Themes and Concepts

The Addiction Experience

People become addicted to experiences produced in a variety of ways at different life stages– experiences that they often outgrow. These experiences fulfill people’s needs in dysfunctional ways that most people can learn to overcome and replace with better sources of positive feelings.

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Addiction as a Developmental Process

Addiction is not a brain disease, and most people outgrow it, given the right circumstances.

Lifelong addictions are rare. Enhancing your life experience reduces the addictive side of your life.

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The Life Process of Children

Children, like all people, prefer to be agents in their own lives. That can mean being successful; if not, then being in control; and if not in control, then at least being able to predict what will occur, even if it’s bad.

Children need basics for proceeding in life and solving problems an bad patches in their lives: motivation, options, rewards, connection (the same basic channels all people must access in order to overcome addictions).

How can we get more teens and young people to avoid problematic drinking and drug use by maturing at an earlier age?

What is the consequence of telling young people with alcohol or drug problems that they are lifelong alcoholics or addicts?

How can we build upon the natural ameliorative tendencies of age to get even more people to recover from their drinking and drug problems?

The Reality of Childhood/Youthful Drug Misuse

No one is destined to be addicted

Early childhood recreational substance use may have downsides, perhaps severely negative ones, but such experiences are not lifetime sentences.

The route out of early substance problems is to embrace as full– and as fully rewarding– a life as possible.

The goal is not enhanced by calling a child (or anyone else) an addict, and we shouldn’t do so.

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Diseases, Disorders, and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies

Do diagnoses of learning disorders help or hinder?

The disease-oriented approach in addiction treatment is not helping and is probably making things worse. Diagnoses, in general, can be dehumanizing because they reduce nuance and complexity.

Disease diagnoses are particularly problematic when applied to developing (and ever-changing) children. That catastrophizing viewpoint inherent in such diagnoses essentially prescribes pessimism, which is a focal symptom of depression and anxiety. More important, it demoralizes the victims or sufferers and makes them more pessimistic about their ability, and less likely to change. These problems are likewise true of trauma-based therapy, which focuses people on their low-points and worst-case scenarios, rather than reviewing– and aiming for– positive options.

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Non-Drug Addictions

Psychiatric diagnoses no longer use the terms “addiction” or “alcoholism,” “addict” or “alcoholic” in connection with use of substances. Even regular use of substances is not defined as a disorder without meeting several problem criteria. Strange to say, the term “addiction” has been retained and applied to so-called behavioral disorders– so far, in American psychiatry, to just one– gambling.


In the World Health Organization diagnostic manual, compulsive sexual activity and gaming are addiction-type diagnoses.

The truth is, addiction is not in a drug or a thing, but in our lives– in the processes and the consequences of our activities and involvements.

If a child refuses to play with other kids or to read or to get exercise because of compulsively playing video games (as we describe in the book), this is an addictive problem– that is, an attachment to a self-destructive, self-feeding process that prevents engagement in life. The problem isn’t the video games, but the fact that gaming overrides everything else. This is the essence of all addictions.

Abstinence and Harm Reduction in Adolescence and Recovery

Abstinence isn’t required for remission (a.k.a. recovery)– only the absence of substance-use problems, according to the diagnostic manual for the American Psychiatric Association, called DSM. This makes the DSM a harm-reduction document.

After a year of the absence of such problems, the individual is certified as having achieved long-term remission (“recovery”). That is, DSM recognizes addiction or its equivalents as time-limited conditions.

Harm reduction (HR) is an approach to drug use and addiction in which abstinence isn’t the end-all goal; instead, improvement of the person’s situation– and of their overall life– is targeted.

The Limits of the 12-Step Approach

Strong evidence suggests that AA is not effective, can be harmful, and often alienates people who don’t accept its religious grounding (e.g., a higher power). In any case, most people, even those who have apparent substance-use problems, refuse to attend either AA or a 12-step group in the first place, or else quickly quit such groups.

Recovery in the Real World

Professionals working in recovery in both mental health and addiction have joined together in formulating new, more holistic, less drug-linked criteria and goals for recovery, looking at the person in their life context.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) convened a panel of experts across both fields to redefine recovery.

This new definition and approach doesn’t view recovery as lifelong, but rather focuses on the individual embarking on a new journey in life. This journey is client-directed, empowering them, and has four key components: health, home, purpose, community. This creates a whole new narrative, one that runs counter to much of the mainstream discourse around addiction and mental illness.

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Raising Our Non-Addicted Next Generation

Parenthood is not only a source of meaning and purpose that reduces the likelihood of addiction for ourselves. It is an opportunity to improve our own lives while avoiding transferring our problems to our children. In this way, history is not destiny. That is, a personal or family history of addiction is more likely to be a beacon for avoiding such errors with our children than it is to recreate our problems in our children’s lives.

Outgrowing Addiction is a values-driven book, and we include 12 values to prevent addiction: Purpose; achievement; caring about self; caring about others; responsibility; valuing money; awareness/mindfulness; adventure; pleasure and fun; social, political, religious commitments; efficacy, agency, empowerment; maturity. These are examples of the values you may enact in raising your own children.

Developing Purpose, Efficacy, and Independence

Having a purpose in life, feeling able to control your life (efficacy, agency, or empowerment), and independence are the fundamental values/abilities that allow people to avoid and escape addiction, no matter what circumstances they face. Having a purpose in life has been found to be the single best predictor of longevity and health, both physical and mental.

Overcoming Addiction

People overcome addictions, not by solely, or even principally, thinking about and addressing the object of their addiction, but by considering, working on, and improving the entire fabric of their lives.

This process involves the following ten steps: (1) recognize that addiction isn’t a lifetime disease; (2) develop the skills needed to gain life rewards; (3) resolve emotional problems and become less anxious, depressed, and afraid; (4) build on your existing strengths; (5) develop further skills and life assets– such as family, work, status, security; (6) become engaged in relationships at all levels of intimacy and in larger communities; (7) look for positive options in life; (8) mature beyond a selfish focus on your own needs; (9) gain control of your life– a sense of personal agency; (10) keep your purpose in life and your values that oppose addiction front and center.

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It’s Common Sense…

Everything in this book is common sense, dealing with day-to-day existence, embracing values that you have been taught– and admired– your whole life. There are no magic solutions out there for you, for curing your addictions or enhancing your life. There is only being true to your purpose and who you want to be. All else can be brought under your aegis if you hold true to these things.

While this isn’t always easy, don’t be sidetracked by external agents or people trying to convince you they will solve your problems, make you feel good, or turn you into a valued person.

Seeking such magical solutions, rather, is the core of addiction.