselor who specifically mentioned exercise several times while discussing cross-addiction. He said he considered exercise to be a risky drug.

He also discussed the danger of concerning yourself with your body, which he warned would lead to an eating disorder, and then he moved on to workaholism.

I remember pointing out to him that an addiction, by definition, is something that causes negative consequences.

Getting in better shape requires internal drive that borders on the obsessive. Yet the consequence of transforming your fitness level is rewiring your brain away from substance addiction.

The counselor – who had visibly never hit the gym hard once in his life – came back with a ridiculous hypothetical example of a man who abandons his family because he can’t stop going to the gym multiple times per day.

I don’t see all these recovering alcoholics who apparently can’t stop running on treadmills and bench pressing. Where are they? I’d love to train them and help them moderate their exercise.

I pressed the counselor further. What if we found a passion and wanted to pursue it obsessively? “Discuss it with your sponsor, and he or she will probably recommend more meetings and service.” What about Olympic athletes? “High level athletes are often exercise addicts!”

Are people in AA addicted to going to meetings? “That’s not an addiction – meetings don’t cause any negative consequences.”

Now we were back to square one.

What I didn’t point out at the time was that meetings take time. For people who don’t need them, the negative consequences are the hours that could’ve been spent improving life in other ways. Lost hours accumulate over time. If you need those meetings, then by all means go to them, but we only have one life and we need to make the most of it.

Cross Addiction Nuance

Everyone is different. Perhaps this site will only resonate with a minority of people who are trying to beat addiction, and that’s fine with me.

But I think it’s a mistake to confuse your internal fire to improve your life with “cross-addiction.”

Perhaps you’ve been going to the gym to relieve stress or staying up late to start your own business. Perhaps you’ve been obsessively working on the masterpiece you’ve always wanted to write, or paint, or compose.

Let’s drop the “negative consequences” from the definition of addiction for moment. Let’s allow it, for the span of the next sentence, to mean just a truly OBSESSIVE desire to do something.

I’m telling you that the solution to your past substance addiction is to become ADDICTED to improving your life.

Right here, right now, for your own sake.

And guess what: If you do that, if you REALLY become addicted to your own purpose in life, then you really won’t have to worry about becoming addicted to all those other mind-altering substances.

Supplements For Mitigating Cross Addiction

Especially supplements that repair your brain and safer alternatives to alcohol that gently facilitate your human desire to feel good (which is hardly something to be ashamed of).

I reject the idea that your primary identity for the rest of your life is: “Recovering Addict.”

You’re so much more than that. It’s ironic, but in my experience it’s absolutely true: Your recovery from addiction depends on rejecting the “addict” label. It depends on your willingness to embark on a never-ending quest to figure out who you are.f

Become addicted to transforming your body and your diet. Become addicted to waking up and feeling like you have a purpose that no one can articulate but YOU. Become addicted to your mission in life and work obsessively toward making it your occupation!!!

Cross Addiction: Conclusion

The more passionate you are about this, the more successful you will be in beating addiction.

Obsessive passion is not the enemy of recovery. It’s your best asset.

I believe that those of us who have experienced an obsession with a substance shouldn’t have any trouble developing obsessive passion.

You’re an alcoholic and you want to avoid becoming cross-addicted to cocaine? Start mentally framing alcohol and hard drugs as bullshit time wasting for people who aren’t blessed with your mission. Start chasing the natural highs you get from working out and becoming the best at what you do. Stop feeling guilty for things you haven’t done wrong.

If that’s too intense for you then go to a meeting and make everyone else coffee. Listen to people talk about how they wanted to drink and drug, but God miraculously lifted their desire (for today).

Don’t place a high value on fear; in fact, don’t even focus on it.

You have a choice. You can relapse, you can become cross-addicted to meetings and step work, or you can become “cross-addicted” to making yourself objectively great in some way.

Self-image is a choice. You can see yourself as a perpetual victim with a weak and fragile mind. Or you can see yourself as a heroic individual, made stronger by conquering addiction.

The second mindset would be more consistent with the scientific findings on cross-addiction. Not all recovering addicts are strong, but if you’re beating your addiction, then you certainly are.

To be clear, I see nothing wrong with a blend of AA and self-improvement. To each his or her own.

If you only take one thing from this article, it should be this:

Don’t let overblown fears about “cross-addiction” get between you and the life you’ve always wanted to live!!!


  • Chris Scott

    Chris Scott founded Fit Recovery in 2014 to help people from around the world dominate alcohol dependence and rebuild their lives from scratch. A former investment banker, he recovered from alcohol dependence using cutting-edge methods that integrate nutrition, physiology, and behavioral change. Today, Chris is an Alcohol Recovery Coach and the creator of an online course called Total Alcohol Recovery 2.0.

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6 years ago

I always thought one of the things people might learn in rehab is to reorient themselves towards seeking pleasure in good things-hobbies, work, etc. Humans, for better or worse, are designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. I’m not sure that focusing on avoiding pleasure makes much practical sense especially if what you are getting pleasure from makes you feel good (without causing you or anyone else harm) and helps others. (Think of someone who is addicted to danger becoming a cop, soldier, firefighter, etc or the rush that a lot of medical workers get from helping heal someone who… Read more »



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